A Sense of Duty


 

David Halberstam stepped away from the Lorimer Chapel podium. To his right, in one of the side pews, Dan Maccarone '98, clapping, nodded firmly. He stood. Throughout the chapel, students followed, standing and giving a long, enthusiastic ovation to a man who had just spoken about a war fought before they were born and a social movement forged when their parents were babies.
    Halberstam was honored on November 13 as the 45th Elijah Parish Lovejoy fellow. He spent the day on campus, eating lunch with the Echo staff, speaking to Prof. Cal Mackenzie's class on the U.S. government's policy-making process and delivering the Lovejoy address.
    In all venues, Halberstam talked about his experiences--as a reporter covering the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam; as the author of more than a dozen books on such diverse topics as Ho Chi Minh and the National Basketball Association; as a critic of modern electronic journalism. And, though he identified himself as, at 63, a member of "the geezer generation," he held students spellbound. "Geezer" or not, the author of The Best and The Brightest, The Powers That Be and The Fifties still has fire in his eyes.
    In Mackenzie's class he talked about Vietnam, where, when he was barely five years older than the students listening, he'd taken on the entire United States political and military establishment while reporting for The New York Times. Walking across campus after class, he said, "I don't know what image they have in their heads when they think of Vietnam. To them it's history."
    But Halberstam speaks of his time there with passion and authority. His stories don't sound like history; they sound like parables.
    Halberstam said he thought Elijah Parish Lovejoy--the man who inspired the award and, in a sense, brought Halberstam to Mayflower Hill--would understand him and his career. "Elijah Lovejoy is a symbol of freedom," he said. If so, Halberstam has been its guardian.
    Fresh out of Harvard (and lucky to escape with a degree, he says), Halberstam went south in 1957 and got caught up in the civil rights movement. As a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, he met the students who organized the first sit-ins at lunch counters where blacks were refused service. Those students went on to become the first Freedom Riders and put their lives at risk in the Deep South demanding equality for blacks. His forthcoming book, The Children, chronicles their lives.
    In the Lovejoy address, Halberstam said Rodney Powell, one of the riders, asked him last year why he covered civil rights in Mississippi when he could have been anywhere else.
    "It was about simple justice for me," Halberstam said, ". . . a simple belief that our society should be fair and just and free, that everybody's children should, if at all possible, have the same start, and that everyone should have the right to vote, that everyone should be able to sit wherever he or she wanted to on a bus. I thought it would make for a better country. In addition, I thought it made it unnecessarily hard to love a country where segregation was still backed by the law."
    He left the Tennessean for The New York Times in 1960. He was assigned to Washington, which he hated (he thought reporters there were too chummy with politicians), and then to the Congo to cover the civil war. In 1962 he was sent to a place he says he was "always destined to go"--Vietnam.
    Initially persuaded that U.S. involvement in Vietnam was correct, Halberstam soon realized that there were yawning differences between what he and other reporters were seeing and what the administration was telling the people back home. He knew that military advisors and others on the scene in Saigon could see that the United States was marching into a political swamp that would consume it. He also knew that the government wasn't paying attention to its own advisors. And he said so. His reporting from Vietnam earned him a Pulitzer Prize, as well as the ire of the Kennedy administration. John Kennedy asked Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger to send Halberstam someplace else. Later, Lyndon Johnson accused Halberstam of being a "traitor to his country." For doing his job. For telling the truth about failed policies and their consequences.
    "I had a higher definition of patriotism than Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Rusk," Halberstam said when asked in Mackenzie's class about his reporting from Vietnam. "My loyalty was not to the president, not to the secretary of state or to the generals who sat on their asses in Saigon. My loyalty was to the First Amendment and to my readers."
    And perhaps in this case the best revenge was being right and writing well. Halberstam left the Times in 1967 but returned to Vietnam that year for Harper's magazine. He found the war at a stalemate, he said, "our total military superiority checked by their total political superiority." Yet the American officials he met were still groundlessly optimistic about an eventual U.S. victory. He came back to this country and wrote a major article for Harper's about McGeorge Bundy, who exemplified the brilliant young men surrounding John Kennedy as the U.S. mired itself in Vietnam. The article was attacked at the highest levels of government and even by some journalists. Halberstam's response was typical--he backed himself up, and then some. He spent four years researching and writing The Best and The Brightest, which became a bestseller. The book, published in 1972, is still cited in article after article and book after book about the Vietnam era.
    "People know who has gravitas," Halberstam said in Mackenzie's class. He was talking about the difference between the people you see on "Washington Week in Blather" or "the dopey magazine shows" and "the extraordinary, vigorous and vital press of young men and women who . . . go out and take risks, whether it's in Bosnia or Somalia, and do something with the same honor and sense of commitment that [some reporters in Vietnam] did." He might also have been speaking about himself.
    Halberstam has gravitas in one of its rarer forms--he doesn't mind saying what he thinks. In the class, when a student began a question by calling The Washington Post a "liberal" newspaper, Halberstam stopped him in mid-sentence. "Wait a minute," he said. "Liberal? What does that mean? Liberal like George Will, you mean?" When the student said he was not speaking for himself but echoing conventional wisdom, Halberstam backed off but added, "The press doesn't have a liberal versus conservative bias. It has an old versus new bias."
    Halberstam didn't pull any punches at the convocation, either. Someone in the audience asked him to comment on former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara's 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. Halberstam lunged at the topic. "I think it's a bad book. It's a dishonest book," he said. "It comes thirty years after these events. At the time when a debate was going on--when he could have been of value--he remained cowardly, silent." About McNamara's claim that the Kennedy administration got unsatisfactory information from Vietnam, Halberstam said, "There was no one out there beheading messengers quite like Robert Strange McNamara, the chief hatchet man for that administration."
    Once, Halberstam said, American Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge asked journalists assigned to the country to brief McNamara about what was happening. "I didn't think reporters should brief high officials, but Cabot Lodge had been very good about getting us greater access and I thought we owed him," Halberstam said. He went to the briefing, which featured six future Pulitzer Prize winners--Mal Browne, Peter Arnett, Neil Sheehan, Horst Faas, Charlie Mohr and Halberstam. McNamara's briefing officer told them that they could talk to McNamara about the political situation in the country but not about military matters. "That was part of him as a liar," Halberstam said. "Great bureaucrat, great liar. So he could go back to Washington and say, `I didn't hear anything that would make me think we were not winning the war.'" 
    "Pathetic man, pathetic book," Halberstam concluded.
    He was, if less emotional, equally trenchant about the American press corps. In the public policy class, a student asked if the press could move issues onto the national agenda. Halberstam said yes and added that the agenda "is very much driven by pictures and sound bites."
    "It is harder to govern now," he said, "because things that should be in the country's agenda are hard and complicated and we're making policy based on emotional reactions to pictures." As an example, he noted that pictures of starving people sent American peacekeepers into Somalia, and pictures of an American serviceman's body being dragged behind a car through the streets of Mogadishu brought the peacekeepers out.
    He spoke contemptuously about shows that deliver "softball" questions while covering the "story of the week," usually revolving around an actor. "The television magazines are all fluff and have produced a generation of people who are not professional. The beast devours--in an age of images, that creates a celebrity culture. The attention span for the serious stuff shrinks." A couple of stories the TV magazines should cover and won't, he said, are the appearance of anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko's murderers before South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the release of audiotapes Lyndon Johnson made as president. "These are tapes of Johnson in the White House as he crossed the Rubicon on Vietnam . . . a man going into the valley of death when he knows it's wrong," Halberstam said. "The idea that you couldn't make that hypnotically exciting--my god! The networks, predictably, gave it two minutes."
    Halberstam called network news anchors Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw "good colleagues, working reporters" and said "the serious print press is better than ever." But, he said, "I think the high-visibility people are part of an entertainment world, and I am extremely melancholy about that."
    "We have great freedoms here; it's what makes us a better society," he said. "The vigor of this society--industrially, economically, commercially--has its roots in those personal freedoms. Believe it. Let the head of China believe it. Those freedoms weren't given to us so Mr. [Michael] Eisner, whose Disney company owns ABC, could leave two hundred million dollars to his children every year. They weren't given to us so Gannett could drive the stock up. The Founding Fathers didn't say, `Oh, I think we have to make sure that everybody gets rich.' They gave us those freedoms as part of a circulatory system that they believed would protect the health of other Americans, not for our own enrichment or aggrandizement."

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