Remembering David Halberstam

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Halberstam once said that after finishing Harvard he deliberately sought work on small-town Southern newspapers so he could learn how to talk to ordinary people, a skill not much cherished in the Ivy League, but indispensable to success in journalism. Getting people to talk was vital to his distinctive way of writing history, because he believed in the individual human as history’s agent. It is doubtful that he was ever much interested in a Tolstoyan view of man at the mercy of history’s tides, and for good reason. Take that road and journalism becomes absurd; Halberstam was a journalist, heart and soul.

He needed to understand the connection between the human and the event. He was constantly trying to understand why a nation with such high aspirations, led by the most excellent people, so often ended up in one quagmire or another. His work assumed a vital human agency behind historical developments. Belief in the importance of these human forces led naturally to the study of people, and they appear in astonishing variety in his books: powerful men like the Kennedys, Douglas MacArthur, Ho Chi Minh, Lyndon Johnson; great athletes like Michael Jordan and Ted Williams; important policy shapers like Robert McNamara, Brent Scowcroft, and Madeleine Albright; but also a young man rowing a single scull in hopes of making an Olympic team that almost no one else cares about, and a bunch of black kids risking their lives for the right to vote and eat an ice cream sundae sitting down, and those thirteen firemen headed for the World Trade Center.

To bring them to life on the page he had to hear people talking. So he interviewed and interviewed. For his twenty second book, the one about football, he was on his way to interview the Hall of Fame quarterback, Y. A. Tittle.