By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

David Halberstam

David Halberstam died with his boots on. The 73-year-old legend was killed in a car accident near San Francisco yesterday while he on his way to interview former NFL star Y.A. Tittle for his next book.

May I make a confession? I’ve never read his best-known book, “The Best and the Brightest,” his exposé of the American policy failures that led to the quagmire in Vietnam.

I do, however, vividly recall plowing through “The Powers That Be,” his four-way biography of media giants Henry Luce, the founder of Time magazine; Donald and Katharine Graham, publishers of the Washington Post; Otis Chandler, who inherited the Los Angeles Times and made it great; and William Paley, the CBS founder who made its news division a paragon of excellence but never quite seemed comfortable with it. I read it in the summer of 1979, right after I’d graduated from college. “The Powers That Be” was — and is — and astounding piece of reportage and historical research, and it made an indelible impression on the way I think about the media.

In November 2001 I interviewed Halberstam for a piece I was writing on liberalism after 9/11. I remember his being somewhat gruff and abrupt, especially when he realized I had not read his then-new book “War in a Time of Peace.” I think I broke into a sweat. The story I was reporting was not about Halberstam or his book; I was just looking for a few insights from someone I greatly admired. As I recall, he warmed up a bit, but I was relieved when the interview came to its rather uncomfortable end.

Somewhere in my house, unread, is a copy of Halberstam’s “The Teammates,” about Red Sox players Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Bobby Doerr and Johnny Pesky. I will soon rectify that. It goes without saying that Halberstam will be misssed. But for him to be cut down in his prime — at an age when most people are retired — seems especially unfair, not just to him, but to us.

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.


The Northeastern Globe


Thank God we’re a two-newspaper town*


  1. Anonymous

    So good to read that. Also wanted to let you know, Dan, that I’m going to run out today and get a copy of “The Powers That Be.” Thank you.

  2. Tony

    A great man who seems to have had a great life. I too will miss his writings. I was able to meet one of my other heroes yesterday, James Steele, who was at Northeastern as part of a day-long seminar on business and investigative reporting. Steele and Don Bartlett have done some great journalism over the years, including, America: What Went Wrong?, American: Who Really Pays the Taxes? and America: Who Stole the Dream?, all fine books worthy of reading by today’s journalists and journalism students. 🙂

  3. The Arranger

    “The Best and the Brightest” is still the best explanation of how the hell we got into the Vietnam quagmire. You should definitely read it. The speculative nature of Halberstam’s writing grates on some, but I think his research backs up his ruminations.Halberstam also wrote a very good book, “The Breaks of the Game” about the championship 1979-1980 Portland Trail Blazers, with Walton, Dr. jack Ramsay et al.Interestingly, Bill James, another of my favorite writers, absolutely eviscerated Halberstam for sloppy research in his “Summer of ’49.”Bob in Peabody

  4. MeTheSheeple

    I couldn’t get into “The Best and the Brightest,” but I’ve given “The Fifties” to many friends as presents. He just made things come alive.He will be missed.

  5. Anonymous

    Never read TBATB, either, but loved his sports stuff. “Breaks of the Game” is one of the best hoop books ever. “Summer of ’49” and “The Teammates” were similarly solid baseball tomes. A very sad day.

  6. Christopher King

    My profs led me to Ben Bagdikian instead, but I did read some of Powers that be, and recognize his general and specific brilliance.At least he died practicing his craft.

  7. Anonymous

    Here’s one of the MANY differences between Bill James and David Halberstam. Had Halberstam written a story focusing on another writer’s errors, he would have contacted that author for comment and or explanation before writing the story. It’s something called “reporting.”

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Anon 7:16: I have read neither “Summer of ’49” nor Bill James’ critique of it. This is simply a comment about craft. OK, now –Was James right or wrong? It sounds to me like James wrote a review of Halberstam’s work and found things with which he wished to quarrel. A book stands on its own, just like a movie. You argue with the book or film, not the author or director.Should Roger Ebert call up Steven Spielberg and say, “You know, Steve, I think your new movie sucks, but I could be wrong, and I wanted to get your comment”? Of course not.I’m sorry, but not every act of journalism involves picking up the phone.

  9. The Arranger

    James found a number of basic factual errors that he ascribed to Halberstam taking the word of eyewtiness participants (mostly the players) from long-ago events without bothering to check them.He also took exception to some of the conclusions Halberstam reached.At the end, James wondered whether Halberstam was alwys this sloppy, or if he just didn’t think he needed to make an effort when the subject was fun and games.Bob in Peabody

  10. Anonymous

    How about the fact that the kid driving the car was a j-school student? They should throw him out of school for this.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén