The Halberstam You Didn’t Know

A master of the Big Book, sure, but of friendship, too
July 17, 2007

For years, he would call at any time of the day or night. In the last few months, however, after the heart attack that nearly killed him, his calls took on a steadier, saner routine, usually coming just after noon. Finally, I figured out why. He had finished his day’s work and was ready for some conversation. In the past, a day’s work for him had been seven or eight hours of relentless reading or steady writing, but during his recuperation and recovery, three or four was about all he could manage.

No matter where we happened to be, David Halberstam and I talked almost every single day for the last thirty-five years—and that Monday in April was no exception. He happened to be in a hotel room in northern California, having lectured at Berkeley over the weekend, and I happened to be in Rye, New York, playing in a charity golf tournament on a course where cell phones are strictly forbidden. Nevertheless, at just a few minutes past noon, mine began to chirp, and after putting some distance between my partners and me at the third tee, I pushed the button and heard his unmistakably familiar voice.

“Hey, uh, it’s David,” he growled. “Where are you?”

I told him. The Westchester Country Club.

“Ah, yes,” he chuckled, “where those of, shall we say, the Hebrew persuasion are no doubt warmly welcomed and lovingly embraced.”

“I suppose so,” I answered brusquely and explained my problem with the phone. “Can we talk later?”

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He promised to call that evening from Los Angeles, but insisted on telling me he had an interview scheduled that afternoon with Y.A. Tittle, the Hall of Fame quarterback who’d become a successful insurance broker in Silicon Valley after his retirement. “You know what Y.A. stands for?” he asked.

“No, but you’re going to tell me, right?” I said.

“Yelberton Abraham,” he said gleefully. “Yelberton Abraham Tittle! Is that the best goddamn name in football?”

For a long time, David had been talking about writing a book about the epic struggle between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, played at Yankee Stadium in December 1958 for the championship of the National Football League. It would become a legend, known simply as The Game, judged by many as the finest in the history of professional football. And for just as long as he’d been talking about writing that book, I’d been telling him that although it was an excellent idea and perfect for him, he’d never get it done, that there would always be some timelier or more compelling project that would distract him. But an interview with Y.A. Tittle? That was clear evidence that he was on the hunt.

“Hooray and hallelujah,” I said. “You’re finally going to do it.”

“We’ll see,” he said.

“I thought the next one was on Ray Kelly,” I said, referring to New York’s police commissioner, whom David greatly admired and with whom he’d been seriously discussing a book about his career in law enforcement.

“Well, yeah, but we’ll see,” he said again.

“Okay, pal,” I said. “I’m on the tee. Got to run. Talk to you tonight. I love you.”

“And I love you,” he answered. “And by the way, say hello to all the Jews, will you?”

And that was it. It was just past nine o’clock his time. By noon out there on the West Coast, David would be gone.

For over half my days on earth, we were pals. He was rabbi and mentor, tutor and coach, always my hero, and for a very long and rewarding time, my brother. We first met in Nashville in 1970 when we were both reporting on what turned out to be the last political campaign of Senator Albert Gore, Sr., of Tennessee. I was then a national correspondent for The New York Times and David was writing for Harper’s—and although we shared several meals and valuable (for me) discussions during that week, after Gore’s loss we shook hands and went our separate ways.

Fortunately (for me), we ran into each other again during the presidential campaign of 1972 when I was assigned to Spiro Agnew and David came aboard his plane somewhere out west—in Montana, I recall—still on the magazine staff but with his seminal best-seller, The Best and the Brightest, about to be published. I remember that he was wearing a marvelous leather jacket (I later bought one just like it) and after settling himself in the seat next to mine, he resumed our conversation about Senator Gore and the rapidly changing politics of the South as though no time had intervened since Nashville. It was on that trip that our friendship was really born. It was sealed, he told me years later, by a question he heard me pose to Agnew on the tarmac in Tampa about one of that year’s burning issues: “Mr. Vice President,” I asked, “do you oppose busing even when it works?”

“Wonderful!” David chortled later, back on the plane. “Bring this man a drink,” he shouted to one of the flight attendants. “My God, did you see Agnew’s face? And you were the only one smart enough to ask it.”

Not true, of course, but for me, it was like winning a Pulitzer.

At first, we were young bachelors together, pretending—I think—to be happily single, eating and drinking at Elaine’s in Manhattan, or staying up late at his house on Nantucket. Eventually, we also became genuinely happy husbands together (he was my best man)—and when we weren’t together, the telephone served to bridge the distance. The calls continued uninterrupted over the years, even throughout the time I was posted in London and even during what seemed to be my perpetual presence in Eastern Europe and Africa, in the old Soviet Union, in fractious places like Sarajevo or Somalia, Chechnya or the Middle East, Afghanistan or Iraq. Sometimes, when he could hear small-arms fire or artillery in the background, he would scream at me to put down the phone and take cover. “Jesus Christ, be careful,” he would shout. On the days we didn’t talk, I felt miserably incomplete, snappy with my colleagues. Not that we ever discussed anything of real significance—a little politics here, a little sports there, always a little gossip. But the talking was of critical importance, at least to me, and I think to him as well.

Our wives often complained that we told each other things we would never tell them. Fair enough, I suppose, although invariably we did end our calls by declaring our love for one another, which was at least similar to what we told them.

He was the first man ever to say to me, “I love you,” and on hearing those three little words from him for the first time, I was immediately uncomfortable. I lacked the nerve to ask him to stop saying it, but for some time after that first time, I would mumble something incoherent into the telephone and let it go at that. Finally, I discussed it with Patience, my wife.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You do love him, don’t you?”

“Bet your ass,” I said.

“Well, don’t be an idiot,” she said. “Tell him. Look, you’re secure men. You fish and spit and you sit around and talk sports to each other as though they’re really of some cosmic importance—and for goodness sake, you’re both war correspondents.”

So I began to tell David I loved him. Then there arose an even stickier problem. After a while, when we saw each other, we would embrace as usual and he would kiss me on the cheek. I didn’t mind the hugs, “but Jesus,” I told Patience, “every time. He kisses me every time. No man has ever done that.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” she explained.

And so, it came to pass that for many years, David and I were not only brothers who loved each other and told each other so, but, in what was a genuine but eventually routine greeting, actually embraced and kissed whenever we met.

For someone born so long ago into the rough culture of the American South, I thought that signified that I had come a really long way. With David’s help, of course.

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.

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.”

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?”

Jim Wooten is a former correspondent for The New York Times and ABC News. He is at work on High Hopes, Tough Times, a book about Jimmy Carter’s years in the White House.