The last person David Halberstam talked to in a life that enriched journalism was a journalism student. There is something consoling in that, for journalists who admired his work; Halberstam was unfailingly generous with time and counsel for those who aspired to a share of his skills, and that is just one more cause to celebrate his life.
Halberstam, killed in a California car crash while the student was driving him to an interview, was a journalist's journalist. He had an academic grounding in the craft as managing editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper, but he started his working life at a tiny newspaper in Mississippi before moving on to the Nashville Tennessean during the civil rights era and then to the New York Times for the assignment that, more than any other, defined him: Vietnam. Along the way, he often told students, he learned how to work a story, the joy of legwork and talking to people, how not to be intimidated -- and how to learn the craft from other reporters.
He won the Pulitzer Prize at age 30, in 1964, for his unflinching and forthright Vietnam reporting. He was, a fellow Vietnam reporter from those years said in a particularly fitting tribute Monday, "more honest with the American public than their own government."
He died at the age of 73, in the crash that injured both the student who was driving him and the driver of the car that broadsided their vehicle. Two years ago, while accepting the Columbia Journalism Award, he told graduates at that university that his choice of profession had given him "a great ticket to sit in on history."
But Halberstam, whose tenacity was grounded in a deep belief in the public's right to know, also said something else that day -- something optimistic, something reflective of his own life, something equally grounded in his ultimate trust in the public itself. His work, he said, had given him "the belief that in the worst of times, someone will always tell the truth."