Full of sound, fury and brilliance
By Julia Keller
Tribune cultural critic
Published April 24, 2007
The intensity is what you remember. The passion, the righteous indignation, the savage sense of purpose. He had to shove all of that feeling and all of those facts into his work, and that is why, I suppose, some of his sentences were like Dagwood sandwiches -- those big, sloppy, comical snacks concocted by the cartoon character. They tended to go on and on and on, with clauses piled on top of clauses, new thoughts added to old thoughts, everything towering and slapdash. David Halberstam, who died Monday in a car accident, broke all the rules -- the ones about short, "reader-friendly" paragraphs and keeping things simple. All the smart advice.
He ignored it. Most of the books were as thick as cinder blocks. But when you finished them, you were considerably better informed about whatever he’d chosen to write about, from basketball to Vietnam to war to the 1950s to journalism. They weren’t all masterpieces, but a few of them—“The Best and the Brightest” (1972), certainly, and probably “The Powers That Be” (1979) - will live a long, long time. His portraits of powerful people were unforgettable: Robert McNamara in “Best,” William Paley in “Powers.” The sentences - the ones that stretched on forever, until you were half-afraid they might snap like rubber bands - were filled with brilliant observations and tender, telling nuances.
If you’d read his books, you weren’t surprised to find out that he was, in person, a man who fairly seethed with intensity. I met him only once, when he spoke to a small group of writers in Cambridge, Mass., in 1998. He and I immediately clashed on the issue of Michael Jordan. It sounds silly now, but it didn’t seem so then.
Halberstam was writing his Jordan book, “Playing for Keeps” (1999), and he kept calling Jordan “a beautiful man” and contrasting him with another Michael: Michael Eisner, then head of Disney. Halberstam didn’t much like Eisner. But why, I asked, is Jordan superior to Eisner? The latter creates jobs; the former, jump shots.
Halberstam’s jaw tightened. His eyes darkened. He was deep into Jordan. He’d been doing the kind of lights-out research for which he was famous, and he couldn’t see past his own opinion.
He loved ideas, big ones and small ones, but he was no chin-stroking theorist. He was the hardest-working journalist of our time. His books circled their subjects, drawing closer and closer, adding one perspective after another. He was never satisfied.
My favorite Halberstam work isn’t one of the behemoths. It’s “The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert Kennedy” (1969), a wisp of a book wrapped in a sort of golden light. Not that he goes easy on Kennedy; he doesn’t. But the book is deeply, tragically optimistic. It could only have been written by a man who knew and loved his country, because he’d seen the worst things it could do, and he was still determined to tell its story honestly, fairly, thoroughly.