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A power who was

Posted by David Mehegan  April 24, 2007 02:00 PM

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[Colleague Mark Feeney offers this appreciation of author David Halberstam.]

David Halberstam, who died yesterday in a car crash in San Francisco, may or may not have been "the greatest journalist of his generation," as his onetime New York Times colleague Anthony Lewis told the Harvard Crimson. Certainly, he had the credentials: a Pulitzer Prize (for his Vietnam War coverage), a long shelf of best-selling books, and the contribution of an indispensable phrase to the language. That phrase came courtesy of what remains his most celebrated book, "The Best and the Brightest" (1972), about the high-powered policy intellectuals who helped mire the United States in Indochina.

It must be conceded that Halberstam, who was 73, also had a penchant for orotundity and a weakness for the sweeping statement. The latter could backfire on him. His book about Ford, "The Reckoning" (1987), practically read the last rites over the auto manufacturer. Yet it came out shortly after the company had introduced the Taurus, which eventually became the best-selling car model in the United States for much of the 1990s.

There's no question that Halberstam had the biggest shoulders in journalism. That was true literally. He was large, rawboned, Lincolnesque. The man had a great physical presence, one that extended all the way to his deep, rumbly voice. When he spoke, you couldn't help but pay attention, not least of all because his slow, solemn timbre conveyed the sense of someone who weighed each word and gave serious thought to what he had to say. (This is a much rarer quality, alas, than you might think.)

For all Halberstam's big-foot eminence, he never stopped answering his own phone and taking the time to field reporters’ questions. He may have been a famous author, but he remained a proud member of the fellowship of working journalists.

The last time I spoke with him was a year and a half ago for a profile I was doing of his friend Joan Didion. Having discussed her with great affection and eloquence, he immediately turned the conversation to Bob Woodward (I'd recently reviewed Woodward's book "The Secret Man" for The New York Observer). "What's gone wrong with him, do you think? All that access to power, it's as if he's gone over to the other side."

Halberstam did not shrink from the role of journalistic conscience: whether it be shaking his head over Woodward; inveighing against The New York Times' hiring William Safire as an op-ed columnist (Halberstam believed the former Nixon speechwriter was irredeemably tainted by his association with the president); or writing a very large book, "The Powers That Be" (1979), about the rise of such media giants as CBS, Time-Life, and the Times Mirror Corp.

The big shoulders were figurative, too, and not just in Halberstam's seeing himself as journalistic tribune. He wrote large (superlatives came as naturally to Halberstam as profanity does to David Mamet) and he wrote large about large subjects. Besides "The Best and the Brightest," "The Reckoning," and "The Powers That Be," he tackled an entire decade in "The Fifties" (1993) and U.S. peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia in "War in a Time of Peace" (2001).

Inevitably, Halberstam will be compared to other eminent journalists who went on to become even more eminent authors, like Theodore H. White, say, or Robert A. Caro. Another name comes to mind, though: Graham Greene. It's not just the Vietnam connection or the fact that Halberstam, surprisingly enough, published two novels (his first book, "The Noblest Roman," 1961, and "One Very Hot Day," 1968).

Greene famously interspersed his more serious novels with what he called "entertainments," highly intelligent thrillers like "This Gun for Hire" or "Our Man in Havana." Halberstam did something similar. A passionate sports fan, he would alternate works on more substantial topics with such books as "The Breaks of the Game" (1981), about the NBA, "The Amateurs" (1985), about Olympic rowers, "Summer of '49" (1989), about the that season's pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees, and "The Education of a Coach" (2005), about the Patriots' Bill Belichick. [See Globe sports columnist Bob Ryan's tribute here.]

These books were all extremely successful, in no small part because Halberstam didn't condescend to the material. He took Belichick or Joe DiMaggio every bit as seriously as he took Robert McNamara or Henry Luce. In fact, he would sometimes use his sports books as a way to get at much meatier tropics. "October 1964," about that year's World Series, was as much a meditation on race in America at the height of the Civil Rights movement as it was about baseball. Like Greene, Halberstam took a little-respected genre and brought real distinction to it.

-- Mark Feeney

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