David Halberstam: The Reporter Who Roared

Neil Sheehan, who worked alongside David Halberstam in the early years of the Vietnam War, recalled what could happen if someone got between Mr. Halberstam and a story. Mr. Sheehan was writing for U.P.I. and Mr. Halberstam for The New York Times, and the two were blocked from flying into the combat zone where a major South Vietnamese defeat had taken place. In frustration, they called the commanding general at home, long after working hours.

The next morning, Mr. Sheehan said, a brigadier general began berating the reporters for their temerity. The whole time, he could see Mr. Halberstam growing angrier.

“All of a sudden,” Mr. Sheehan said, “this large arm of David’s shot out, and he pointed his finger right at this general and said, ‘General, you don’t understand: We are not corporals. We do not work for you. We work for our editors. If you have any complaints about us, complain to our editors. We will disturb the commanding general at home any time we need to get our job done.’”

Mr. Halberstam, who died in a car crash on April 23 in California, had his own chain of command. His vision of the job done right put him at odds with the Army, the White House and, eventually, The Times.

Among the reporters who would be called the New Journalists, Mr. Halberstam was the practical theorist: a reporter who transcended institutions, writing 15 best-selling books under his own standards and imperatives.

Gay Talese, who made his own youthful exit from The Times and chronicled Mr. Halberstam’s, said that Mr. Halberstam was at his best when he chose his own assignments. He had high standards, and he was tough-minded and quick to confront any opposition—including from his editors. He didn’t depend on The Times to certify his achievement.

“He never felt that the job was a step up,” Mr. Talese said. “Out of our generation, there was this idea, ‘Oh, you’re working for The New York Times—wow, you can’t do any better than this.’ Halberstam said, ‘Yes, you can do better than this. And I’m going to do better.’”

“I don’t mind arguing this point with anyone: He was the best reporter in the past 50 years,” said Jim Wooten, a senior correspondent for ABC News and longtime friend of Mr. Halberstam. “You know why? His work ethic. He never stopped.”

Mr. Sheehan—who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, and who in 1971 obtained the classified Pentagon Papers for The New York Times from Daniel Ellsberg—recalled another day in Vietnam, when a team of police officers attacked Western reporters who were covering a Buddhist demonstration against the regime. In the scuffle, the officers got the Associated Press’ Peter Arnett on the ground and were about to kick him in the kidneys with their pointy shoes.

“David, with this great roar, charged and knocked two or three of these Vietnamese right through the air, and stood over Peter protecting him with his fists up, saying, ‘Come on, you sons of bitches, I’ll beat the shit out of you,’” Mr. Sheehan said. “That was David—absolutely instinctual.”

Colleagues and friends remembered an outsized man, in body and intellect.

“He was very physical,” Mr. Sheehan said. “He gave you a physical presence. He was a big guy, with big shoulders and big bones; he was well over six feet. And he had that baritone voice.”

“He was a big, dominating personality,” said William Prochnau, the author of Once Upon a Distant War: David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett—Young War Correspondents and Their Early Vietnam Battles. “Not just because he was 6-foot-2, but because his personality just took over a room. Some people followed him; some people rebelled against him.”

Mr. Prochnau said that Mr. Halberstam’s reporting in Vietnam helped shift the paradigm of American journalism, which had remained more or less consistent through the First and Second World Wars. Reporters were an extension of the government—part of same team. At the start of Vietnam, with the Cold War still in full swing, journalists were united with their military sources in a shared sense of peril.

But shortly after arriving in Vietnam in 1962, Mr. Halberstam stopped reporting the official optimism of South Vietnamese officials and American officers.

“The question in Halberstam’s mind was whether the government was telling us the truth,” said Mr. Prochnau. “And they weren’t. There was a horrendous amount of lying going on. He did not mince words.”

Mr. Prochnau described a visit to Vietnam by a celebrated World War II correspondent, in which Mr. Halberstam took the visitor out into the field to show him the country and introduce him to some of his sources.

“On the drive back, it was dead silence—until this very well-known reporter said, ‘Halberstam, if I were doing what you are doing, I would be ashamed of myself,’” Mr. Prochnau said. “There were very bitter fights going on. The Times was often mad at Halberstam. His fellow reporters were. The government was. It was a poignant time.”

Mr. Prochnau compared Mr. Halberstam and Mr. Sheehan to another closely knit pair: “In a lot of ways, they were Woodward and Bernstein before Woodward and Bernstein were out of school,” he said.

In 1964, Mr. Halberstam’s reporting from Vietnam won a
Pulitzer Prize for The Times. After subsequent assignments in Poland and Paris, he returned to New York, but he bristled under the restrictions of editor Abe Rosenthal’s newsroom. In 1967, he quit The Times and joined Harper’s Magazine, where editor Willie Morris encouraged him to roam in pursuit of stories.

Mr. Halberstam enjoyed life without a newsroom. But he continued to revel in the company of fellow newsmen.

“He didn’t let friendships go,” said Mr. Sheehan.

When Mr. Halberstam was first hired by The Times in 1960, Mr. Talese said, he came to New York with no place to live. The two met and bonded—in part, over their love of the Yankees—and Mr. Halberstam moved in with Mr. Talese.

“From then on, he had orange-juice privileges for the rest of his life,” Mr. Talese said. “Meaning he could come over for breakfast whenever he liked.”

Mr. Wooten first met Mr. Halberstam in Tennessee circa 1970, when Mr. Wooten was a reporter for The New York Times and Mr. Halberstam for Harper’s. They were both there to write about Al Gore Sr.’s failed bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate. From the start, Mr. Wooten was impressed by his new friend’s reporting chops—particularly his willingness to return to sources, again and again and again.

“There was no one in power that David either respected so much that he would give them a pass, or loathed so much that he would not be fair,” said Mr. Wooten. “He was the perfect journalist, the perfect reporter.

Mr. Halberstam later served as the best man at Mr. Wooten’s wedding. Their families vacationed near each other on Nantucket, where, according to Mr. Wooten, Mr. Halberstam bought a house with the advance from what would become his defining work: The Best and the Brightest, about the architects of the disaster in Vietnam.

Mr. Wooten said that he has read a great deal of Mr. Halberstam’s recently completed, yet still unpublished, book about the Korean War, and described it as brilliant. “He said to me about a week ago that he thought this was the best book he had ever written,” Mr. Wooten said.

Mr. Wooten said that he is currently working on a book about the Carter administration. Mr. Halberstam, he said, suggested the topic. Likewise, Mr. Wooten said, he never would have written his previous book, We Are All the Same: A Story of a Boy’s Courage and a Mother’s Love, without his friend’s insistence.

“David taught me that to write a book is to immerse yourself in it totally, up to your ass,” said Mr. Wooten. “He was always your motivational coach. Not just with me.”

David Maraniss, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author, most recently of Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball’s Last Hero, said that, like dozens of other writers of a certain age, he regularly received phone calls from Mr. Halberstam, who was brimming with tips and ideas and advice on how to write stories—advice that sometimes sounded more like orders. What was his advice? Said Mr. Maraniss: “Do the reporting. Go there. Talk to everybody.”

Recently, Mr. Maraniss visited a public library in Nashville, Tenn., where he was doing research for a book. There, he stumbled upon an entire wing dedicated to civil rights, donated by a reader inspired by Mr. Halberstam’s book The Children.

“I wrote David a letter saying, ‘What more can a nonfiction writer do than create results like those?’” said Mr. Maraniss. “And I told him how moving it was to me.”

Bob Kaiser, an associate editor at The Washington Post, recalled that when he was The Post’s managing editor, the paper used to hold a roundtable series in which prominent writers would come to address the newsroom. In the mid-90’s, they invited Mr. Halberstam. The interest was so great, according to Mr. Kaiser, that there was no space at The Post’s headquarters that could accommodate the crowd. They ended up renting a bigger room at the hotel across the street.

“I remember vividly, at the end, he said: ‘When I end an interview, I always say the same thing, and you should ask it, too: “Who else should I talk to?”’” Mr. Kaiser said. “It was Halberstam’s trademark question.”

Mr. Talese said he respected the way in which Mr. Halberstam had left this life: in a car on the way to an interview, with a journalism student at the wheel.

“What a great way to die,” said Mr. Talese. “When you think about the life that he had—and you could end up with Alzheimer’s in some little old-age home in Westchester County. When you’re as independent as he, and you have to be dependent—which befalls ailing old people—that would be 10 deaths in the worst of hell. Here’s a way to go out: You’re out there on the road, trying to impart what you know to young students. Halberstam died in action.” David Halberstam: The Reporter Who Roared