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Opinion: Death of David Halberstam

  • April 27th, 2007
  • Posted by 7thmin

halberstam-resize.jpgDavid Halberstam, the American journalist celebrated for his books on war, politics and professional sports, has died aged 73 in a California road accident.

Lee Duffield wrote this tribute.

I have kept my copy of David Halberstam’s Vietnam book The Making of a Quagmire since 1965, only in part because it is nicely inscribed by a favourite girlfriend of the era who gave it to me; mostly as it helped determine me to get into journalism.

In it, Halberstam told some “jerno” stories about working in the Congo, knowing the full meaning of deadlines and the value of being there. The main story that sticks in memory was that several “hacks” reported the arrival of Dag Hammaskjold’s final flight, based on making assumptions. In fact the UN Secretary General had not arrived, his plane evidently shot down.

Then the book detailed the story of correspondents trying to write what they were seeing in Vietnam, that the war was going badly for the American side, while conservative military and civilian officials set out to prevent them.

It was a story about the workings of political power and news media, but the main part that sticks in memory about that one, was the quiet determination of the journalist, and his colleagues, just to get the story out no matter what. They had no political objective except indirectly to defend the right to know by exercising it.

Imagine my feelings twenty years later to find myself seated beside Halberstam at a media conference with Reagan and Gorbachev; no chat was engaged in about that book; we were working.

What sticks in memory from the occasion was the mention of a rebellious Party official, erstwhile Gorbachev man, pushed out of office in the Moscow Party / city government; one Boris Yeltsin. He’d given the BBC an interview with some undermining effect on Gorbachev, who declared this Yeltsin should come out in the open so he could have it out with him. In the end he did, and they had it out; history was made.

I tell these few “jerno” stories in the way of paying tribute to a great practitioner and by all accounts a good man who ought to have been able to live longer.

I have always been thankful for his example.