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Editorial

Halberstam a man for spring

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Winter, viewed through the lens of history and nature, has often been associated with death, while spring is seen as a time of rebirth or renewal. But this spring has been particularly fatal.

In the last week and a half death seems to have been everywhere. There was, of course, the appalling Virginia Tech massacre and the eight-year “anniversary” of the Columbine killings last week. Nearly 200 Iraqis died during one day of car bombings last week, a tragedy we’ve become so accepting of that it didn’t rate any better than page 13 in one national paper. This week Boris Yeltsin, the man who ended communism, introduced some semblance of democracy to Russia and stared down a communist coup from his perch on a tank, died.

And on Monday David Halberstam was killed. In a car accident.

Halberstam was a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author of more than 20 books, including the definitive account of how America became entangled in Vietnam, The Best and The Brightest . In a career spanning more than 50 years he covered the civil rights movement in the southern states, outlasted several wars, withstood the wrath of presidents and government officials and survived 9/11 in his native New York City. He died about 10:30 Monday morning when the car he was a passenger in was broadsided in a San Francisco intersection.

In January of this year Halberstam was part of a panel discussion in New York on the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam. At 72 he was a more impressive figure than his younger co-panelists, a retired general and the New York Times’ 30-ish Iraq correspondent. Tall, fit and full of energy, Halberstam’s booming voice conveyed authority. He backed that up with a depth of knowledge and understanding that came from a lifetime of pursuing truth. He was not a media personality brought in for an entertaining opinion on a topic but a gentleman engaged in a respectful, pointed, sometimes even humorous discussion. He spoke as he wrote, clearly, elegantly and with full command of his subject.

But it is what Halberstam stood for, the principles that he subscribed to, that remain as relevant today as they will 100 years from now. As Roy Peter Clark of the Poytner Institute wrote this week: “Few reporters of the last generation have been more associated with speaking truth to power than David Halberstam.”

Halberstam won his Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his coverage of the war in Vietnam as a New York Times reporter. That seems like a long time ago, but perhaps it seems so long ago because we’ve forgotten some of the lessons of that time.

Halberstam was one of the early critics of the war, not on moral or philosophical grounds but because of what he observed. And his observations weren’t popular. According to a New York Times obituary this week: “President John F. Kennedy was so incensed by Mr. Halberstam’s war coverage that he strongly suggested to The Times’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, that the reporter be replaced. Mr. Sulzberger replied that Mr. Halberstam would stay where he was. He even had the reporter cancel a scheduled vacation so that no one would get the wrong idea.”

In a 1965 interview with Commentary magazine Halberstam explained his approach to reporting. He said: “No one becomes a reporter to make friends, but neither is it pleasant in a situation like the war in Vietnam to find yourself completely at odds with the view of the highest officials in your country. The pessimism of the Saigon press corps was of the most reluctant kind: many of us came to love Vietnam, we saw our friends dying all around us, and we would have liked nothing better than to believe the war was going well and that it would eventually be won. But it was impossible for us to believe those things without denying the evidence of our own senses… And we had no alternative but to report the truth…”

The truth — not as told, not as some would like it to be — but as understood from all the evidence seen, heard, touched, tasted and smelled. It’s as fundamental to understanding Vietnam or Iraq as it is to understanding the Olympics or affordable housing.

It’s a concept worthy of spring.

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