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Pulitzer Prize winner Halberstam killed in car crash

4/24/2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning
writer who chronicled the Vietnam War generation, civil rights and
the world of sports, was killed in a car crash Monday, his wife and
local authorities said. He was 73.

Halberstam, who lived in New York and Nantucket, Mass., was a
passenger in a car that was broadsided by another vehicle in Menlo
Park, south of San Francisco, San Mateo County Coroner Robert
Foucrault said. He said the cause of death had not been determined
but appeared to be internal injuries.

The accident occurred around 10:30 a.m., and Halberstam was
declared dead at the scene, Menlo Park Fire Chief Harold
Schapelhouman said.

The driver of the car carrying Halberstam and the person driving
the car that crashed into his were injured, but not seriously.

After years of daily journalism, Halberstam turned his attention to America's fascination with sports later in his career.

His classic baseball book, "Summer of '49," was published in 1989 and chronicled the famed pennant race between the Red Sox and Yankees. The 1999 book "Playing for Keeps" looked at the Michael Jordan phenomenon. His most recent work, 2005's "The Education of a Coach," provides an inside look into Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Halberstam took his perspective to the Internet in recent years, contributing to ESPN.com's Page 2 from 2001-02.

"David Halberstam cared about what mattered the most: people," said John A. Walsh, ESPN's Executive Vice President and Executive Editor. "He was forever sharing his experiences and directing young journalists.

"The truth? He was in awe over journalists who were moral, ethical and worked the beat in pursuit of what was really happening.

"And relationships -- in every conversation we had over the last 10 years, he brought me up to date with his daughter and his wife. I will remember him as a generous colleague and caring friend whose spirit lifted the room."

The prolific writer always seemed to have a project going, having just finished a book on the Korean War.

"There's a great quote by Julius Erving that went, 'Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don't feel like doing them,' " Halberstam said in a March interview with NY1 News.

Halberstam perservered, writing 21 books in his career, despite personal tragedy. In 1980, Halberstam's brother Michael, a cardiologist, was killed by an escaped convict in a robbery.

"There's nothing you can do," Halberstam said in the NY1 interview. "You have to get on, and you have to get on with life, and get on with the living."

On Monday, Halberstam was being driven by a graduate journalism student
from the University of California, Berkeley, which had hosted a
speech by the author Saturday night about the craft of journalism
and what it means to turn reporting into a work of history.

His wife, Jean Halberstam, said she would remember him most for
his "unending, bottomless generosity to young journalists."

"For someone who obviously was so competitive with himself, the
generosity with other writers was incredible," she said by
telephone from their New York home.

Jean Halberstam said her husband was being driven to an
interview he had scheduled with Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A.
Tittle. Halberstam was working on a new book, "The Game," about
the 1958 NFL championship game between the Baltimore Colts and the
New York Giants, often called the greatest game ever played, she
said.

Halberstam was born April 10, 1934, in New York City to a
surgeon father and teacher mother. His father was in the military,
and Halberstam moved around the country during his childhood,
spending time in Texas, Minnesota and Connecticut.

Halberstam attended Harvard University, where he was managing
editor of the Harvard Crimson newspaper.

After graduating in 1955, he launched his career at the Daily
Times Leader, a small paper in West Point, Miss. He went on to The
Tennessean, in Nashville, where he covered the civil rights
struggle, and then The New York Times, which sent him to Vietnam in
1962 to cover the growing crisis there.

In 1964, Halberstam and Malcolm W. Browne, of the AP, won
Pulitzers for their coverage of the war and the overthrow of the
Saigon regime.

Halberstam's reporting from Vietnam was a major irritant to the
Kennedy Administration, which had tried unsuccessfully to pressure
the Times to transfer him from the war zone.

He later said he initially supported the U.S. action there but
became disillusioned. That was apparent in Halberstam's 1972
best-seller, "The Best and the Brightest," a critical account of
U.S. involvement in the region.

In an interview earlier this month with The Associated Press,
Halberstam recalled the zeal with which he and his colleagues
covered Vietnam.

"Maybe we were 28, 29, 26 and we had a great story, which we
knew and we had a lock on the truth because we had such great
sources. When for a variety of reasons -- a flawed, deeply flawed
policy -- the government starts lying, that is when independent
journalism really matters," he said.

Such reporting, he said, is a key component of democracy.

"The idea that somewhere before it is a big story that there is
some young person ... putting themselves on the line morally,
ethically, journalistically, that is a great thing," Halberstam
said. "I mean, that is what a free society is about."

He quit daily journalism in 1967 and wrote 21 books covering
such topics as Vietnam, civil rights, the auto industry and sports. His 2002 best-seller, "War in a Time of
Peace," was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction.

Speaking to a journalism conference last year in Tennessee, he
said government criticism of news reporters in Iraq reminded him of
the way he was treated while covering the war in Vietnam.

"The crueler the war gets, the crueler the attacks get on
anybody who doesn't salute or play the game," he said. "And then
one day, the people who are doing the attacking look around, and
they've used up their credibility."

As word of Halberstam's death spread through the news industry,
tributes and remembrances poured in.

"He was a brilliant journalist who set the standard during the
war in Vietnam for courageous and accurate reporting," said Sen.
John Kerry, D-Mass., a Vietnam veteran who knew Halberstam from
Nantucket, where both had vacation homes. "He was wonderful
company, and I always learned something when I talked with him. I'm
very sad to hear we've lost him."

George Esper spent 10 years in Vietnam with the
AP and was Saigon bureau chief when the city fell.

"The thing about David Halberstam was that he stayed the course
and he kept the faith in the belief in the people's right to
know," Esper said "In the end, and I think we can
all be very proud of this, he was proven right. The bottom line was
that David was more honest with the American public than their own
government."

Neil Sheehan, former Saigon bureau chief for United Press
International, said he had lost his best friend, a man of enormous
physical and mental energy who had "profound moral and physical
courage."

"We were in Vietnam at a time when we were being denounced by
those on high," Sheehan said. "There was tremendous pressure.
David never buckled under it at all. He was capable of standing up
to it. You could not intimidate David."

Sheehan recalled how Halberstam once called a general at home to
get permission to fly to the site of a U.S. defeat. At a briefing
the next day, a brigadier general scolded "pitiful, lowly young
reporters" for having the temerity to call a general at home.

"General, you do not understand," Halberstam responded,
according to Sheehan. "We are not corporals. We do not work for
you. ... We will call a commanding general any time at home we need
to get our job done."

The general was flabbergasted, Sheehan said.

Author Gay Talese, who was at the Halberstams' home Monday
night, said he had known Halberstam since the early 1960s, was best
man at his wedding and shared Thanksgiving dinner in Paris last
year.

"He was a dear friend," Talese said.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.