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Halberstam's Last Speech

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Reflections on the late journalist and author David Halberstam's last speech.


David Halberstam was a man who a man who had been a friend to me for more than 25 years. In the business that abounds with small-minded cynics, David was a warm-hearted and generous man. In a profession that teems with people who keep retelling their past triumphs and quoting old bromides, David Halberstam never stopped giving himself new challenges.

Just a week ago, David gave what turned out to be his last speech to journalism students at the University of California-Berkeley.

There is a great, great gift you get from this life, David told them, and that's the chance to be paid to learn, I mean, what to find your life at the end of it when you hit 70, or even a few years more, is love and friendship and family and things you've done. But I think it's the education, the ability to spend what is now 52 years learning everyday, going out everyday and asking questions and coming away with just a little bit more knowledge. What a blessing.

And so I got to study the rise of modern media, the book about the industrial challenge of the Japanese, a book about the civil rights movement, a book on the impact of technology and the society of the '50s, the conflict of the Cold War, the Korean War, that's a great education. That's more than any person really has the right to expect.

There is craft, too, David told the students. Knowing where to look, knowing how to build steam, knowing how to sustain a narrative drive, how to keep a reader interested. This is a real challenge. Everybody's attention span is short. We're really competing. I mean, it used to be just television. Now it's 200 channels, it's four channels of "Law and Order." There's 20 sports channels. There's the Internet. There's the blog. Every person has his or her own editor.

First, you have to get it right; you have to make it accurate. Then, you have to learn how to dramatize it, to bring it to life, to find the people in the events that make it real. So you're not just a reporter and you're not just a historian, not in the world we live in, with all the competing forms of information. You're a playwright too. You've got to bring in the drama.

I love the interview, he said, and I think the great thing about doing it is, it makes you younger. Going out and interviewing people always I find that refreshing. It made me feel younger, David Halberstam told those students.

And here I am, 73, and just signed in a contract for another book. It gets to be more fun the more you do it. Thank you for having me here.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: The words of David Halberstam this week at the age of 73, and music from Mstislav Rostropovich who died this week, at the age of 80.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small