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The Gates/Broad Initiative

In Memoriam

Unless you have been living on a cabin in the mountains for a week, you know by now that David Halberstam died on Monday. I read the transcript of the talk he gave at Berkeley on Saturday, which someone at BusinessWeek had the good sense to post. Halberstam spoke on "turning journalism into history" with a focus on the Vietnam War, the book he wrote about it (The Best and The Brightest) and the evolution of his own career. 5-page transcripts like this one help aspiring journalists a lot more than 300-page biographies - they focus on the heart of the matter: how did he do it? It is a pity that such talks have often become one more instrument in the arsenal of the public person in search of higher visibility. (This is a general comment, not a reference to Halberstam.) They would be very useful in many other professions if "regular folks" - mid-level managers and engineers as opposed to CEOs - bothered to give them to college students. The word "mentor" has become overused and now sounds like a full-time job, but universities should make greater use of their alumni and encourage them to come back and describe, for instance as guest lecturer in a course, what their job truly entails. I particularly enjoyed the part where Halberstam stresses he wasn't particularly good at the legwork in the beginning. So many years later his rise to journalistic Pantheon has an air of inevitability, but he struggled with self-doubt at first.

What I will remember of the speech, though, is his reference to the only other person whom he thought could have written a better book on the Vietnam war and who had just been killed: Bernard Fall. Fall, a now largely forgotten author of multiple books on Indochina, died in 1967 at age 40 when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam. Halberstam had a long, productive life with 21 books, but what books were we deprived of because Fall's life was cut short?


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