Sunday, May 06, 2007

G'bye, Mr. H.

If you were looking for proof that the Republican candidates are locked into a "Gee, those were the days" frame of mind, you could find it at the first GOP presidential candidate debate, held last week at Reagan's old place, and not by accident. With Nancy looking on lovingly from her spot in the front row, the Gipper's name was invoked over a dozen times, with President Bush mentioned just once, and in a negative context. Romney has the "no gray hairs" look going for him in Reagan's honor. Next thing we should expect is either someone on horseback in Levis, or the return of the Reagan brown suit. Don't think no one's thinking about either one - making fashion statements is more fun than having to make statements about Iraq.

Is it terribly old fashioned to refer to one's "favorite author" these days? I fear that's the case, unless your favorite author is Harry Potter creator J. K. Rowling. In any case, I don't think it's out of line to mention that my favorite non-fiction author, David Halberstam, died in an auto wreck recently, and that he was my favorite for what I think are pretty good reasons.
Halberstam came of age when a good many things were starting to happen in our society. His formal training came at Harvard, but his early assignments were on behalf of a southern newspaper just as the Civil Rights movement was starting to pick up steam. One clue to his later approach to journalism was his treatment by any number of southern police chiefs who assured him that all the local colored folks were happy here, and that any trouble could be blamed on those Communists and radicals from up North. Mr. H. was smart enough to dig a little deeper into the story, which made and still makes compelling reading as we learned how black Americans (with some help) freed themselves from a thicket of Jim Crow legislation designed to keep them 2nd class citizens forever.
What I liked about Halberstam was a willingness to tackle widely varying subjects. He would have been remembered if all he had written was "The Best and The Brightest", the story of institutional hubris as a cause for our sorry involvement in Vietnam. But his subjects ranged from sports (baseball, the NBA, and even a book about rowing), huge changes in the auto industry, American news media companies, a social history of our country in the 1950's, and reporting along the Woodward style of true life at the center of big decisions. He took pains to attach all his subjects to the larger environment, to show that things are almost never decided in a vacuum, something too often forgotten in thousands of badly-taught high school and college history classes.
But I need to also admit that I liked one thing that kept turning up in the Halberstam books. He had a way of helping the reader understand the people in his books by including little anecdotes which could reveal the person's entire thought process. Was it fair? Maybe not always, but Mr. H. seemed to remember that what makes history come to life isn't so much that Henry VIII had lots of wives, but what he may have said to friends when he was pretty sure he'd never be quoted. People always want to know "What's ____REALLY like? Where do you draw the line on gossip? I don't know, but I'm glad I read things from Mr. H. that helped me know, for instance, what Eisenhower thought about blacks, and why. Wasn't it odd that J. Edgar Hoover, a man with expertise in crime, could feel free to lecture audiences about family life, even though he was single? Bill Clinton isn't treated with too much respect, but neither was Hugh Hefner, Mickey Mantle, Dr. Richard Kinsey and any number of public figures, some of whom we depended upon as a nation to make GOOD decisions on BIG issues.
Others have and will come along in this tradition to help us see things as they are. Gosh knows we need them to draw away the layers of fog which sometimes obscure the truth. But I will certainly miss Halberstam, and treasure what he gave us.


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