A Reporter's Memories of Writer David Halberstam Journalist David Halberstam died early Monday at 73. He was in a car crash near San Francisco. As a young reporter in Vietnam for The New York Times in the 1960s, Halberstam accused U.S. military briefers for giving misleading, overly encouraging accounts of the war.
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Journalist Neil Sheehan on a Colleague

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A Reporter's Memories of Writer David Halberstam

Journalist Neil Sheehan on a Colleague

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Journalist and author David Halberstam died early today at the age of 73. He was in a car crash near San Francisco. Halberstam had been a young reporter in Vietnam for The New York Times, a reporter who called U.S. military briefers on their misleading and overly encouraging accounts of the war back in the 1960s. His book, "The Best and the Brightest," told the story of how Kennedy and Johnson-era policymakers walked the country into a quagmire.

This is David Halberstam on a panel discussion that was featured on C-SPAN this past January, when he was talking about the wars in Vietnam and the war in Iraq.

Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM (Journalist and Author): I think that in both Vietnam and Iraq, we were going against the history. The - in Vietnam, just to clearly the colonial shadow from French-Indochina War, and in Iraq, a more complicated one, going back to the crusades, Christian versus Islam, obviously Sunni-Shiite things. My view was - and I think it's because of Vietnam - that the forces against us were going to be hostile. Surprising to us, we would not be viewed as liberators. I thought the phrase I used before we went in was we were going to punch our fists into the largest hornet's nest in the world.

SIEGEL: David Halberstam, speaking in January. Author Neil Sheehan was also a reporter covering Vietnam in the early days and later wrote the book "A Bright Shining Lie," about those times. He and David Halberstam were close friends for many years after their assignment together in Saigon. And Neil Sheehan, what do you remember most about your best friend, David Halberstam?

Mr. NEIL SHEEHAN (Author, "A Bright Shining Lie"): I remember most the years we were together in Saigon, because we were - we had a partnership there. We worked together. And he was wonderful to work with. He was - David was an original. He was an original in his total dedication to his work and his integrity and his courage. He had a lot of moral courage. He had moral courage as well as physical courage. And he had a love of the craft, and a love of reporting, which is very deep.

SIEGEL: His subjects were books well after Vietnam, and the best and the brightest range over the auto industry, the mass media, professional basketball. He seemed to be a man of tremendous curiosity.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Oh yes. David was a man of absolutely natural curiosity. I mean, he - that's why his reporting was of such scope after he began writing books. And he was a natural reporter in that sense. He was interested in everything and he also had the energy, extraordinary energy - physical and intellectual - to get to the bottom of something - to root it out, if you will.

And he - and to go for the central thing, he had an expression, I remember, he was in Saigon once, he said, one has to go for the jugular. What he meant was to find the most central point, the most important thing and to go for it. In that quote you just played of him, speaking about Iraq, there he is again. You know, he's going right to the heart of it. And that was very characteristic of him.

And also, he had a great - David was very loyal to his friends and to those who work with him. And he dedicated one of his books to me, and I was very touched by it, it's something called, "The Teammates." That was about three ball players, Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky and then that guy named Bobby Duo, who are friends of Ted Williams. And the two of them, Pesky and Dominic DiMaggio went down to see Ted Williams when he was dying, and they dedicated it to my own beloved teammate, Neil Sheehan. And (Unintelligible) that's because of a high -you know, we stayed friends all of our lives. But it started when we were young reporters in Vietnam and we never - and those were wonderful years together. It was a wonderful beginning. But it was a wonderful friendship that went on through. But he was also loyal to so many of his other friends. And in a fight, David was always like - he was right there with you.

SIEGEL: I remember many years ago, hearing David Halberstam talk about his first reporting jobs, going down South during the civil rights era and eventually landing a job with the National Tennessean...

Mr. SHEEHAN: Yes, that's right.

SIEGEL: And he was very much a daily newspaperman who believed in that craft and was excited and proud of what he did in those days.

Mr. SHEEHAN: He certainly was. And you know, he'd been on the Harvard Crimson. He was editor of the Harvard Crimson. And then, he went down and he became a reporter on the West Point, Mississippi Newsleader. And then, he went up and he was reporting on the National Tennessean and he was very proud of having been on the early civil rights movement.

And later on, he wrote a book about it. But he brought to that sort of thing the same kind of integrity he brought to everything else. Once, he told me that the then-editor of the West Point, Mississippi Newsleader, got pretty nervous over a story David was writing about the civil rights movement for the Reporter magazine. He said, David, couldn't you write for Field and Stream?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEEHAN: But David was not the sort who would ever back off. He was not going to write for Field and Stream. I mean, he never backed off from pressure. One summer, we were in Saigon and we had called the commanding general the night before because they hadn't wanted to let us get near a major defeat. And the next day, they had a briefing and the operations officer was an arrogant brigadier general, started giving us a lecture for calling the commanding general at home to tell him that we needed transportation to get out to see what has happened.

And I could see David getting more and more angry, and finally his arm shot out and he pointed it at this brigadier general and he said, general, we are not corporals. We do not work for you. We work for our editors. If you've got a complaint, talk to our editors. He had a very deep sense of what - of the duty of being a reporter and the responsibilities that were - that it entails.

SIEGEL: Remarkably, that story about we work for editors, or his problems with the editor in West Point, Mississippi, are stories told by a man who achieved so much as a journalist that he could tackle a subject - I assume, usually of his choosing - approach it at book length and be an influential journalist without the usual intermediary of the newspaper, the magazine, the network, whatever it might be to report through. He truly was the independent freelance journalist.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Oh, yes. That was because, first of all, you know, his talent -his talent as a reporter and his dedication to it. But he went to Japan to write that wonderful book on the competition between - in the auto industry. And he had a great deal of trouble, initially, getting interviews with Japanese he wanted he talk to.

And finally with consistency, he got to talk to one Japanese person he have been wanting to interview for a long time. The Japanese guy said to him, Halberstam, you have the samurai spirit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHEEHAN: I mean, he had that persistence and the courage to go to Japan and stay there and report a book and take all the economic risks involved. He did it. David never shirked from that kind of thing. And that's what made him such a great guy and such a great reporter.

SIEGEL: Well, Neil Sheehan, thank you very much for talking with us...

Mr. SHEEHAN: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: ...about your friend, David Halberstam.

Mr. SHEEHAN: I will - I - he was my best friend. And I shall miss him - never thought I'd lose him and will miss him all the days of my life. Take care.

SIEGEL: Thank you very much.

Mr. SHEEHAN: Bye-bye.

SIEGEL: Neil Sheehan was talking to us about his friend, writer David Halberstam who died early today in a car crash in Menlo Park, California near San Francisco.

(Soundbite of music)


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