DATE April 24, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: David Halberstam, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,
who died on April 23rd, 2007, on going against official reports
during Vietnam, the charisma of Michael Jordan, and his
formation during the '50s
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today we're going to remember a great journalist, David Halberstam. He died
in a car crash yesterday at the age of 73. Halberstam won a 1964 Pulitzer
Prize for his reporting from Vietnam for The New York Times. He was one of
the first American reporters to contradict the optimistic picture of the war
that the American government was presenting to the public. He was attacked by
South Vietnamese and American officials for his negativism and inaccuracy.
Halberstam retired from newspaper reporting in 1967 to write books and
magazine articles. Eight years later he wrote the book "The Best and the
Brightest" about the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and the war. In his
book "The Powers that Be," he documented the growth of American mass media.
In today's Washington Post obituary, Halberstam was described as having
written almost two dozen nonfiction books that gave his readers a vivid
behind-the-scenes portrayal of the history of their time. Halberstam often
wrote about how American values were expressed through sports. In 1985, he
told me he was once an athlete himself, but in college he had to choose
between sports and journalism.
Mr. DAVID HALBERSTAM: I played on the freshman basketball team. I had a
full-time job. And I started working for the Harvard Crimson. And at a
certain point, it became very clear to me that I was being offered a career
choice, and I dropped freshman basketball, which I sort of liked and actually,
I think, was doing reasonably well at, and at that point became a journalist
and spent about 50 or 60 hours a week on the Harvard Crimson. And that was,
with a finality that I did not know at the time, was the ultimate career
choice for me because I never turned back. Not only did I turn my back on
basketball, little chance that I might have had as a career there, but I
turned my back on law school, business school, PhD, anything else. I found
something that I loved, and this was the first thing I'd ever been good at.
You take an obsessive personality like mine who's floundering in his social
environment, and you finally give him or her something that allows him to be
distinguished, and you have a match.
GROSS: You moved to New York eventually to join The New York Times.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: I joined the Times, was hired by the Washington bureau,
didn't have a terribly good tour in Washington. This is some 24 1/2 years
ago. And then very quickly was sent to what was then the Congo and now Zaire
and then very quickly after that, really 23 years ago, to Vietnam.
GROSS: You asked to be transferred to Vietnam, and you wanted to go there at
a time when very few Americans were paying any attention to Indochina.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Very few reporters wanted to go. You know, '62. 1962.
GROSS: What did you foresee happening? What did you know?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: I could just tell. I could tell that it was going to be an
extraordinary story. I mean, I think reporters go where there are stories. I
had just come out of the Congo. I'd spent 13, 14 months there. It was a good
story, it was an important story. There was a lot of action. Vietnam seemed
to me to be rising up almost as an issue like the Spanish civil war, that it
was going to be this traumatic thing that large forces were--unlike in the
Congo--large forces were going to be engaged there. We had just made the
Kennedy commitment of I think about 15,000 advisers. And for better or for
worse, something was going to be played out there. I probably thought that we
had a chance to win, and I was more hawkish than dovish when I first went, but
whatever else, I knew that it was something that I wanted to cover. I was
confident that I had, by then, the physical courage to do it. I was 27 years
old--28, I guess, when I first got there finally, 28. And I was single, so it
wasn't like I had a family or strings to hold back. I wanted to be a part of
it, and I was very excited when I got the assignment and filled with
GROSS: Did you talk to any reporters who were or who had been in Vietnam
before you got there, and did they give you any advice?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, sure. I was the first full-time correspondent covering
Vietnam. I was small badge in history. I was the first reporter for a daily
newspaper to be on permanent assignment in Vietnam, and I replaced one of the
really legendary reporters of our and any age, Homer Bigart, who had won two
Pulitzer Prizes, one in World War II, one in the Korean War, and was a
particular hero in my mind.
Anyway, and Homer had written me long, cautionary letters about what to
expect, who to trust, who not to trust, and letting me know that it was going
to be a very, very hard assignment, I mean, that I was going to get belted
around, that he thought it probably was not going to work well, that the war
was not going to be won, and therefore the reporter for The New York Times had
better be prepared to be scapegoated and blamed if he wrote negatively.
GROSS: Well, it seems to me that the American and South Vietnamese government
let you know that you should be thinking about being a team player.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: `Get on the team, get on the team!' That's what they used to
say. The American ambassador to Vietnam, Mr. Nolting, once turned to me, and
I'd come back from a particularly grim tour of the Mekong Delta, where all my
sources told me that we were losing the war. And I mentioned this in passing
to him once, he just got furious at me, almost physically threw me out of his
office and said, `You're always looking for the hole in the doughnut! You're
always looking for the hole in the doughnut.' The great pressure--what they
were trying to do was make us be patriots. I have a rather broad gauge view
of patriotism in the high levels of freedom in a society like ours. I don't
think I need automatically to do what some general tells me to do. I mean, I
don't need to accept his definition of patriotism. I have a lot of confidence
in my own patriotism and my own intelligence.
But it was very tough. There were attacks upon our sexuality, our patriotism,
our political--we were called communists. I mean, it was very nasty. And it
was quite orchestrated out of the White House and the Defense Department.
GROSS: Attacks on your sexuality?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Mm.
GROSS: Am I to assume that people would call you homosexual if you didn't
report the war?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, essentially, yeah. I remember one time there was a
general name of Krulac, who gave a briefing. And one of my bete noirs was a
right wing woman reporter named Marguerite Higgins, and he went around saying
that, `She had showed me pictures of Viet Cong bodies and I had burst into
tears.' Wasn't true, and I later confronted him. I mean, the story should've
been true. I mean, I should've probably broke into tears, but I mean it was
that kind of thing of trying to undermine the credibility, the legitimacy that
we didn't have in those days some--more than 20 years ago--we didn't have the
word, the machismo. But I mean, it was really an attempt to say this guy is a
sissy and you really can't--he can't stand the sight of blood.
GROSS: Was there a reward and punishment system that was used for reporters
who played the game or didn't?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, that was the interesting thing. They tried doing it,
and they just didn't have any rewards to hand out. I mean, they didn't have
anything to punish with. I mean, they just, you know, it wasn't like--those
were the early days of the Kennedy administration. The Kennedys were very
good at rewarding reporters. If you were, I suppose, good and talented, you
got to be invited to Hickory Hill or to the White House or that you were
favored at the press conference, perhaps the president called you by your
first name, or Pierce Salinger would have lunch with you. I mean, the
magnetic pole of the Kennedy's social swirl was rather powerful.
We were 12,000 miles away. We could care--bleep--all about whether Jack or
Jackie had us for dinner. We could care less whether we were invited to the
embassy for dinner or by the general for dinner. I mean, they were a distant
world. Our friends were young Americans who were out in the--as advisers in
the war, and then the Vietnamese, as well. They were risking their lives.
Every time we went out, we risked our lives, and that was quite often. And
the last thing in the world we were going to do is, having risked our lives to
cover stories, I was not going to cover up. I mean, having taken one risk, I
wasn't going to play it cool. So they had no reward system. There was no
social whirl that we wanted to be a part of.
And the people that I respected, the people whose good wishes I wanted were
the people out, the advisers in the field. I wanted their respect. I mean,
they were my sources. I didn't want them to tell me one thing and then look
in the Times and see a rather watered down story. I mean, that meant
something to me. So the kind of control, social control the a government has
just didn't work on us at all. They tried it, and they tried to, you know,
they played rough if we did pessimistic stories. They would try and find our
sources and punish them. And that, of course, just made us work harder.
GROSS: What about the pressure, though, on those aides and advisers who were
your sources? I'm surprised that there wasn't more pressure on them from the
Mr. HALBERSTAM: There was a lot from the Defense Department. There was a
lot. But they were, I think, most of the kind of men who were responding to
events, and I think they had young men on their staffs who were getting
killed. And I think you can be theoretical about a war when you're in
headquarters, you can sit there and be cynical about it. I think when you're
in the field, you have young men who've died, and you're writing letters to
their widows, I don't think you're going to lie to a reporter whom you've come
to know and trust. So I think that they were willing to risk their careers,
in many ways.
I had a great source there named John Vann, who was a colonel in the 7th
Division, advising the...(unintelligible)...7th Division there. And I
remember when he finally pulled him back, and I went to the airport to put him
on the plane to America. A whole bunch of us who were reporters gave him a
little silver cigarette tray with his name that said "John Paul Vann: good
soldier, good friend," and we all signed it. I think there's five or six
Pulitzer Prize winners on that signature. I remember talking to John, and I
said, `I was nervous that my reporting was going to hurt you.' And he gave me
a very flinty look, and he said, `You never hurt me any more than I wanted to
be hurt.' So they knew what they were doing.
GROSS: There were a few reporters who were expelled from Vietnam, I think by
Madame Nu because she was dissatisfied with their reporting.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, I was right on the list. They once threw a guy named
Jim Robinson, who was NBC, and Francoise Sully was expelled for about a year.
I mean, the only real thing you had to worry about was expulsion. At the time
the government fell, that government fall, they had for, instead of a year's
visa, they had me down through a one-month-at-a-time visa. I mean, I was on a
very thin thread. And that was certainly one thing I did not want to happen,
which was to be expelled.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: But you cannot write for your visa. You can never write for
GROSS: Well, Madame Nu had said about you, `Halberstam should be barbecued,
and I would be glad to supply the fluid and the match.' Did you ever go
through periods of self-censorship, saying `Is this story worth getting thrown
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, I think every reporter always, at a situation when
you're dealing with an authoritarian government that is mongering, I don't
think it's--I don't think self-censorship is the phrase, but you are always,
you're aware of the amount of powder that you have, and how much to you use on
a given story. I mean, if a big story comes in, you go with it, but you
don't, I think, quickly--you don't lightly and gratuitously force an issue. I
mean, I think every reporter is always in a situation like that, whether he's
in the Soviet Union or whatever. He's aware of that, you know, that he's
balancing the need to be candid and inform his readers with the need to be
able to survive as a reporter. And that takes a certain suppleness.
But never self-censorship did. That was too important. If it'd come to
self-censorship, I'd of just, you know, pulled the plug and gone because it
was too much. Too much was at stake.
GROSS: What were some of the stories that you wrote that most upset or irked
American and Vietnamese officials?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, it was not any one story, although there was a couple
stories I had about the decline, the military decline in the Mekong Delta that
really drove them crazy. It was a cumulative thing. With President Kennedy,
for instance, it was that my reporting day in and day out on the front page of
The New York Times reflected a first class foreign policy failure. I mean, he
was enraged by it.
By the end of his life, in the last couple of months of his life, the whole
thing was unraveling, and my colleague and I, Neil Sheehan, had just such good
sources that we had that country wired. And he was just, I mean, he used to
complain. He was complained about me, and then he would also complain to
Arthur Schlesinger Jr. that he could find out more in my stories than he
could from reading the State Department cables and from the military cables.
And then there was a serious stories on the Mekong Delta, on the military
decline there, that they just went crazy about. Kennedy really, I think,
believed them, and he sent the military off to sort of come up with their
view, and they sent a hot young brigadier general named Dick Stillwell out to
sort of, word by word, challenge my stories. And, I mean, he's a real handler
on that one. I mean, his version, the war was being won. He challenged every
single word in my stories. And, unfortunately, as The Pentagon Papers later
made clear in one of their reports, my version was a good deal more accurate
than his. But it was the kind of politics. I mean, I was running up against
the politics of the American Defense Department.
GROSS: Kennedy called your editor at the Times and suggested, you know, maybe
they were thinking about transferring you, maybe you'd gotten too close to the
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Too close to the story, yeah. Well, that happens whenever
you're giving people--I mean, Kennedy was never worried about anyone being too
close to the story if he was getting his version.
GROSS: What was the Times' reaction to that Kennedy request?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, they were very good. I was supposed to come on home
leave about then, they asked me to delay it for a couple of months so they
didn't want to look like they were acquiescing. They were quite good, in
general. I mean, they were made nervous by it. I don't think any--I mean,
it's a very different circumstance. It was 25 years ago, everybody still had
a World War II mentality. The idea that our generals might either be liars or
fools was hard for, you know, patriotic men of that generation to understand.
Here was their young reporter who was making the entire network of the embassy
angry. And, you know, these were men that they had known, Maxwell Taylor and
others they'd known in World War II who were good and worthy men, and what was
going wrong? So they were nervous by it, but they stood by me pretty well.
GROSS: David Halberstam, recorded in 1985. He died yesterday in a car crash.
We'll continue our remembrance with a 1999 interview after a break. This is
GROSS: We're remembering the journalist David Halberstam. He was killed in a
car crash yesterday at the age of 73. He established his reputation reporting
on the war in Vietnam and the men who led it. Many of his nearly two dozen
nonfiction books were about sports. We're going to hear an excerpt of our
1999 interview, recorded after the publication of his book "Playing for Keeps:
Michael Jordan and the World He Made." It's about how Jordan became an icon,
and how his stature changed the NBA. Halberstam considered Jordan the most
compelling and most charismatic athlete in all of sports in the '90s. He said
basketball was in the midst of a renaissance the year Michael Jordan was
drafted, thanks to the Magic Johnson/Larry Bird Lakers-Celtics rivalry. In
Johnson and Bird's rookie year, 1979, the NBA had hit its commercial low
I asked Halberstam why.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: I think some of it was racism. It was not yet deeply rooted
in the culture, perhaps. One spurt of growth had been a little too quick.
The players were predominantly black, and there was a sense, somehow, that the
players did not play hard, or they only played hard in the last two minutes.
There was certainly a significant amount of drug use. And somehow it had not
gotten into the American vein. On the eve of Larry Bird, at the time that
Larry Bird and Magic Johnson entered the league for their rookie years, and
they had starred in the NCAA final that spring, the finals, in their first
year, with Magic Johnson playing center without Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against
Philadelphia '76ers was done nationally on a tape delay. I mean, I think most
of the country got it around midnight. So it, you know, the networks didn't
even want it. That was the low point.
And then, for a variety of reasons--the coming of Magic, Larry Bird and then
Michael, the skills of David Stern, the commissioner, the talents of Julius
Irving, as well, and the coming of satellite and ESPN, which helped basketball
dramatically--the game began to take hold and enjoyed a kind of golden age.
GROSS: Now, David Stern became commissioner of the NBA the year that Michael
Jordan arrived in the NBA. And you say that Stern wanted to turn around the
NBA's image. And one of the things he was looking for was more corporate
connections, more corporate sponsors. What were the difficulties he faced in
Mr. HALBERSTAM: I think he faced the most elemental thing, which was racism.
In an odd way, it seemed to affect basketball more. In part, I mean, baseball
was the most rooted sport at that time, and had its own base given popularity.
Football is a sport of great violence where race didn't seem to make that much
of a difference, in part because the coaches had more authority and control of
the players, in part because they wear so much armor that race seems less a
factor. You can barely tell the race of a particular player. But
basketball--where they're virtually playing in their underwear, which was the
blackest of sports, probably around 80 to 85 percent of the best players were
black--seemed to have a problem.
And when he tried to sell the sport and people in his office like Rick Welts
to large corporate potential sponsors, and they went to Madison Avenue, they
kept hearing, `Your sport is too black.' And they would say, `Well, what about
the final four? You advertise the final four, and that's very black, too.'
And they said--and the answer would be, `That's different.'
And what it was, I think, was that it meant that in the college game, the
white system, the white hierarchy, the coaches, the colleges still could
control their players, whereas in basketball, because it was professional, the
level of authority of the white system had declined. Probably, in fact,
that's why a lot of people didn't like John Thompson at Georgetown, because
you had a sort of a black coach with a nascent sense of black nationalism
coaching a predominantly--almost virtually all--black team, and that made some
So he ran into--I don't think there's any doubt--overt racism. And he felt
that he had to show that the game was beautiful. He did two things that I
think were very important: They got with the players' association, with their
full cooperation, a very good agreement on drugs, on how to do testing that
had the cooperation and participation of the players, which showed that--in
part--that they were getting their house in order. And then secondly, they
came up with a plan for shared revenues, where the--again, the players were
participants, and that showed to corporate America that they were getting
their house in order.
GROSS: Well, certainly one of the things Michael Jordan did was show that,
you know, an African-American athlete could do a great job with commercial
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, and see, that's a breakthrough. That's a major
change! You know, when I was young, self evidently, the most attractive and
charming and winning baseball player was--I think, arguably, Willie Mays. And
I mean, he was ingenious as a kid, full of enthusiasm. But there was a
perception in the '50s and '60s that, you know, Madison Avenue's belief that
a, you know, a black with all that charm, could not sell to whites. And I
think they're wrong, by the way; I think Willie Mays, particularly
generationally, transcended those barriers. I think he would have been a
great salesman of cereal. I don't happen to want to eat cereal, but I think
he would've done very well.
The Jordan coming along with the Nike commercials and the Nike, you know, Air
Jordans just took off. I mean, nobody was prepared for how well that did.
And then suddenly, you know, the Nike thing broke it down for all these other
companies, whether it was Big Macs, Coke, then Gatorade, you know, Hanes
underwear. Michael, with that dazzling smile, became the great salesman in
America. This was a huge breakthrough.
GROSS: David Halberstam, recorded in 1999 after the publication of his book
"Playing for Keeps." Halberstam died in a car crash yesterday. More of our
remembrance in the second half of the show. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering the journalist
David Halberstam. He was killed in a car crash yesterday at the age of 73.
In 1964, Halberstam shared a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Vietnam for the
New York Times. He was among the first journalists to challenge the
optimistic picture of the war that American officials were presenting. He
wrote nearly two dozen books about politics, the media, the 1950s, the auto
industry and sports.
Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 1999 after the
publication of his book "Playing for Keeps," about how Michael Jordan changed
the game of basketball.
You have a photograph in your book of the Olympic Dream Team on the Olympic
podium, and Michael Jordan has an American flag draped across his arm,
covering up the Reebok logo on the uniform. I'm wondering how you think his
endorsements for Nike affected his career and the choices he made during his
career, and how he had to take care of his image?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: He's extremely aware of the corporate sponsorship and his
image. When he got to the Olympics, at the Dream Team, you know, Reebok had
this contract, and you were all supposed to wear the Reebok logo. Michael is
a Nike man. So the big struggle there was not the US vs. the Soviet Union or
the US vs. Lithuania or Yugoslavia, it was, you know, Reebok vs. Nike. And
you know, were they going to wear--you know, were Nike men going to wear the
logo? I think there's a great line of Charles Barkley. Someone said, `Well,
are you going to do it?' And Charles, who was a Nike man, said, `I've got two
million reasons not to do it.' But if Charles had two million reasons each
year not to do it, Michael probably had about 20 million reasons. So they
finally worked out this compromise, where Michael draped the flag over the
Now, the interesting thing is, at this point in the struggle, Michael was more
impassioned than Phil Knight, the head of Nike. Phil thought the debate was
getting out of hand, and he was going to be attacked for being anti-patriotic
or whatever, and he was ready to give up the fight. Michael was sort of a
little irritated that maybe Phil was not quite as much a warrior as Michael
was in this heroic, death day, doomsday battle against the evil forces of
GROSS: How do you think the Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson dealt with
having a superstar on the team?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: With extreme skill. Phil is an incredibly smart, deft man.
I mean, for one thing, he dealt very well with Michael. He understood
Michael's rage to be a winner. He was very smart in knowing that the one
thing he must never do is ask Michael for anything. Michael's very tough and
very predatory, and that he, Phil, would lose some authority as a coach if he
asked Michael to do anything other than on the court. On the court, he
understood one true thing about Michael: A, his love of the game and how hard
he would play; and B, how desperately--by the time Phil Jackson became a
coach--how desperately Michael wanted to be a champion. That he was tired of
what people were saying, which was that he was a great individual player but
that he limited his team in terms of championship because it was too dependent
upon him as a superstar.
What Phil did in those critical first two years was sell the idea of Tex
Winter's offense, what they called the triple-motion offense, where the ball
was shared a little bit. It was hard, it took away from some of Michael's
individual glory, but it in fact made it harder on the defensive team. What
he wanted to do was enhance Michael's greatness and his threat while keeping
him from sucking the oxygen away form lesser players. And that takes great
When you have somebody like that around, it can be very, very hard on the
other players because they become tentative. They tend to defer to the great
players. What they wanted to do, and it took Phil two years to do it, was to
bring some kind of systematic offense, where other players had the ball, where
the ball was shared, which would enhance Michael's threat and conserve some of
his energy, which was very important, and yet when the Bulls got to the fourth
quarter, allow him to be the individual one-on-one threat which so
GROSS: David Halberstam, recorded in 1999. We'll continue our remembrance
with a 1993 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Halberstam. He died in a car crash yesterday. Halberstam shared a
Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for reporting on Vietnam. He was one of the first
reporters to challenge the optimistic picture of the war presented by American
officials. Halberstam started his career in the 1950s. In 1993, he
re-examined that decade in a book titled "The Fifties." He found that decade
was much more interesting than it appeared on the surface. The decade
remembered for conformity actually sowed the seeds for the social and
political upheaval of the '60s and '70s.
Halberstam covered the civil rights movement for Southern newspapers during
the second half of the '50s. In 1993, I asked him why he wanted to write a
book about the '50s.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, I wanted to write about it for a number of reasons.
First, I had done "The Reckoning," which is a book about America at a moment
of jeopardy, you know, the Japanese beginning to challenge us industrially and
economically. So I wanted to go back to a moment when he had been supreme, a
time of real American economic hegemony, which was in the 1950s, when God was
in his heaven and the economic order was blessed, and everybody's income went
up 10 percent a year, and inflation was low, and everybody was spending more
all the time. Part of that, I think, is also that I'm, I think, in some ways,
a child of the '50s. I graduated from high school in 1951, and from college
in 1955. And many of these experiences, particularly the early civil rights
days, because I was a reporter in Mississippi and Tennessee, were part of my
And so, you know, I don't think journalistic autobiography is really very
good. I mean, journalists spend 30, 35 years being reporters and then someone
with a book contract comes to them and says, `We'd like you to write a book
about your life,' and the truth is, they don't really remember anything that
happened. I mean, they sort of remember filing their dispatches from the PTT
and in Saigon or Leopoldville or Zaire, you know. Or they say, you know,
`When I got to Paris to represent The New York Times, I felt that I got on
quite well with General de Gaulle. While we were not exactly intimate, he
would often say, after press conference, "Monsieur Halberstam, your question
was beautifully phrased today. Your French is getting better."' Well, you
know, this, in a way, is my way of doing my autobiography, except in an
exterior way. This is the world that I was part of and, in some way, helped
GROSS: Did you go back and--you refer in the beginning of the book to
pictures from the '50s that you were looking at and how formal they seemed,
all the men in their suits, everything seemed to be in place.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: All the teenagers looking rather square.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: And prim, prim.
GROSS: Prim, yeah. Did you...
Mr. HALBERSTAM: The women are pert, and the young men are sort of four
square and reliable. They have a would-be Tab Hunter look to them.
GROSS: Yeah, if they were lucky they'd be Tab Hunter.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, maybe not so lucky if they were Tab Hunter.
GROSS: So did you go back and look at pictures of yourself?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, I've led such a vagabond life that there are very few
pictures of me in the '50s. You know, I've lived in great disorder. Those
years were years first in Mississippi and Tennessee, and then immediately I
was overseas, so there's an awful lot of stuff I should have in my possession
I don't. But there is a very famous photograph taken in the--not famous to
the world, but famous to me and my colleagues taken in 1954 on the Harvard
Crimson. Three or four of us are sitting there, we're the editors, and we're
sitting with Adlai Ewing Stevenson of Illinois, who was then the most beloved
of liberal Democrats. And we're sitting there, and there I am, my hair is
very short and very black, a great deal blacker than it is now. My face is
sort of square and a kind of can-do American face, and I'm wearing the
requisite tweed jacket and gray flannel slacks, and--dear God, my wife really
loves this photo because it shows how much she's improved me in recent years.
White socks. White socks! There it is, the man with the white socks. So
there are not a lot of photos existent, but there are a lot of photos in my
mind of me in the '50s, of the simpler time and of my own ambition to be a
reporter in the civil rights movement, and of America in change.
GROSS: You went to Harvard in the 1950s.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Yes. 1951. I entered in 1951.
GROSS: What did you see for yourself when you looked ahead? Did you see
yourself as being, you know, a leader of tomorrow?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: No, no, no. I wanted--you know, I came from a sort of
middle class background. We never had any money, because my father had served
in the war. The Depression and World War II had cut us out of money, and we
never had money. But we had--we were middle class. There was never any doubt
that my brother and I were going to go to college, and that we were supposed
to therefore try and, in the tradition of the children of Jewish immigrants,
to go to the best, and by some mistake we both got into Harvard from public
high schools. And I never saw myself as a leader of men. What I wanted to do
very badly very early on was. A, to be a journalist. I thought I--that was I
wanted, and I wanted to see if I could do it and do it well. And if I could
do that, I wanted to be in on the action. I wanted to be part of events. My
heroes were men like Hodding Carter, who was the great Mississippi journalist
who fought the Klan; and John Gunther, the wonderful globe-trotting
journalist; and Theodore White, who was already writing wonderful books; and
Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times who, when I was a sophomore in
college, writing from Moscow for The New York Times. And I mean, it was
interesting because there was a recent review of one of my books in The Boston
Globe, and it referred to me as `this generation's Theodore White and John
Gunther,' and I thought, `What a wonderful thing. I have become in the same
lineal collection as my heroes.' I'm like the kid who wanted to play
centerfield for the New York Yankees when he was a little boy and ended up
growing up and doing it.
GROSS: Now, the '50s was the decade that there was the first teenage
generation that knew what it meant to be a teenager. In other words,
teenagers had their own lifestyle. Teenagers became their own market.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: The coming of the youth culture, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, the coming of the youth culture, exactly. Now, were you a part
of that or...
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, God no. No, no, no. No, I'm really very, you know, I'm
an interesting person in the sense that I'm a--my mores are set in the '50s,
I'm a '50s person. And by that, I mean growing up, the dates that are
important in my life, 11 years old at the end of World War II. So, I mean, I
knew the Depression, I knew World War II, I had all the cautiousness of that
part of the '50s. And then because of my own odd professional choices, being
part of the early civil rights movement, I mean covering the early civil
rights movement, and then also covering Vietnam very early on and being one of
the earliest pessimists, I have the odd contradiction of having a lot of the
things that flowered in the '60s in me but being a square from the '50s. I'm
a square who got caught up in the most primal issues of the '60s. So I have a
foot in both camps. I mean, my values, in many ways, are very old-fashioned
and conservative, but my political allegiances are profoundly affected by the
shattering duality of those events: civil rights change and Vietnam.
GROSS: Well, you write about the coming of rock 'n' roll in the book. Did
that have any impact on you?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, see, sorta less. See, I think when you're that--I was
about 21 when I--there I was, I was in West Point, Mississippi, which is, you
know, 50 miles north of Tupelo, and I was at Partlo's Drive-In one night, and
someone said about this guy singing "Hound Dog" or, you know, "Heartbreak
Hotel," `Is he one of them there Tupelo Presleys?' And I used to watch
Elvis'--Chet Atkins, the great guitar player, used to run the RCA studios in
Nashville. And Chet was a pal. I'd go hear him play in Printer's Alley. And
he would let me sneak in. And Elvis, who was exactly my age, would come in
and I'd be hidden away watching these great secret sessions. But I was never
profoundly affected by rock. I think maybe--you know, I was 21 when it
happened, which means my music of choice and which fashioned me was, when I
was a boy in parents' homes, so it's really much more likely to be Sinatra,
the music of that generation. But Elvis is a critical figure. He's the first
great coming of the youth culture. I...
GROSS: So are you telling us that you actually were at recording sessions
with Elvis Presley in the '50s?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I was the one reporter allowed to be, for
example--when Elvis came back from the Army, Colonel Parker allowed me to be
the one reporter to travel with him on his train ride back from Fort Dix to
Memphis. He was my age, a very sweet young man in those days. Anyway, the
great moment--this is an important--two really important political moments in
the '50s. One is Brown v. Board of Education.
GROSS: Wait, I have to stop you a second.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Yes.
GROSS: Wait a minute, we'll get back to this.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: OK.
GROSS: So what'd you talk to Elvis about on the train?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, you know, I said, `You know, how does it feel? I
mean, there are all these girls squealing every stop?' He said, `I don't
know,' you know? I said, `Why do you think it happened?' He said, `Mr., I
don't why it happens, but it's happened to me. I'll do the best I can with
it.' He was this very shy, quite modest country boy, not unlike a lot of
others. There was this fluke thing that had happened. He didn't quite
understand, but he was going to do the best he could with it. He called
everybody sir. He called me sir. I was his own age. I looked at him, and I
said, `Is that a suntan?' He said, `Hell, no, that's a wind tan from being a
tanker in Germany.' You know?
GROSS: How'd you like being called sir?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Well, he was about the first time. Other than a few years,
20 years later, when you called me sir, it really hasn't happened very much,
GROSS: I think that's maybe a Southern thing, too.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: But it was--he was--I found him very sweet, and I thought
incredibly unpretentious. I mean, there was no arrogance. Now, may have been
secret arrogance behind the calling of everyone sir or ma'am, but he seemed to
me about the least rebellious young man I'd ever met.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Anyway, this is, I think, two critical political moments.
One is Brown v. Board of Education which, I think, forever changes America
racially, culturally, in every moral. I mean, this country has changed
forever by that decision. The second one is, I think, the moment when Elvis
goes and signs on "Ed Sullivan Show." Ed Sullivan is, in any real reason, in
those days, the true American minister of culture. He decides what's going to
go on his show, what's mainstream American and what is not. He's not just
only a variety entrepreneur, he's a censor in any real sense. And he says
very publicly, `I am not going to have this young man, Elvis Presley, on my
show because what he does is dirty.' And so Elvis goes on Steve Allen's rival
show on Sunday night. Steve Allen has never beaten Ed Sullivan before in the
ratings. Elvis goes on and for the first time in history, Steve Allen wins.
And with that, Ed Sullivan quickly folds his tent, surrenders, sends Colonel
Parker a telegram booking Elvis for three shows at $50,000. Elvis comes on,
and that is the end of the old order. The old order, which would like to keep
Elvis off, can't because of the commercial power of the new youth
demographics. And Ed Sullivan quickly goes on, says, `We've never had--I want
to say this about Elvis. This young man is the finest young man. We've never
had a better experience with a young man.' And, of course, they shoot him, by
the way, from the waist up. But that is as dramatic a moment in American
culture. That's a very important political benchmark.
GROSS: You were one of the first reporters to challenge the government when
you reported on Vietnam.
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: In the decade before, the '50s, the decade that you write about, you
were covering the civil rights movement. And you were seeing probably a lot
of authorities who were masking the truth. Were the roots of your skepticism
about the official truth, were those roots for you in the '50s?
Mr. HALBERSTAM: Yes, I think covering the civil rights movement was a great
place to go and start taking skeptical pills. I mean, you go into a town, and
the mayor would say, `Hey, you know, our colored folks, they're all happy
here. They like it here. My maid just told my wife today, you know, that
those people there with Martin King, that they're all troublemakers,
troublemakers from the north, they're communists.' They'd say the NAACP,
except they'd always mispronounce it and say the NACCP. They'd always
deliberately, you know, and they'd always say, `That Martin Luther,' and
they'd make some pejorative reference to King. I mean, very early on in the
South, since the entire matrix of establish authority--mayor, governor, by and
large senator, judges--were all so totally lined up against the forces of
integration and obeying the law of the land that very early on--and they
obviously were convinced that whatever movement there was to the indigenous
civil rights movement in their own states and communities, therefore, was not
legitimate, and it was only orchestrated by what they thought was outsiders.
And there I was, with other reporters, going around and talking to the local
black people and knowing that they very much indeed wanted to have
integration. They wanted the better things of American life. They wanted
their children to go to better schools. They wanted to make more money. They
wanted to enter this society as a full fledged member, and that these were
very strong, powerful, proud people. So that was a very--there was healthy,
you know, amount of skepticism that you picked up then.
GROSS: David Halberstam, recorded in 1993. The Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist died in a car crash yesterday. We're shocked and sorry that we'll
never have the chance to talk with him again, but we will be able to read him
in a book about the Korean War, scheduled for publication in September.
Coming up, Milo Miles reviews a new CD by blues singer Koko Taylor. This is
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Milo Miles reviews Koko Taylor's new album "Old School"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Koko Taylor long ago earned her title "Queen of the Blues." In the mid-'60s,
she came to Chicago from a sharecropper farm in Tennessee. There, she was
discovered by the celebrated songwriter and performer Willie Dixon, who
provided her with a crossover hit "Wang Dang Doodle." After her label Chess
went out of business, she signed with Alligator Records in 1975. She has a
new album called "Old School," and critic Milo Miles says it embodies
Alligator's straightforward hard rocking blues style.
(Soundbite of "You Ain't Worth a Good Woman")
Ms. KOKO TAYLOR: Come on now!
(Singing) Play the blues
You ain't worth a good woman
'Cause you sure ain't nothing of a man
You ain't worth a good woman
'Cause you sure ain't nothing of a man
All you do is lay around waiting
For something good to fall in your hands
(End of soundbite)
MILO MILES reporting:
Koko Taylor is the last of the blues hot mamas. She's now 71 years old, and
when she was hospitalized for months back in 2003 and 2004, it seemed her
nearly-40-year career might be over. But the title of her new album says it
all: "Old School." And you don't count out somebody from the old school.
Taylor has never made a weak, careless album, but what's most impressive is
that this one is one of her most potent and determined.
"Old School" is straight Chicago blues, with a couple spots for a sax solo,
but mostly electric guitars, as close to the thrash and punch of the 1950's as
anybody can get today. Taylor hasn't spent much time singing about being
wronged or missing someone who's gone, though she can nail those moods. Her
favorite approach is to challenge men to keep up with her as a hellraiser, as
a lover, as a vibrant human being. If the guy doesn't, why, she might trade
him in for a mule.
(Soundbite of "Gonna Buy Me a Mule")
Ms. TAYLOR: (Singing) Love me in the morning
He love me late at night
Climb the highest mountain
Don't you know I'm going to treat him right
'Cause he's sweeter than a honeycomb
I'll give him so much loving
He'll never, never leave me alone.
I'm going to buy me a mule
One can take the place of you
My, my, my
He won't have to look no further
I'll give him all that belongs to you
(End of soundbite)
MILES: Special mention has to go to guitarist "Steady Rollin'" Bob Margolin
and Criss Johnson, who was also Taylor's long-time producer. Their guitar
buzz and clatter is both timeless and in the moment. "Old School" sounds like
the '50s, but it doesn't feel like a throwback. Nor is there any nervous
attempt to sound contemporary. Taylor's attempts at updating herself have
been hit and miss.
One track, Memphis Minnie's "Black Rat," was originally recorded a lifetime
ago in a world that no longer exists. But as long as Koko Taylor knows what
the song's about in her bones, so do you.
(Soundbite of "Black Rat")
Ms. TAYLOR: (Singing) Well, you sleeps in my kitchen,
Eat up all my bread
Soon as I leave home
You start cuttin' up in my bed
You is one black rat
Someday I'll find your trail
Yes, I hide my shoe
Somewhere near your shirt tail
(End of soundbite)
MILES: Blues skeptics claim not enough is done to change the form, and the
audience nowadays accepts hack work. There's some truth in this. "Old
School"'s innovation, however, is to deliver the tone and temperament of the
blues full bodied and uncut. That's more of an achievement than it might
seem. At the center is indomitable Koko Taylor and her rasping thunder of a
voice. She will not be ignored or dismissed.
GROSS: Milo Miles lives in Boston. He reviewed Koko Taylor's new album "Old
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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