Journalist chronicled the culture of America

David Halberstam 1934 -- 2007

April 24, 2007|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,Sun Reporter

David Halberstam, a tireless reporter who produced richly detailed chronicles of some of the great stories in modern American history - from the struggle for civil rights to Vietnam to the decline of the Detroit auto industry - as well as biographies of an array of sports heroes, was killed in a car crash yesterday morning in Menlo Park, south of San Francisco. He was 73.

Mr. Halberstam died at the scene of the accident, after the car in which he was a front-seat passenger was broadsided by another vehicle. According to local medical authorities, he suffered massive internal injuries.

Kevin Jones, a first-year journalism graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley who was believed to have been Mr. Halberstam's driver, was hospitalized with a punctured lung.

Mr. Halberstam had given a speech at the university Saturday night on "Turning Journalism into History." He was reportedly on his way to an interview at the time of the accident.

The New York Times said the interview was with Y.A. Tittle, the former New York Giants and Baltimore Colts quarterback, for The Game, a planned book about the National Football League's 1958 championship between the Giants and the Colts, considered by many to have been the greatest football game ever played.

Mr. Halberstam, who wrote 21 books, including 15 best-sellers, spent years researching every dimension of the subjects he tackled. Mr. Halberstam's newest book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, was expected to be released in the fall.

In 2002, he wrote War in a Time of Peace, which chronicled how memories of failure in Vietnam helped shape foreign policy during the Clinton administration. That book was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction.

He won a Pulitzer at age 30 for his reporting from Vietnam for the Times.

David Halberstam was born in New York City on April 10, 1934. His father was a surgeon and his mother a teacher.

He attended Harvard University, where he starred as editor of The Crimson, the school's student newspaper, but did poorly in the classroom.

He confessed in a commencement speech at the University of Michigan that he had finished in the bottom third of his class, but said success stubbornly followed him anyway.

He began his journalism career in 1955 at the tiny Daily Times Leader, a 4,000-circulation newspaper in West Point, Miss. The publisher asked him to leave when he wrote a freelance story about civil rights demonstrations elsewhere in the state.

Mr. Halberstam went on to cover the civil rights struggle for The Tennessean, where he spent four years. He later described the Nashville newspaper as "probably the best and most aggressive paper in the South in the civil rights days."

In 1960, the Times called, and six months later he was reporting from the Congo, which was the big foreign story that year. A year later he was moved to Vietnam, in time to cover the beginning of that tragic war. He won the George Polk Award for his Vietnam reporting in 1964.

After returning from Southeast Asia, Mr. Halberstam reported from Poland for the Times.

Later, he captured the popular imagination with The Best and The Brightest, a revealing assessment of the failures of President John F. Kennedy's "whiz kids" - leaders recruited from industry and academia who set policy during the Vietnam War under Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson by arrogantly insisting on "brilliant policies that defied common sense."

Among the individuals whose reputations were punctured by the book were Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretaries of Defense Robert S. McNamara and Clark Clifford and McGeorge Bundy, special assistant to the president for national security affairs.

Mr. Halberstam conducted more than 500 interviews for The Best and the Brightest, filling the book with anecdotes, strong narrative and details that brought the players to life with dimension and nuance.

"If you're a reporter, the easiest thing in the world is to get a story," he once said. "The old sins were about getting something wrong. That was a cardinal sin. The new sin is to be boring."

Other major studies followed. The Powers That Be (1979) illuminated media giants who helped shape American public opinion. The Reckoning (1986) portrayed the American automobile industry's struggle with the growing power of Japanese imports. The Children (1999) was a report about the early days of the civil rights movement. That book moved one critic to describe Mr. Halberstam as "America's Alexis de Tocqueville."

In his sports books, Mr. Halberstam described how the growing popularity of major sports reflected significant changes in American society in recent decades. The books included The Summer of '49, which chronicled the Boston Red Sox's exasperating near-victory over the New York Yankees in the 1949 pennant race; October 1964, which focused on the Yankees' loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series; and Playing for Keeps, the story of basketball legend Michael Jordan.

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