Remembering David Halberstam

Posted: Apr 24, 2007 2:33 PM

I've loved history for as long as I remember. My second grade teacher once told me not to bother trying to read the books I would always bring back from the library. Being as obstinate then as now, I would ignore that advice and plow through presidential biographies meant for middle-schoolers.

By high school, I was a full-fledged geek, spending weekends reading Arthur Schlesinger's adoring reviews of Camelot and David Halberstam's reporting on everything from Vietnam to GM.

Today, Schlesinger and Halberstam had their own life stories recounted by the New York Times. Unfortunately, Halberstam's life story was summarized in an obituary.

Halberstam, a former obit writer for the Tennessean, said he learned early on just how important getting the facts right in an obituary was. The Pulitzer prize-winning writer said for many, it would be the only time their names would make the newspaper. For grieving relatives, even the slightest mistake could cause great emotional pain.

I suppose Halberstam would have given an approving nod to the Times' summary of his life. Got the info in about the Pulitzer prize. Touched on how he warned of the coming meltdown in Vietnam. And praised him as a prolific and versatile author.

The life summary may have been factually accurate but it still seemed incomplete.

Reading David Halberstam was coming in contact with reporting at its best. He would throw himself entirely into a story and then take his readers on journey around the world-- whether that story took him to Vietnam or Detroit.

Twenty-five years later, my outlook on the U.S. economy is shaped by lessons I learned in "The Reckoning." And politicians of all stripes would have done well to read "The Best and the Brightest" before sending Americans to Iraq.

When will they ever learn? Maybe when they look more closely at the works of courageous reporters like David Halberstam.