The Faithful Departed: David Halberstam (1934-2007)

Rearranging my sense of the world

David HalberstamDavid Halberstam I will miss. Our relationships with writers tell us much about ourselves. As the young teacher and former student of C. S. Lewis says in Shadowlands, “We read to know we are not alone.” I feel more alone, and my world is a lesser place, without David Halberstam.

Some writers we like a lot. I’ve read most of Stephen King’s stories, and his On Writing is well worth any writer’s extensive study. Bag of Bones is one of the great stories about a writer (even if John Irving’s The World According to Garp is so much deeper and darker). Most of what King writes is addictively entertaining. Lots of long, late nights: Cujo. Misery. The Stand. And if I could take only one DVD to heaven with me it would be The Shawshank Redemption (edging out It’s a Wonderful Life and Places in the Heart). Still, when Mr. King shuffles off this mortal coil and heads to that great Fenway Park in the sky, I won’t miss him as much as I miss David Halberstam.

Every book of Halberstam’s I’ve read almost completely rearranged my sense of the world. The Fifties told me much about who I am by walking me through the decade I lived in as I was learning to walk. The Best and the Brightest, his justly famous treatment of the Kennedy administration’s whiz kids plunging us into the quagmire of Vietnam, taught me the limits of respected intellectuals’ wisdom, and the horror of power used for power’s sake, rather than for governing wisely and well. Firehouse, tells the tale of the Bravest, the NYFD, on 9/11.

So many books, all his books, each one opened a portal into a real world well worth my exploring and knowing. His writing on sports always illuminated deeper and wider societal trends. This winter I will reverently read his recently published (posthumously) account of the Korean conflict, The Coldest War. His multiple awards, Pulitzers, Honorary Degrees were dessert after the main course: the investigating, the reporting, the writing that reads so smoothly and well.

For me, The Children was the most influential of Halberstam’s books. I had taught courses on the Civil Rights Movement. I was fascinated by the movement and read all I could. I had studied two of the eventual three of Taylor Branch’s superb, magisterial tomes on the topic. I thought I knew a lot about the movement. And then I read The Children. John Lewis, Diane Nash, James Bevel, Bernard Lafayette, became real flesh and blood realities. I found out that Rodney Powell, one of the original students who started what became SNCC, was a graduate of St. Joe’s in Philadelphia were I taught.

Halberstam was the reporter who was a key to bringing their astonishing courage and grace to the public’s knowledge, not only through the book, but also in the ‘60s, when he and they were very young. This group of 20 year olds pushed the great Martin Luther King and the preachers to be even more daring and courageous than they had been (and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmningham is one of the bravest men in the history of the USA). Would they all have been able to do what they did, and change us and our world so much for the better, if the tall, skinny, 25 year old Harvard grad had not been chronicling their efforts and helping them think through media strategies? For sure, they did it. But Halberstam told their story, both then in the newspapers, and years later in one of the five best books on the Civil Rights Movement ever written. With The Children, he changed the ways I thought about our country, its history, race and racism, those students, my students, and what I was trying to do as a teacher. For that I will always be grateful. For that, and so much more, I will miss him.