Halberstam hailed for reporting on Vietnam, civil rights

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Journalist David Halberstam, who produced a steady stream of well-regarded books on topics as diverse as Vietnam, civil rights and the 1949 American League pennant race, died as he lived: on his way to an interview.

The 73-year-old writer was killed in a car crash yesterday while working on a book about the legendary 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Halberstam was riding in a car that was broadsided by another vehicle in Menlo Park, about 25 miles south of San Francisco. He was pronounced dead at the scene, and the cause appeared to be internal injuries, according to the San Mateo County coroner.

“The world has lost one of our greatest journalists,” said Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, where Halberstam won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 covering Vietnam.

One of Halberstam's first reporting jobs was at The Tennessean in Nashville, where he covered the civil rights struggle.

As a guest in 2001 on the First Amendment Center television program “Speaking Freely,” Halberstam was interviewed by center founder and Tennessean chairman emeritus John Seigenthaler and by Ken Paulson, former center executive director and now USA TODAY editor. They discussed the importance of the First Amendment in the nation's drive for civil rights. (See transcript, story at links below.)

Halberstam's 1972 best-seller, The Best and the Brightest, a critical account of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, established him as one of the most committed journalists of his generation.

“He was the institutional memory of the Vietnam War. I think he understood it better than any other journalist,” said former CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who won a Pulitzer for Vietnam coverage in 1966 while with the Associated Press.

Halberstam told journalists during a conference last year in Tennessee that government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.

Halberstam's other books included The Powers That Be, a 1979 undressing of the titans of the news media; The Fifties, his 1993 chronicle of that decade's upheavals; Summer of '49, his account of that year's Yankees-Red Sox rivalry; The Reckoning, about the U.S. auto industry; and The Children, a 1999 narrative about the civil rights movement.

His 2002 best-seller, War in a Time of Peace — an examination of how the lessons of Vietnam have influenced American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era — was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

His book The Coldest Winter, an account of a key early battle of the Korean War, is scheduled to be published in the fall.

At the time of yesterday morning's accident, Halberstam was being driven to an interview with New York Giants Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.

The drivers of the two cars were injured, but not seriously. Halberstam was being driven by a graduate journalism student from the University of California at Berkeley, where he had visited over the weekend. The crash remained under investigation.

As word of Halberstam's death spread, tributes and remembrances poured in for the veteran reporter whose deep baritone matched the heft of his nonfiction narratives.

“The thing about David Halberstam was that he stayed the course and he kept the faith in the belief in the people's right to know,” said George Esper, who spent 10 years in Vietnam with the Associated Press.

Neil Sheehan, former Saigon bureau chief for United Press International, said he had lost his best friend, a man of enormous physical and mental energy who had “profound moral and physical courage.”

“We were in Vietnam at a time when we were being denounced by those on high,” said Sheehan. “There was tremendous pressure. David never buckled under it at all.”

Halberstam's wife, Jean Halberstam, recalled yesterday his “unending, bottomless generosity to young journalists.”

“For someone who obviously was so competitive with himself, the generosity with other writers was incredible,” she said by phone from their New York home. He also is survived by a daughter, Julia.

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