Wednesday, April 25, 2007

David Halberstam, R.I.P.

"The Man Who Ran Against Lyndon Johnson." The article appeared in the December 1968 issue of Harper's. I was a senior in high school. Earlier in 1968 I had sold "McCarthy's Million" buttons to my high school classmates. And here was an article about the McCarthy campaign. But it wasn't about McCarthy. It was about Allard Lowenstein, the man who had persuaded McCarthy to run (after failing to get Robert Kennedy into the race) and brought thousands of idealistic young men and women to take a break from college to slog through the snows of New Hampshire and Wisconsin.

It was the first time I had read anything by David Halberstam. And it was a good education in politics. While other writers focused on the candidates, or the campaign managers, Halberstam found the person whose energy and charisma had made the McCarthy campaign.

I later had the privilege of meeting Lowenstein when he spoke at the University of Iowa campus. Sadly, he was murdered in 1980 by one of his former followers--a man with paranoid schizophrenia who believed Lowenstein was controlling him.

But I never had the chance to meet David Halberstam, who was killed in an auto accident April 23. He's best known for his wrtings on the Vietnam War, and his many books. The Best and The Brightest is simply a brilliant work, focusing not on President Kennedy, but his Ivy League-educated apointees, such as McGeorge and William Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara. It is still, in my opinion, the best explanation of how we got into that quagmire. I quoted the book in a recent post. Rereading the quote reminds me that in spite of all its nuances and complexity, The Best and the Brightest was a page-turner.

While I've read a number of Halberstam's books, my favorite is The Fifties. He shows us that within this supposedly dull and conformist decade are the seeds of the postmodern world. In episodic chapters, he tells the stories of McDonald's and Holiday Inn, the first shopping malls, the development of oral contraceptives, the civil rights movement, the Beat Generation, among other things. Read it and your view of the Fifties will change.

We have one more Halberstam book to look forward to: his story of the Korean War. I've read a number of books about that conflict. But I suspect that after reading Halberstam's book, Ill be surprised at all the things I didn't know.


Peter said...

I read The Fifties the year it came out, and I loved it.

But that's all I've read of him, I think. Your description of his other two books suggests that "the story behind the story" was a common theme.

gerry rosser said...

Halberstam was a strong and unique voice.
Your comment that one might never view the Fifties the same after reading his book about it struck me strangely. I realized, not for the first time, that I don't think about "the fifties" or any other identifiable time frame, at all. Don't get me wrong, I'm a history buff (with a degree to help prove it), but my mind just doesn't compartmentalize in the "popular" way. I guess I find all the commonplace "segmentation" of time to be pretty artificial. I find the use of the term "decade" about as unuseful (to me) as the awful habit the press (and others) of "explaining" the size/length of everything in terms of football fields. As though the average mind can't comprehend a concept so simple as "300 feet.
Ah, don't get me started.

steve said...


I understand what you're saying. And you're essentially right. But as ten-fingered animals, we do have this tendency to break history down into centuries and decades. Popular history has defined the Fifties as a time of complacency, even though it saw the beginnings of the modern civil rights movement, the development of oral contraceptives, the Beats, the Suez Crisis, CIA coups in Iran and Nicaragua, etc. Halberstam, by using episodic chapters, shows us the complexity of those years in a way that non-historians can also appreciate.