“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.
I once asked him if that was a true account of his conversion. “Of course,” he said. “It pissed me off. But listen, it was pretty simple. In fact, it was exactly the same as when you were covering city hall for The Huntsville Times [the Alabama paper that gave me my first newspaper job]. It wasn’t so much what they were lying to you about, it was just the fact that they were lying—and it made you mad, didn’t it? Made you work harder, didn’t it? Well, that’s what it was like for me in Saigon.”
It was a simple explanation, though those were not simple times and David was not a simple man. The memory of his father’s easy patriotism haunted him in those years, when his reporting from Vietnam was described as un-American and unpatriotic, when President Kennedy urgently requested that the Times reassign him. He wondered, he said, what Charlie, his late father, whom he idolized, would have thought about all that. In the end, however, it was once again fairly simple. The truth—and the lying—were the principal forces that moved him, that ultimately convinced him that Charlie Halberstam would have approved of the work that, in 1964, would earn him the Pulitzer Prize (the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” he irreverently called it).
When I resigned from the Times in 1973 to write a column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, he raised his thick eyebrows only slightly and gave me a valuable piece of advice. “Don’t’ stop being a reporter,” he said. “The best columnists are reporters. The others are, well, the others are just columnists.”
Almost exactly a year later, I left the Inquirer (my column was not very good and became an unbearable burden for me if not for the paper) and returned to the Times, from which I then departed again in 1978 to write for Esquire. When David heard, he mailed a postcard to me from Austin, Texas, with a portrait of Lyndon Johnson in a Stetson on one side and on the other his almost indecipherable scrawl. “Welcome to your freedom,” he scribbled. “Use it wisely.”
After another year, in the spring of 1979, when the magazine was sold and my contract with it unilaterally canceled, I found myself nearly broke and, for the first time in my life, unemployed. That summer, desperately needing an income, I reluctantly joined ABC News. David had a few friends in television (Morley Safer for one, Charles Kuralt for another), but not many. Mainly, he regarded broadcasters as, in his kindest description, “tap dancers.” Once, at a Manhattan dinner party, he interrupted a lengthy disquisition by a famous network anchorman and demanded that he cease being an asshole. Over the next meal we shared after I’d crossed over into the electronic zone, David leaned toward me, solemnized his features, and in conspiratorial tones warned me against the Satanic temptations of celebrity, against the pitfalls of being paid much more money than I was worth to have my face appear regularly on television screens in millions of American homes. “Be careful,” he said. “The more famous you are, the more difficult it is to be a good journalist.”