He is one of New York's most respected writers, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose books are frequently on the best-seller list. Now David Halberstam goes One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
| View the full, uncut interview with our web-only "One On 1 Extra" feature at the bottom of the page.|
He has defied a president, taken shrapnel in a war zone, won the Pulitzer Prize, and written 21 books. But organize the office? Now that's a challenge.
"It's more chaotic as I get older,” said David Halberstam. “I find things, it's just harder."
In the office one floor above his Upper West Side apartment, Halberstam has just finished writing a book about the Korean War.
Halberstam has been at this for more than 50 years, first as a newspaper reporter and then a writer whose books are consistently on the best-seller list.
But when he walks into a new situation, he still has to prove himself, with a little help from modern technology.
“They'd find out that this person who says he's a writer had, in fact, written 18 or 19 or 20 books,” explained Halberstam. “And I'd get phone calls, Îoh, you really are a writer. Okay, we'll take you seriously.’"
Halberstam says the internet and the proliferation of cable channels make it harder to connect with readers than it was when he first started out. But the goal is still the same.
"A writer, a historian should be like a playwright,” he said. “Putting people on stage, putting ideas on stage, making the reader become the audience."
His work on Vietnam and the media, and the civil rights era are considered required reading for journalists and public policy makers and history buffs alike.
But he's no less respected for his sports books. And he's passionate about the subject, as shown in an interchange at a 1994 panel at the 92nd Street Y with then National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue about the history of free agency.
"Your player had almost no leverage at all," Halberstam told Tagliabue. "He could not trade himself, he had to..."
"No," Tagliabue interrupted.
"You're really wrong," Halberstam said. "I mean, you're wrong about the players. You're really dead, goddamn wrong."
Halberstam usually takes notes during his interviews, then records them and has a stenographer type them out.
"There's a great quote by Julius Irving that went, 'Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them,'" said Halberstam.
But how does even the most disciplined writer produce something every day, even on difficult days when reality threatens to intrude on the creative process?
"Work your way through, that's the way I was taught," he said. "It's very generational, and it's probably personal as well. My wife would tell you that what I do is answer psychological crises, or difficult moments, by working."
This strategy was put to the test in 1980 when Halberstam's older brother, Michael, was murdered during a robbery at his home in Washington.
"There's nothing you can do. You have to get on, and you have to get on with life, and get on with the living,” said Halberstam of the tragedy. “Our daughter was just born, and that was a new life, wonderful new life. And yes, I think you answer with work and answer with gratitude for the living."
David Halberstam had good training for his global travels as journalist and historian.
His father was an army doctor and by the time Halberstam was in eighth grade and the family had settled in Westchester, he'd already attended six different schools.
"You could learn there are nice people everywhere and sons of bitches everywhere,” said Halberstam. “And you could get along. We didn't have to stay in one place. I regard that as a good childhood."
Halberstam entered Harvard in 1951 and eventually served as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson.
After college, he could have gotten an entry level position at the New York Times. Instead, he headed south, for a $46 a week reporting job on the smallest daily paper in Mississippi.
"I knew that I had things I wanted to learn, and as long as I was going to do an apprenticeship, this was the year after Brown vs. Board of Education, why not do it in the south?” said Halberstam. "I was fired for being, I think, too obstreperous, trying to write too much about race. Fifty years later I was the commencement speaker at the University of Mississippi, which was a great thrill, which was like coming full circle."
Halberstam then spent four years at the Nashville Tennessean, where he covered the civil rights movement.
Writing about civil rights in the south in the late 1950s was a dangerous job and it prepared him well for being a New York Times war correspondent in the early 1960s in the Congo and then Vietnam.
"My ambition was such that even though I was scared, I was willing to risk doing this because the assignments were so good and it was something that I could handle," he said.
In the very early stages of the Vietnam War, Halberstam reported that the official statements of the government did not match the reality on the ground. The White House was not amused. President John F. Kennedy tried to get the Times to reassign Halberstam.
The paper refused.
"When I heard that the president of the United States didn't like it, I thought, well that's too bad about him,” recalled Halberstam. “That's about him that's not about me and I know that I have a lock on this."
In 1964, his reporting from Vietnam earned Halberstam the Pulitzer Prize.
“It was really nice because this was a great contested issue and there was a great division of it,” he said. “And did we have the right as this group of young reporters to be pessimistic, to descend in affect on an American war. And, so, under all of this attacking it was like the supreme court of journalism had ruled in our favor. It really mattered."
But Halberstam's definitive work on Vietnam was still to come.
In the late Î60s, he began researching how the smartest minds of the Kennedy Administration could lead us into war.
It became the “Best and the Brightest,” a surprise commercial success, number one on the New York Times best-seller list.
"This is a quantum leap, a huge jump in my reputation going from just being a reporter to doing this book,” said Halberstam. “It becomes a signature book."
The phrase “the best and the brightest” became part of our vocabulary.
Halberstam says each book is like a university, a chance to learn.
And unlike many of his sports heroes, he's been able to pursue his love for a lifetime.
“You not only get to do it, but do it for half a century, not just for seven years,” he said. “How lucky we are in this business that we can do it so long and still be doing it; that's a great gift."
|ONE ON 1 EXTRA|
Take a behind-the-scenes look at this week's "One On 1" profile with Budd Mishkin's full, uncut interview in Real Video: