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
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
"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
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
"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
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."