26 April 2007

Death of David Halberstam

Halberstam died this Monday in a car accident.

The manner of his death was perhaps the least interesting fact about his life. Halberstam will be best remembered for his coverage of America's war in Vietnam.

His reports stood out as early as 1963, when he wrote an eye-witness account of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. The following year,he shared the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with Malcolm W. Browne, for their coverage of the overthrow of the Diem regime.

He entered another realm entirely when he reporting on the Washington policy-making behind the war, in his classic book The Best and the Brightest (1972). It is sad, and disabling, for reporters to become the objects of coverage themselves -- the center of the spotlight they should be directing elsewhere -- and this was the grave difficulty Halberstam faced after the appearance of B and the B.

Indeed, the self-referential character of his next bog book, The Powers that Be (1979), a study of the media elite, confirmed the problem. This book became the object of some genuine admiration for the undiminished investigative energies that poured into it but, more visible, it became the target of satire.

Still, he was Halberstam. There was only one, and that one kept working. Four new books in the 1980s and six in the 1990s. Four books in the new century, including Firehouse (2002), his take on 9/11.

But let us leave him by remembering the moments when on his own account he felt most alive, in the rice paddies, covering THE great story of his day. He wrote once to his daughter and described his feelings in the Kennedy years, after he was re-assigned from the Congo to Indochina.

"Someday I hope you will understand how important those moments were for me; more, I want you to understand the importance of remembering, of holding onto and even cherishing a part of what you have been as, more and more, events are thrust upon you. For all too often in this world, and I think with increasing force, the present seeks to obliterate the past-something I hope you will not lightly accept."

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.