Yet, as I slowly learned the business, he remained my constant cheerleader as well as helpful critic. I never told him this, but it is absolutely true: through more than a quarter-century at ABC, I was always narrowly focused on a viewing audience of only two—my wife and David. On every broadcast, on every assignment, every time I looked into yet another camera or spoke into yet another microphone or wrote yet another script, my words and my voice were directed only toward Patience and David, caring deeply about what they would say in their reviews, wanting them to be impressed by my work.
Sometimes he was. He once left a message on my ABC office phone. “For a guy who can’t keep a job,” he said, “you’re not half-bad.”
In late November 2005, Gay and Nan Talese hosted a party to celebrate the publication of David’s latest book, a thin but insightful profile of a professional football coach (the New England Patriots’ Bill Belichick), one of those finely crafted miniatures he regularly turned out in between his much weightier volumes on more cosmic themes. Jean described them fondly as her husband’s “little entertainments,” a way for him to catch his breath before heading out again on yet another long reportorial trek. In fact, he had written The Education of a Coach while simultaneously toiling away on his next big one—his last, as it turned out—about the Korean War.
An impressive congregation of his pals had gathered at the Taleses’ elegant Manhattan townhouse for cocktails and dinner, and afterward, on their covered squash-court-cum-terrace, for a parade of glowing toasts from such literary and journalistic luminaries as Calvin Trillin and Robert Caro, Anna Quindlen and Frankie FitzGerald, Leslie Gelb and Vartan Gregorian. A couple of the guests could trace their Halberstam lineage all the way back to Harvard, but by and large the guests had crossed paths with David after he had ended his newspaper career and begun his life as a world-class author.
Yet, whatever the roots or the longevity of their relationship with him, all those who raised their glasses to him that night had one thing in common—and it was that common bond that became the gist of my toast to him. I began by identifying the book as a profile of Tom Delay and calling it The Eradication of a Roach, which prompted one of David’s familiar guffaws. Then, I said:
“I have believed for a long time now—and I must confess here and now that I’ve often bragged to people I thought it might impress—that I was David’s best friend. It turns out that I was quite badly mistaken. Hell, everybody here thinks exactly the same thing. Now, I ask you all, how in God’s name could one man have fifty best friends?”
How, indeed? So many of us—dozens of us—who were David’s close pals somehow managed to persuade ourselves that each was his best friend. The simplest explanation, of course, is that among his many prodigious gifts—his big brain, his indomitable courage, his unerring moral compass, his indefatigable work ethic, his sure grasp of vast historical themes and his genius for synthesizing them—David also had a rare and wondrous talent for friendship. Throughout his adult life, he hungrily seized every opportunity to initiate yet another friendship; then with a dogged but nearly invisible effort, he would cultivate and maintain it at such an intense level of camaraderie and contact that it often seemed to be the only friendship he could have possibly enjoyed.
Late on the evening of that Monday in April, I phoned John Seigenthaler, who had known David at The Tennessean, to commiserate with him, and was not surprised to hear that just the day before, David had called him from California, just as David had called him every Sunday for the previous twenty or so years. And on all those Sundays, the two old pals would spend ten or fifteen minutes in convivial conversation, discussing families and work, plans and projects, swapping quality gossip.
“Twenty years. Every Sunday,” Seigenthaler said. “Who the hell does that anymore?”