An Essay on the Late David Halberstam

David Halberstam loved old jocks, young reporters, grizzled veterans, and fresh faces. When you gathered around the huge round table in his apartment, you would meet retired generals, young phenoms, and enduring friends.

"So-and-so is just back from Somalia," he would say, "you must meet them." Or, "So-and-so has been having some bad luck. You must cheer them up." And, "So-and-so is here, the old coach. You must have a thousand things to ask."

Once I told David about a colonel in El Salvador who awarded me a sour smile when I asked what he thought was an impertinent question. "Who do you think you are," the colonel asked. "David Halberstam?" David laughed and said, "My boy, as you travel around the world, I think you will find my name is 'horse's ass' in many languages."

He never quite shook his image as the tough young reporter stalking through the swamps of Vietnam; and didn't really want to. But David Halberstam was elegant—a man of impeccable manners and handsome bearing—in what's often taken to be a rumpled profession.

And in a business that abounds in snide asides and outright backstabbing, David Halberstam was a man of astonishing generosity. David read, watched, and listened. He wrote encouraging notes, rave reviews, and quotable blurbs. He gave warm advice, and always reached for the check.

He acquired friends, but didn't collect them; or cast old ones aside. For much of today, I've been making a mental list of writers, old soldiers, and burnt-out cases who were down on their luck—and themselves—who were lifted by David's practical friendship.

And then, there was his astounding versatility—a trait he admired in athletes. Writing THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST made David famous, and put a phrase into the language. But he didn't just keep writing about the next war up. He wrote books about the intricacies of basketball, overlooked heroes of the civil rights movement, old friends on a road trip, and unsung heroes at his local firehouse.

If those books had a common thread, I think it was David's admiration for people with true character. But he also enjoyed opening his life to new friends. He told me once that he had enough good book ideas to take him to the end of his life, and I had an image of him making one last tap on his keyboard, many years from now, and simply closing his eyes. Never retiring, never tiring.

When he died yesterday, David Halberstam had just finished a book, and was going over the galleys. He was heading off for an interview for his next book, with a leathery old football star. He was sitting alongside, and no doubt entertaining, encouraging, and dazzling the young journalism student who was driving him there.

I don't think there is ever a good way to die. But David Halberstam showed us a grand way to live.

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