David Halberstam's Last Speech
When WNBC in New York reported Monday night that David Halberstam had died, the shocking news nearly knocked me over. Just this past Saturday, I had seen Halberstam deliver a wise and feisty speech for a conference at the University of California—Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism that I had helped organize as a member of the school's alumni board. And now he was dead, killed in a car crash. I couldn't believe such a strong and towering man had been taken away from us.
Moments later, I realized that this had been the last speech of Halberstam—called the greatest journalist of his generation by Anthony Lewis, a colleague of his at The New York Times—and that the tape I made of his Apr. 21 remarks now had historical significance.
The conference was about the interplay between journalism and history. And the alumni board thought a perfect coda to the day's events would be a keynote speech by Halberstam on the prickly relationship between the two fields. "I have a foot in both camps, and I am accepted by neither," joked Halberstam in his remarks.
History, after all, was a favorite theme of this lion of American journalism. In 1955, after graduating from Harvard, Halberstam took a job at The Daily Times Leader in West Point, Miss., because he thought it would provide him an opportunity to write about race. When that didn't work out as he had planned, Halberstam hitchhiked up to Nashville and put in an application at The Tennessean.
There, he wrote about race with a vengeance. In 1960, The New York Times lured him away. In 1964, when Halberstam was 30, he and Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press won Pulitzers for their coverage of the Vietnam War and the overthrow of the Saigon regime.
In 1967, Halberstam quit daily journalism and began writing books. Over the next 40 years he wrote 21 books covering such topics as foreign policy, civil rights, business, and sports. His 1973 classic about the Vietnam War, The Best and the Brightest, described how and why the "ablest men to serve in the government this century" turned out to be "architects of the greatest American tragedy since the Civil War."
In 1994, The Reckoning addressed the Japanese challenge to American automakers. And in 2000 The Powers that Be tackled the rise of the American media. Halberstam's 21st book, The Coldest Winter, a look back at the Korean War, will be released this fall. "I think it's my best work," he said in his Apr. 21 speech.
Halberstam arrived at the Arthur Anderson auditorium on the Berkeley campus to deliver his speech dressed in a black sport coat, gray slacks, and tie. He was tall and slim and his salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back so that he looked like a serious and distinguished gentleman, which he was. His presence was undeniable. And when he began to talk in his deep baritone, you just had the feeling that you were in the presence of a wise old man. But Halberstam seemed far from ready to hang up his cleats. He was full of vim and vigor, energized by his talk and his new book.
After a short introduction by Orville Schell, the dean of the journalism school, Halberstam discussed the beginning of his career as a young journalist working for The Tennessean, his work at the Times, the lessons that he learned along the way, and how and why he came to write The Best and the Brightest. "I had done well and won the right prizes, but I had not done well enough for myself," he said. "I had too many questions still to answer."
During a question and answer session after his speech, Halberstam expounded on a few more topics, including the Iraq War, which he argued would harm America more than the Vietnam conflict. Two days later he was killed in a car crash doing what he was born to do. Halberstam was heading to an interview for his next book, about the 1958 championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, considered by many to be the greatest football game ever played.
Click here to listen to an audio recording of Halberstam's remarks based on the tape I made this past Saturday.
Editor's note: This is not a professional recording. The first 30 seconds are noisy as audience members settle into their seats, but after that you can hear Halberstam fairly well. A transcript of his remarks will be posted shortly.