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    Volume 6 Issue 19 | May 18, 2007 |

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Of Halberstam and Journalists as Historians

Syed Badrul Ahsan

David Halberstam

David Halberstam is dead. And he is dead not from natural causes but because he found himself in a car crash. When he died, he was still a vigorous young man of seventy six, writing away on the world and on all the men who regularly contribute to making it a dangerous place. Those of you who remember Halberstam will remember too the reason why he became, for many in my generation, an iconic figure in the world of journalism. It was the seminal work he produced, The Best and the Brightest, that turned him from a typical journalist into a purposeful historian. Indeed, Halberstam is one individual who can truly be regarded as the first authentic journalist-historian of our times.

After Halberstam came all the others, each with a new, often different perspective on history. The tale of the feisty Oriana Fallaci, not much loved in the Muslim world because of the fanatical zeal with which she went after fanatics in that world, was nevertheless an iconoclast who never shied away from stripping powerful people of the see-through raiment they actually wore. She interviewed the mighty and the seemingly unassailable. Her conversations with these dominant people, all of whom were afflicted with the strange disease we call hauteur, began on a carefully scripted note of politeness and even proper deference. And then came the shocking, first in bits and pieces of necessary impertinence, moving gradually to direct assault. In the end, Fallaci left those arrogant men cringing in fear, for they needed to retain whatever had been left of their mauled self-respect.

It was thus that Oriana Fallaci celebrated journalism even as she demolished political myths. She stripped the Shah of Iran to his bare bones, just as Halberstam had once reduced 'the best and the brightest' men who dominated the Camelot administration of John Fitzgerald Kennedy into elements who had actually pushed the world into new dangers through their cavalier approach to policy. There were men like Robert McNamara, Kenny O' Donnell and Robert Kennedy, as also others, who went into a spate of unnerving frenzy trying to carve a historical niche for themselves and for the government they were part of. They were, or so they thought, soldiers in search of a new frontier. In the end, the new frontier came to be epitomised by the death of young Americans sent to fight a pointless war in distant Vietnam. Worse, these frontiersmen lighted the fires that were to become a conflagration. In the end, 'the best and the brightest' in 1960s America left a whole wide world smouldering. Halberstam's great quality in those times was to be able to spot the disaster that loomed in the distance. He was dismissed as a pessimist, castigated as a doomsday figure. History eventually proved how right he had been all along; and how wrong the men wielding power were to be.

David Halberstam of the New York Times, Malcolm Browne of AP, and Neil Sheehan of UPI between helicopter lifts in the Mekong Delta in 1963. AP/ Wide World Photos.

When you speak of good journalists, you fundamentally speak of men and women who have not flinched from portraying the truth. Additionally, these are men and women who have caused to be ignited in you a deep reverence for the lessons that history offers. There used to be, in her times, Barbara Walters who went around looking for figures of history to glean wisdom from. Sometimes she found herself midwifing phases of history, as when she drew out of Anwar Sadat the very emotional desire of travelling to Jerusalem in the search for peace with Israel. The once-upon-a-time terrorist Menachem Begin, in an improbable moment in time and space, responded with a yes. Days later, a whole wide world watched as old enemies, in what amounted to a biblical demonstration of the human spirit, came together in the night lights of Jerusalem. Begin hated the Arabs; Sadat's tolerance for Zionism had never been high. And yet the call of history transformed these two men into emblems of the future. Watching on the sidelines was a happy journalist named Barbara Walters.

Good journalism is journalism pregnant with meaning. That meaning is what you will spot in David and Jonathan Dimbleby and, before them, their father. When you watch Jeremy Paxman tearing politicians apart in Britain, you know how journalism can move from upholding a cause to being a cause in itself. That passage from one region to another does not have to be based on adversarial ties with the powers that be. It can also shine through the journalist becoming, without any conscious effort on his part, a moral compass for the society he is part of. Sometimes, or in a rare political moment, journalists can move into the centre of things, to turn themselves into influential players on the political stage. Strobe Talbott wrote incisively on American foreign policy issues, in pure gentlemanly and at the same time coruscatingly pointed manner. His credentials in knowing Russia, indeed the old Iron Curtain, were formidable. They were to be usefully employed when he was brought into the inner sanctum of American diplomacy by Bill Clinton. Talbott is one of the more refined instances of a journalist ready to play his part in the making of policy.

Let us mourn the passing of David Halberstam. He, like many of his kind, was a remarkable media person who left his own imprints on the shaping of history. There are not many like him around these days.

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