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Halberstam Dissected America, Good and Bad

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The journalist David Halberstam reported so deeply on his subjects that at sometimes seem the sentences could hardly contain all he learned. They would run down the page, and you could sense the enthusiasm of the writer who died in a car crash yesterday at 73.

His sentences could also bring brutal judgment, as when he summed up the presidency of John F. Kennedy this way: He had preached both in his book and in his speeches about the importance of political courage, but his administration had been reasonably free from acts of courage.

David Halberstam was writing about the way the U.S. edged into the Vietnam War. It was during that war that he worked on a documentary with Ted Koppel, who is now an NPR senior news analyst.

Ted, welcome to the program. Good morning.

TED KOPPEL: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How important was Halberstam's Vietnam coverage?

KOPPEL: Well, let me put it this way. We're still hearing the echoes of it today when people start talking about a quagmire in Iraq. They are, of course, reflecting the title of a famous book that David wrote back in 1965 called "The Making of a Quagmire." He was one of the first and one of the most important journalists to cover the Vietnam War. He went over there after a tour in the Congo in 1962, and he wrote that book, "The Making of the Quagmire," in 1965.

INSKEEP: And we should mention these are the early years of the Vietnam War, when the official story was the war was going well, everything was fine. His reporting for the New York Times said something different. Dangerous (unintelligible).

KOPPEL: Well, it was not only that the reporting up until then had been - the support for the war was unmistakable. We tend to forget now, in the wake of all the demonstrations and all the anti-war movement that came later, that in the early years of the Vietnam War - '62, '63, '64, into '65 - by and large, the American public was totally behind the war. It was the reporting of men like David Halberstam who was writing for the Times, Neil Sheehan who was working for UPI and Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press.

Those three men together created the first real sense in the United States that the war was not going well, that the government we were supporting was corrupt over there, and that very likely, the outcome would be something that the United States had never experienced in its history, and that was a defeat.

INSKEEP: And he went right on to write about almost anything else that interested him: the media, sports, politics on and on. And I wonder, as somebody worked with him from time to time, who interviewed him from time to time, what did you learn about him as a journalist in the way that he worked?

KOPPEL: As I was just reading in the New York Times this morning, I think it was Gay Talese who was a close friend of his, and also worked at one point at the New York Times with him, there wasn't a lazy bone in his body. All you had to do was heft some of the 20 books that he wrote. He wrote a couple of lighter tomes over the years, particularly the sports books that he wrote.

But basically, a book by David Halberstam, you could count on many, many hours of good reading because he was a man who would delve into a subject in enormous detail, and the books that came out of it sometimes were in the many hundreds of pages.

INSKEEP: And you have these titles that seemed like judgments, or at least defining an era. There's a book called "The Fifties," a book called "The Reckoning," a book called "The Children," a book called "Firehouse." And yet another book, "The Best and the Brightest," a kind of ironic, almost bitter title. Did he think that he was writing the definitive history of whatever he aimed at?

KOPPEL: I can't tell you what David thought, but I can tell you what the impact of it was. And when you make reference to "The Best and the Brightest," that was a book that he wrote really about the Kennedy administration, and he wrote that book in 1972 as the Vietnam War was drawing to a close. So in many ways, you can say that David Halberstam, with his books, bracketed the Vietnam War experience. He was one of the first to acknowledge that the war was not going well, indeed, to ascertain that the war was not going well. And then in 1972 when he wrote the "The Best and the Brightest," he was saying for all that you had these extraordinarily smart men - McGeorge Bundy, the Rostow brothers, Gene and Walton, of course, Robert McNamara, who was secretary of defense at that time - extraordinarily bright men, nevertheless, they dragged the United States through a war that became one of the bitterest experiences in American history.

INSKEEP: NPR's senior news analyst Ted Koppel. Ted, thanks very much.

KOPPEL: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: And again, David Halberstam has died in California in a car crash at the age of 73. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Respected broadcast journalist Ted Koppel is a commentator who provides analysis and perspective on the topics and events that shape our world. His news experience and interests are wide-ranging, spanning topics from national security, values, privacy, health and the media to Iran, Iraq and the Mideast.