Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam died Monday. Halberstam's coverage of the Vietnam War earned the enmity of two American presidential administrations. But it set a new standard in investigative journalism, as we hear in this report.
In many ways, David Halberstam was the typical, American success story. This son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants attended one of the very best schools in America - Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. But, by his own admission, he did not do very well there.
"I was someone who did better in life after college than in college. But, to me, it began to narrow down to journalism," he explained. "It was something I thought I was good at. I was on the college paper. I was better at being on the Harvard Crimson than I was being a student at Harvard."
What appealed to Halberstam was that he could be in the public limelight - as a "player" - without being a politician or running for public office.
"You did not have to be good looking. You did not have to be rich. But you could act on conscience," he noted. "And, if you believed that one of the most important things in America was the idea of justice, I think good reporters could contribute to that."
David Halberstam was born on April 10, 1934, in New York City - the son of a surgeon and a teacher.
Halberstam's first journalism job after Harvard was with the Daily Times Leader in Westpoint, Mississippi. From that vantage point - and shortly thereafter as a reporter for the larger daily, the Nashville Tennessean - David Halberstam published engaging and thorough eyewitness accounts of the growing civil rights movement in the American South.
His reports on the struggle by African-Americans and others in the United States to abolish legal and moral racial barriers caught the attention of the prestigious New York Times. In the early 1960's, Halberstam suddenly found himself in Vietnam, reporting on the Southeast Asian conflict for an American audience, half world away.
David Halberstam's dispatches frequently questioned the official versions of what was going on in Vietnam. His efforts were least appreciated by the administrations of both presidents Kennedy and Johnson, whom he felt were deceiving the American public about the extent of American involvement in the war.
"I think, in every venue, there is an element of truth," he said. "And, governments often try and cover it up because it goes against policy, as in Vietnam. I think Vietnam did make a generation of us angry. It was a titanic struggle in democracy in which the government was lying and ordinary people were telling the truth."
A number of books about the Vietnam war followed, including The Making of a Quagmire in 1965 and The Best and Brightest, published in 1972, about the U.S. officials who were responsible for engineering America's involvement in Southeast Asia.
In 1964, Halberstam was awarded the Pulitzer Prize - America's highest literary honor - for his Vietnam war reporting*.
David Halberstam proved himself to be as diverse as he was talented: he also wrote engaging accounts about major league sports in "The Summer of '49" and "The Breaks of the Game"; the decade of the 1950's in "The Fifties;" and the American and Japanese auto industries in "The Reckoning".
"There is a phrase from American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson which I did not know at the time," he explained. "Let me paraphrase it: 'If one good man plants himself upon his conscience, the whole world will come 'round.' And, my life has validated that. This is what makes reporting - it isn't us. It isn't our fame. It is the courage of ordinary citizens - the wisdom, the courage and honor of ordinary citizens - that I do believe in."
Journalist and author David Halberstam, dead at the age of 73.
* - corrected 27 Apr 2007; original report incorrectly identified his Pulitzer as being awarded for his civil rights coverage