“I’ve just won the Pulitzer and you’re sending me to Buffalo?” David Halberstam said in 1964 to Arthur Gelb, his editor at the New York Times.
Halberstam also crumpled and handed back to Gelb the assignment sheet containing the details for the overnight trip he had written. Only 30 years old, Halberstam found the idea of covering a state Democratic Party “showdown” as beneath him, Gelb writes in his memoir, City Room.
The arrogant reporter made the trip and apologized, but only after Gelb went to his boss, Abe Rosenthal, then the Times’ metropolitan editor, and threatened to quit. Gelb blamed Rosenthal for Halberstam’s insubordination, saying he’d given the young reporter “the impression he can get away with being a prima donna. Everyone will soon know he’s turned down my assignment.”
Halberstam didn’t need Rosenthal’s praise or his Pulitzer Prize in international reporting to goose his ego. (See this Times page for a taste of the Vietnam reporting.) By the time he went to Vietnam, Halberstam had already covered the civil rights movement for Nashville’s Tennessean and revolution in the Congo for the Times in 1961.
In his 1975 Daedalus essay, “Writing News and Telling Stories,” former New York Times reporter Robert Darnton describes the acculturation process of new reporters at the Times that obviously didn’t sit well with a brat like Halberstam. Reporters were taught that the highest privilege in journalism was to work at the Times, and learning how to negotiate its rigid “status system” was their most important assignment. Halberstam enjoyed pissing down the hierarchy as well as pissing up. R.W. “Johnny” Apple was a rising young reporter at the Times in 1964. Halberstam, who had never met Apple, watched him one afternoon “walking around the city room as if he owned it,” as Timothy Crouse writes in The Boys on the Bus. Apple approached Halberstam’s desk and nonchalantly informed him of the nice things the publisher’s cousins and a company vice president had had to say about him at a social event the previous evening.
Said Halberstam to Apple: “Fuck off, kid!”
When the Times sent Halberstam overseas again, he suffered from his own kind of post-Vietnam syndrome. None of his assignments matched Vietnam for excitement and satisfaction. In his book Fit To Print: A.M. Rosenthal and His Times, Joseph C. Goulden reprints a portion of a letter Halberstam, stationed in Warsaw, wrote to his friend and fellow Times foreign correspondent J. Anthony Lukas. The Times mother ship had distributed a memo directing correspondents to, when in doubt, file stories exactly 600 words long. Struggling to find a way out of the Times straitjacket, Halberstam wrote Lukas:
There are only two kinds of stories in the world: those about which I do not care to write as many as 600 words, and those about which I would like to write many more than 600 words. But there is nothing about which I would like to write exactly 600 words.
Next came the Times bureau in Paris, which might as well have been Buffalo. He was so bored that he spent much of his time writing a novel, writes Gay Talese in The Kingdom and the Power. * In a letter to friends in New York, Halberstam complained of his inability to find a place in the paper.
I kept telling [Times editor Charlotte Curtis] that The Times simply is not in a position to let me write what I want to write and that as for magazine writing, if it comes to that, I will work for a magazine I like and not one that I don’t even read, TheTimes’s own [weekly].
In 1967, Halberstam departed for Harper’s magazine. Willie Morris boasts in his memoirs of paying Halberstam $16,000, “about $4,000 more than a copy boy made at the Times.” Well, not exactly. According to the inflation calculator, $16,000 in 1967 dollars works out to about $98,000 in today’s dollars. Whatever the economic rewards, Halberstam relished the psychic rewards of magazine writing.
In a letter Morris quotes in New York Days, Halberstam extols the joy of working for Harper’s. “The real tyranny of journalism has always been the lack of time and lack of space to break away from the pack,” Halberstam writes, and the magazine allowed him to work harder than he had ever worked before. His long-form pieces about the cities, politics, civil rights, and of course the Vietnam War led him to slough the tyranny of magazine writing for books, and led to his 1972 triumph, The Best and the Brightest.
Calling the Vietnam war “the worst tragedy since the Civil War,” he sought to explain how and why its American architects had gone so wrong. If all journalism is autobiography, as I’ve proposed before, you could interpret his well-reported assault on Robert McNamara, Maxwell Taylor, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, W.W. Rostow, and other members of the Establishment as a condemnation of the elite that bossed him around at the Times.
A long and successful book career followed, but by as early as 1979, writer Nicholas Lemann, now dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, had exposed his formula. Reviewing Halberstam’s book about the media, The Powers That Be, for the New Republic, Lemann lampooned the Great Journalist’s pompous style in a review that began on the magazine’s cover:
David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods. He was writing about the important themes, the crucial themes, the big brilliant intelligent men and their glistening, scintillating power, and he didn’t have time to polish, didn’t need to take out the extra words, the repetitions, other men could do that, but not Halberstam.
Halberstam continued to write books, averaging one title every other year for the next quarter century. The total word count would nicely approximate that of a productive newspaper reporter. Half of them were about sports, and the rest included books about business, foreign affairs, American history, and the inevitable 9/11 tome. And he continued to write badly. Ted Widmer and Sarah Lyall beat Halberstam with the book club when they wrote about his 2001 book, War in a Time of Peace, in Slate’s “Book Club” feature. Writes Widmer:
[E]very now and then he goes into a stream of consciousness monologue that combines the brevity of Henry James with the vivacity of a quarterly report of the Brookings Institution.
When Widmer speculates that the book’s editor was too afraid of pricking Halberstam’s swollen ego to suggest the judicious pruning that was needed, Lyall responds, “Judicious pruning? Someone needed to take a machete and go on a murderous anti-verbiage rampage, whopping out whole sections of the forest.” Widmer and Lyall go on to brand his book lazy, sloppy, muddied, bloated, and complacent and Halberstam himself a “windbag” and “literary celebrity.” It’s almost as if Halberstam had swapped the tyranny of newspapers for the freedom of books only to revert to the original form’s ragged template.
It will be Halberstam’s good fortune that future generations won’t remember him for such atrocities as War in a Time of Peace but for the work he did for the stultifying, hierarchical, and elite-driven New York Times, the sort of work that caused President John Kennedy to slam his Times down on his desk and cry out to his aides, “Why can I get this stuff from Halberstam when I can’t get it from my own people?”
The New York Times considered Halberstam so young and vital that it didn’t have an obituary in the can for him, writesEditor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp. How different would the paper’s obit have been had they buried him in prose before he was dead? Send advice, tips, and snarling insults worthy of Halberstam to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)