There were several aspects of our relationship I never really understood. For instance, while I had absolutely zero interest in fishing, didn’t really enjoy it at all, David and I managed to spend a lot of time together doing exactly that: fishing—in the choppy waters off Nantucket, in the muddy rivers of Costa Rica, and offshore there in the Pacific. Now, as I look back on those trips, it dawns on me that in my entire life I never actually fished—not once—unless it was with him. What the hell was that about? I think it was because I wanted to like it, wanted to learn to enjoy it as much as he did, wanted to sharpen my angling skills so as to become a reasonably acceptable partner, wanted him to see me land a big one. Or perhaps it was nothing more complicated than my own desire not to be left out.
Aboard his Boston whaler, sputtering slowly out of Nantucket Harbor, then roaring out beyond the jetties with the throttle wide open, headed for wherever he had heard or suspected there were fish that day, David simply would not tolerate carelessness. I recall one afternoon with a young Polish émigré he had invited along—a smart and talented but willful and undisciplined fellow who had little experience with fishing and yet paid no heed to David’s patient but stern instructions about being careful with the lures and their multiple hooks, both in casting and retrieving. Time after time that day, with the boat precariously rolling on seven-foot swells, he simply flailed away without checking his clearance, the steel barbs—sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel—lashing this way and that, behind and ahead of him, threatening the others aboard. David watched for a long while, made a couple of suggestions about being more cautious, and finally snapped. “That’s it,” he roared. “That is it! Put the goddamn rod down. I mean it. Put it down right now. You may not fish anymore. I repeat. You many not fish anymore on this boat!” The young man’s face suggested a quick consideration of defiance, but one look at David’s enraged features persuaded him otherwise. He sat shamefaced on a cooler for the rest of the trip, and was never invited again. Appropriately, David’s friend Russell Baker, who was quite familiar with his occasional outrage, christened him “Rolling Thunder.”
One early evening in Paris, when he and Jean, his wife, walked into an elegant restaurant just off the Champs Élysée for an early dinner and were told by a rather imperious maître d’ that they could neither be seated nor served because they lacked a reservation, David pointed out the obvious—there was not a single customer in the place. “We won’t be long,” David promised. “We’ll be gone in an hour.” But the Frenchman was firm. There would be no table for the Americans. “Listen, monsieur,” David began in English (though he spoke passable French), telling him in the most courteous way the story of his father’s volunteer military service in France during both world wars, and concluding with a question for the maître d’: “Do you think he made a mistake?” David had clearly been insulted, and although he could be obstreperously rude, he chose not to be—and of course still made his point.
Neil Sheehan, his colleague in Saigon and close friend ever since, recalls that one day in 1962, when the American military had denied them transportation to the scene of a major defeat for the South Vietnamese army, they rang up the commanding general. The next afternoon at the daily briefing, a brigadier general pointedly scolded Neil and David for having had the temerity to call his superior at night and at home to ask for a ride.
“And as this pompous one-star went on and on, I could see David getting angrier and angrier,” Sheehan recalls. Finally, he’d had enough. “General,” Sheehan remembers Halberstam saying, “you do not understand. We are not your corporals; we don’t work for you. We’ll call the commanding general at home any time we need to, to get our job done. The American people have a right to know what’s going on here.”
Eventually, he came to be known as an “antiwar” reporter, which of course he was, but only eventually. As he often admitted, when he first arrived in Vietnam, he was enthusiastic in his support for the U.S. presence there. Then, through his dogged and courageous reporting, David discovered that many of the American military and diplomatic leaders there (and in Washington), as well as members of the South Vietnamese government, were lying about what was going on—and that greatly offended him.