Jesus. Journalist-popular historian David Halberstam has died in a car crash. Halberstam was the author of The Best and the Brightest, one of the first books I ever read about Vietnam, as well as a great overview of the Eisenhower era, The Fifties, and a very compelling history of journalism called The Powers That Be. Halberstam had a remarkable gift of explaining intricate bureaucratic behavior and its effect upon cultural events in a clear and concise way. Sometimes, this meant substituting “us” and “our” for the United States (as he did in War in a Time of Peace) to get his point across to a popular American reading audience.
I never got the chance to see him speak or to interview him. And I’ll certainly miss him. This is a staggering loss. He was one of the authors I read in my early twenties who taught me that politics and history were as rich in American tradition as our cultural lifeblood. He was that very rare author who, like the historian Will Durant, had faith in the common reader to get excited about history. All of us, I suppose, start out as common readers. And for me, Halberstam was one of those central figures I encountered so happily in libraries. Like Vonnegut’s recent passing, I feel as if a dear friend who helped to show me bigger things has departed and there is nothing I can do to express my gratitude. In this age of microhistories and popular histories that prefer gossip items to substantive interconnections, I can’t think of anyone who could take Halberstam’s place.