James Bowman: What does it say about us that Halberstam was given hero status?

Roundup: Talking About History

[James Bowman was born in Kane, Pennsylvania in 1948 and grew up in Jupiter, Florida. He attended Davidson and Lebanon Valley colleges in America and Pembroke College, Cambridge University in England, from which he holds an M.A. Mr. Bowman taught school (English and General Studies) at Westminster School and Portsmouth Grammar School in England from 1980 to 1989 and was the American correspondent of The SpectatorI of London from 1989-1991. Since 1991 he has been the American editor of the Times Literary Supplement of London. ]

“For those who remember journalism back in a 1970s heyday they can’t explain to to [sic] the young, [David] Halberstam’s death was not just the death of a hero, it was like the death of the great Hollywood stars—Katharine Hepburn, Clark Gable.” So wrote Henry Allen in The Washington Post shortly after the car crash which brought about the melancholy event to which he refers. He reminds us of what a paltry thing, in journalism’s little kingdom, is “just” the death of a hero—at least in comparison with the apotheosis of a celebrity. Halberstam, Hepburn, Gable. When did this trinity, rather than Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, or Eisenhower, Nimitz, MacArthur, become America’s great and paradigmatic figures before the world? The answer is at about the same time, back in the 1960s, when Halberstam was helping to revolutionize journalism. As Richard Holbrooke put it, “He made it not only possible but even romantic to write that your own side was misleading the public about how the war was going.”

It would be hard to overstate the many implications and ramifications of that revealing remark, quoted by George Packer in The New Yorker, by someone who is spoken of as a potential secretary of state in a future Democratic administration. To start with: if it’s now romantic to expose the falsehoods and hypocrisies of your own side, in what sense is that side any longer your own? Of course, journalistic piety would have it that the reporter doesn’t take sides but is just, in Mr. Packer’s words, a “fearless truth-teller.” Yet in practice we know as well as Richard Holbrooke does that side matters. There are truths and there are truths. No one supposes that Halberstam could have become the equal of Hepburn and Gable by reporting on the misleading statements of the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese—always supposing he could have found any. It was because he was attacking, exposing, shaming what at the time would have been regarded, by the media culture as by everyone else, as his own side that he became famous....

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