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America's politics, culture and resilience intrigue journalist Halberstam

Monday, January 10, 2000

By Bill Steigerwald, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

David Halberstam is a legend of American journalism and a best-selling social and political commentator.

His works include "The Best and the Brightest," "The Powers That Be," "The Reckoning," "The Fifties" and sports books like "The Summer of '49" and "The Breaks of the Game." His most recent book is "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made." Halberstam will open the spring 2000 season of the Drue Heinz Lectures with a talk about America's culture of celebrity at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. Call 412-622-8866 for ticket information.

Q: You've seen a lot of America close up. What's the best you've seen of America?

A: I think it's how regenerative we are. The resiliency of the country is just amazing. The belief that we're not finished, that we can still change. I've seen us recover from the dark days of early World War II, where we were on a huge losing streak. I was really an infant, but I saw us recover from the Depression. I've seen us go through dramatic racial change. I've seen us handle the exit from a difficult, unwinnable war and bind ourselves back together, and go through the industrial decline of the '80s -- always the resilience. Our capacity to change and the flexibility are extraordinary.

Q: What are your politics and core beliefs, and how have they changed over the years?

A: You know, I'm an interesting combination of sort of liberalism and conservatism. I suppose I'm known generally as a liberal, but essentially most of my liberal friends think I'm the most conservative person they know. I'm a traditionalist. I thought Watergate was a violation of all the conservative precepts because it really was an assault upon all kinds of institutions. It was an attempt to manipulate the FBI, the CIA. It was the government violating the government's own rules, which I thought was a violation of the most elemental conservative precepts. I'm an interesting blend: A certain kind of skepticism of power and of what government can do. But also I think the government has some obligation to try and make a society that has some degree of checks and balances.

Q: What do you know about America now that you didn't know 40 years ago?

A: I think the resilience, the elasticity of the system. When you're younger, you have more of a sense of right and wrong. I remember as a young reporter covering Civil Rights, it seemed so clear in the early days. The people who were protesting for equal political rights for blacks were right. I still believe that they are. What I've learned is that the elasticity of the system, the tolerance of the system, goes beyond who is right or wrong on any given issue.

Q: You've written at least three books about power. Who holds too much power in the country today?

A: I don't think anybody holds too much power. All the people we think hold too much power, all think they're powerless. I think [Bill] Gates goes to bed at night and thinks in his paranoia that he's a victim. The more power you have in this country, the more apt you are to feel powerless because it only takes you so far. The sense of power is much more fragmented today than it was 50 years ago. There's no one defining group. The economy is more fragmented. It's not U.S. Steel, General Motors and GE. There are hundreds and hundreds of companies on their way up and that are being started overnight. Political power is more fragmented, just a factor of the democratization of the culture.

Q: Is journalism better or worse today than it was 40 years ago?

A: It's not a great time for journalism. The rise of chains. They have been swallowing up the local papers, and they clearly think their customers are not the people who buy the newspaper, they are the people who buy the stock. So they want to drive the stock up. At the same time, the networks have gone to tabloid and celebrity stuff. They've moved away from covering foreign news. I think there's been a great drop-off there, and I'm disheartened by that.

Q: What's the worst aspect of the celebrity culture?

A: I think it's separating fame from accomplishment. Fifty years ago, to get on the cover of Time magazine you really by and large had to be more often than not accomplished. Now it's more about popular culture, television, movies, rock singers -- people whose accomplishments are really rather narrow. There's a frivolous quality to it and with it is a kind of journalism of gossip and scandal that is less serious.

Q: Is it really that new, though? Back in the '20s and '30s every woman in America was weeping when Valentino died.

A: I think today it's different today. There's so much celebrity -- up today and down tomorrow. There's a lot of volatility in the relationship. People like to see celebrities go up because then they can feel better when they are inevitably on their way down. They get caught in a scandal and they get divorced or whatever. It sort of makes you feel better about your own life. I don't think it's a healthy part of the culture right now.

Q: You wrote a book about Michael Jordan, who is a worldwide celebrity. Have you been charged with any hypocrisy for exploiting his celebrity?

A: I tried to write a book to understand the phenomenon of what made him. In fact, the book is a study of the phenomenon of celebrity -- Why did this guy become the most famous athlete in the world? The book got very good reviews for precisely that reason -- trying to explain that phenomenon.

Q: Of all you books, which was the hardest to write or report?

A: "The Reckoning" was hard because it was about industrial decline and it took me to Japan, and that's a very hard place to work. But it goes with the territory. "The Best and the Brightest" was done as a book of passion when I was a young man. I knew that Vietnam was not going to work, and I wanted to know how and why it had happened. So I was driven by a kind of almost personal passion on that. "The Reckoning" was harder.

Q: Are there any of your books you'd like to fix up or re-write?

A: They are what they are, they're there. I'm rather happy with them.

Q: What's the dumbest thing you wrote?

A: Give me about 24 hours to think about it. I just don't know. You could call my wife. She could give you a long list. Generally, I've been pretty lucky. I work hard. I've been very lucky in having good commercial success and critical success. They're not often found together.

Q: Was it Vanity Fair who called you "The Moses of American Journalism?"

A: Russ Baker or somebody said that. I watch out for that stuff because if you start believing it, you're a bigger pain in the ass to your family than you already are.

Q: What makes a good journalist?

A: I think passion, curiosity, a desire to learn, willingness to work hard, energy levels, instincts for stories. It's a lot about instinct.

Q: You next book is about what?

A: I'm doing a book on what Bosnia and Kosovo tell us about ourselves. About foreign policy in the post-Cold War.

Q: That's almost a full circle for you, then?

A: My wife thinks of it as a baby "Best and Brightest."

Q: Who was your person of the century?

A: I really hated the century and millennium lists. Obviously, in some ways, politically, it is a tie between Roosevelt and Churchill in saving the West as we know it. In a broader sense, in America it is a combination of Roosevelt and Henry Ford. He gave us this new, more dynamic society. Mass production really brought us a new kind of capitalism, and one that would inevitably be more benign, where the worker was able to become a consumer. But Roosevelt's important in that, too, because he helped adjudicate the rules of the workplace, so there was a balance between workers' rights and owners' rights. I think that's a very important change in world capitalism.

Q: Are you optimistic about the next 100 years?

A: Yeah. Had we be standing and talking 100 years ago, we would not have foreseen the rise of Hitler, the rise of Stalin, the tragedy of a World War, where the British generals were like donkeys and the British soldiers were like lions and half of the manhood of Europe was expended in stupid battles. And we would not have seen the rise of Nazism and the rise of communism. So one ought to go about predictions 100 years later with some degree of modesty -- knowing that 100 years ago we would have gotten almost all the main things wrong. But to the degree that there's a lot of energy and strength and positive force in America, one ought to be relatively optimistic at this point.

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