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Writer Halberstam dies in car crash

His tenacious reporting raised early doubts about the Vietnam War.

April 24, 2007|John M. Glionna and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

SAN FRANCISCO — David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose sweeping career as a newspaper reporter and author included coverage of the civil rights struggle in the South and the Vietnam War as well as probing accounts of media barons and sports legends, was killed Monday in a car crash in the Bay Area.

Halberstam, a front-seat passenger in a car that was broadsided, was 73.

Winner of the Pulitzer in 1964 for his Vietnam coverage for the New York Times -- groundbreaking reporting that questioned the nation's ability to win the war and lifted him into the ranks of the country's leading journalists -- Halberstam went on to write 21 books. He was praised Monday by fellow authors and journalists for the scope of his work and the expansiveness of his approach in tackling his topics. They also lauded his courage and integrity.

His 1972 book about the missteps of American leaders in Vietnam, "The Best and the Brightest," became a classic, and the phrase "best and brightest" entered the American lexicon -- albeit without the irony the author intended.

"In an age when journalism was practiced by some very talented people, David stood out as one of the great reporters of his time," said Pulitzer Prize-winning author Neil Sheehan, who was United Press International's Saigon bureau chief when he met Halberstam, then with the New York Times, in the fall of 1962.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Halberstam obituary: The obituary of writer David Halberstam in Tuesday's Section A said the first NFL title game televised nationally was the 1958 contest between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. The first nationally televised title game was the 1951 contest between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cleveland Browns.

"He had tremendous moral and physical courage, which made him such a great foreign correspondent," Sheehan said. "He had an abiding curiosity about everything, and he had an extraordinary energy. David never seemed to get tired, no matter the demands. And his talent grew. He went from daily reporting for the New York Times, first in the Congo and then in Vietnam, to writing a whole series of wonderful books, always based on original reporting."

Sheehan recalled that when the South Vietnamese suffered a major defeat in 1963, both he and Halberstam tried to get out to the battle site to report on what had happened. When the American military denied them a ride out on an airplane, he said, they called the commanding general.

At a briefing the next day, he said, "the briefing officer was a brigadier general who proceeded to scold us for having the temerity to call the commanding general at night to ask for a ride in an airplane."

"I could see David get angrier and angrier. Finally, his arm shot out and he said, 'General, you do not understand. We are not corporals; we don't work for you. We work for our editors. If you've got any complaints about us, contact our editors. 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 over here.' And he deeply believed in that."

A.J. Langguth, an emeritus professor of journalism at USC who knew the writer since both worked for the Harvard Crimson student newspaper in the early 1950s, said Halberstam headed to the South to launch his career after college because "he recognized in 1955 that race relations was going be the big story of our youth. While the rest of us went off on fellowships and the like, he went down there for $50 week."

Langguth, like others, said one of Halberstam's great strengths was that he was indefatigable. He noted that a "Doonesbury" comic strip -- which also poked fun at the author's perceived writing excesses -- once portrayed a Halberstam interview subject being wrung dry by his persistent questioning.

"David would not stop. He would ask a question, get an answer, then ask another question and get another answer, then another answer and just build on it," Langguth said.

Halberstam "had a healthy sense of anti-establishment feeling but also great patriotism. He had a great sense that when [authorities] had gone and lied to him in Vietnam -- and they did -- they were lying to the American people. He made it not personal but a crusade."

Halberstam was born April 10, 1934, in New York City, the son of a surgeon father and a teacher mother.

He died Monday from massive internal injuries suffered in a crash involving three cars at 10:35 a.m. in Menlo Park near the Dumbarton Bridge, the San Mateo County coroner's office said. Three others were injured.

Coroner Robert Foucrault said a specific cause of death would not be determined until an autopsy was performed today. Law enforcement authorities said they had not determined blame or whether to file charges.

The collision occurred just after the car in which Halberstam was riding crossed the busy Dumbarton commuter bridge westbound en route from Berkeley.

The driver, Kevin Jones, a first-year graduate journalism student at UC Berkeley, was trying to make a left turn at the intersection of Bayfront Expressway and Willow Road when his 1996 Toyota Camry was broadsided by an oncoming car. The impact forced the two cars into a third vehicle.

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