The Powers That Be
by David Halberstam
David Halberstam. Halberstam, that was what everybody called him (after all, it was his name). They always said what Halberstam needed was a good editor, his sentences ran on and on, he piled phrase upon phrase and clause upon clause, he used commas the way other men used periods. He was writing about the important themes, the crucial themes, the big brilliant intelligent men and their glistening, scintillating power, and he didn’t have time to polish, didn’t need to take out the extra words, the repetitions, other men could do that, not Halberstam.
For he was writing about power. Big power. American power. He had written The Best and the Brightest and that had been about Vietnam but it had really been about power, why men wanted it and how they used it and how even with their immense power they had lost the war. It had been a good book. The Best and the Brightest, because it said that Vietnam was not an aberration, a mistake, perpetrated by insane generals; no, it had been a war entered into consciously, very consciously, by men who were smarter and tougher than anyone else; no, not a mistake at all (though years later, looking back, they would admit to their friends privately that it had in fact been a mistake, a terrible mistake) but a product of what was thought to be the best of American men and thought at that time. And there was a terrible irony in that, a tragic irony.
Anecdotes. That was what struck people about The Best and the Brightest, that was what impressed them, that was what they talked about. Nobody could get anecdotes like Halberstam (journalists, after long days of brilliant. courageous reporting, would gather in bars, bars in London, Paris, Saigon, and they would talk about Halberstam’s anecdotes, how he had gotten them). Halberstam interviewed people, hundreds of people, he interviewed them for hours and he didn’t quote them directly and they told him stories about powerful men that nobody else knew. So The Best and the Brightest had told marvelous stories about men previously known only in their official versions. Rusk and McNamara and Bundy and Rostow and Taylor and Westmoreland (Westy, that was what they called him), and Halberstam, not liking these men, perhaps even hating them, had both illuminated and eviscerated them.
Now, for an encore, he had written The Powers That Be. It had taken him seven years and more than a thousand interviews, and it was long, very long, 771 pages. It was about the media. Their growth. Their power. Their influence on national politics. Specifically, it was about four media empires, CBS, Time Inc., the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and the big men (and two big women: Katherine Graham and Dorothy Chandler) who made them. True to form, there were anecdotes about the great throughout, they were the backbone and the great strength of the book, they made it fun to read, almost gossipy, and they could be very useful too. It explained a lot when Halberstam told the story of Adlai Stevenson, bald Adlai, egghead Adlai, Adlai who lost because he disdained and didn’t understand television—Adlai finally and reluctantly hiring a television adviser in 1952 and, one night when the TV in his room wasn’t working, asking the adviser to come down and fix it, Adlai being so naive of the ways of this new world that he assumed a man who knew television could fix a broken set. Whereas Ike, bald but no egghead, was getting coaching from CBS correspondents on how to speak on TV.
But Halberstam’s devotion to the anecdote was so fierce and unbending, so loyal and total, that there were times when he would use anecdotes that, later, would cause readers of The Powers That Be to shake their heads, to wonder why they were reading this particular story, He had begun The Powers That Be with a story about Sam Rayburn. Speaker Sam. Short. Bald. Yet powerful. The point of the story was that Sam hated television, hated what it was doing to politics, but Halberstam went on and on about Sam taking a trip to El Paso, Sam crossing the border to Juarez, Sam driving back across to El Paso but still believing he was in Juarez. What difference did it make whether he hated television while knowing he was in El Paso or hated television in El Paso while thinking he was hating television in Juarez, people would wonder. Then there was the story of Walter Cronkite, assigned to Moscow by UPI in the late 1940s and bringing with him hundreds of golf balls, although “(a) Walter Cronkite did not play golf and (b) there were no golf courses at all in the Soviet Union.” So sometimes the anecdotes, although about big men, didn’t tell Halberstam’s readers big things.
Sometimes, too, Halberstam’s big sentences would lead people to think that he had been closely studying the works of Gertrude Stein, big Gertrude, literary Gertrude. He could write of a Los Angeles Times reporter: “To most politicians that was simply Bergholz being Bergholz, Bergholz was tough with all politicians, part of the game, but to Nixon, with that terrible sensitivity, everything always so personalized, it was not Bergholz being Bergholz, it was Bergholz being against Nixon.” Other times people would think perhaps Halberstam had gotten in the habit of buying novels in airports as he flew around the country doing his interviews, for he would occasionally say things like, “It was a relationship edged in money and hate” and “The fear was there, naked and stark, with a smell of its own.” Other times he would just be redundant, repeat himself; “He was sui generis, there was no one else like him”; “Lippmann was thus very good at staying young, at not aging”; “The speed with which Hitler had come to power had been speeded up.”
No matter. Halberstam had a lot to tell. His book began with the ascension of Franklin Roosevelt and chronicled American political history through the fall of Richard Nixon, with an emphasis on the influence of the media (which was Important, very important, and growing). So there were the stories of the presidents and how they used the press, and there were the stories of the press itself, the great men who had shaped it and made it powerful. The point of all the stories was that the media have become more powerful over the last 50 years, and as a result the men who have been elected have been the ones who knew best how to use the media and were (in a very real and human sense) created by the media. The point was also that as the media have become more powerful in politics, the parties and the city machines have become less powerful. And that the government has devoted more and more of its attention to manipulating the media. And that, finally, the very power of the press has been its Achilles’ heel, has made it ever bigger, more corporate, and more ardent for profits and respectability.
These were not points new to Halberstam, other men had made them before, just as other men had written about Nixon and Johnson and Kennedy and CBS and the Post. Halberstam, however, put them all into one big book as no one else had. For this he had paid a price, a costly price. His big plans for his book forced him to deal with people and institutions and themes that were less than unfamiliar to all his readers—no, more than that, it forced him to tell in great detail stories that most people already knew. The feud between Joe McCarthy and Edward R. Murrow (“Murrow. The right man in the right place in the right era.”). The Kennedy- Nixon debates. The Tonkin Gulf incident. The Pentagon Papers. How Woodward and Bernstein broke the Watergate story. How Dan Rather stood up to Nixon at a press conference.
Halberstam told these stories well, he had little details other men had missed, but he did best with material wholly unfamiliar to his readers. He was at his least impressive when dealing with the great men of the media, men like Henry Luce (“Henry Robinson Luce. Harry.”) and Ben Bradlee (“The rough-handsome face. The little strut to his walk. The suits slightly out of fashion”). His best profile was of Philip Graham, publisher of the Washington Post, brilliant Phil, driving Phil, who built a great empire and then lost his mind and killed himself, and whose story had remained politely unwritten for years. (Phil’s wife Katharine, once dutiful, dowdy Kay, later powerful Kay, Kay must have told Halberstam about Phil, there were stories that could only have come from her, and this was impressive, that Halberstam got her to talk.)
There were limits, too, crucial limits, built into Halberstam’s approach. Great men shape history, Halberstam thought, and at times he was right. No one could doubt that the passionate anti- Communist gospel that once filled Time was tremendously influential in the 1950s and was the product of Luce, there probably would have been a Time without Luce but it would have been different. So there was, in describing Luce, a purpose, a means of explaining politics. But Halberstam also invested tremendous space in delineating the character of William S. Paley of CBS (“He was young and handsome and rich and smart, and the enthusiasm, indeed the avidity for life, for every phase of it, seemed to jump out from him”), who, while an interesting and important man, in the end pretty much ran CBS according to the dictates of the Nielsen ratings and the stock market. This Halberstam presented as a terrible irony, an immense tragedy, even an ironic tragedy, but if there had been no Paley somebody else certainly would have built TV according to the dictates of the ratings and the market.
Of course it was not just the men. It was the media too, they were powerfully influential, they shaped history, Halberstam’s version of American history was as media-determinist as Frederick Jackson Turner’s was frontier-determinist. As Halberstam told it, Roosevelt was powerful because he knew how to use the media. The media created McCarthy and then destroyed him. Then the media created the imperial presidency and John F. Kennedy (Richard Nixon was created by the Los Angeles Times but then destroyed by the media generally). The media didn’t create the war in Vietnam, but the imperial presidency and John Kennedy did, and the media had created them. Then the media covered the war, showed the American people that it was wrong, terribly wrong and pointless and doomed, and so destroyed Lyndon Johnson and eventually ended the war. Halberstam cited as the crucial turning point, the single act that did most to end the war, Walter Cronkite’s half-hour special on CBS about the Tet offensive. That it might have been the Tet offensive that turned the American people against the war, rather than Cronkite’s broadcast, wasn’t In Halberstam’s schema, to say that would have presented events as influencing the media rather than the media as influencing events.
Halberstam, in his way, liked the media. The Best and Ihe Brightest had been a book written in righteous anger, aimed at destroying people’s faith in the Establishment, he was quite emphatic about pinning on the Establishment the blame for Vietnam in a way that called into question everything else the Establishment might do. But while The Powers That Be had its villains, even media villains (glisteningly ambitious Bill Paley, blandly ambitious Frank Stanton), it also had many heroes. As it happened, they were all reporters, brilliant reporters, courageous, sensitive reporters, Halberstam hardly ever quoted from their stories or explained what was so good about them, their brilliance was just assumed. Halberstam filled his book with passages like this one about the Los Angeles Times Washington Bureau:
They were uncommon talents: Don Brucker, later to become a vice president of the University of Chicago, an extraordinarily talented and cerebral reporter, covered civil rights with great sensitivity and feeling for detail: Jack Nelson, forceful relentless fearless, began to hore in on the FBI and some of its misdeeds: Stuart Loory. supremely able, supremely independent, covered the White House.
These brilliant reporters had just one noble concern, they cared solely, as Halberstam wrote of one of their editors back in LA, “about investigative reporting, about the responsibility journalism had to help protect citizens from governmental or corporate abuse.”
Arrayed against them were scheming, manipulative government officials, grasping businessmen, meddling publishers, cautious, profit-hungry advertisers. What went wrong was their fault, not the reporters’. Halberstam trundled out his cannons against any encroachment upon reporting, he took this kind of thing seriously, it was important to him, he did not find it amusing. The CBS program “The Beverly Hillbillies” was “so demented and tasteless that it boggles the mind”; as for “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The immorality of the decision to place this program on the nation’s airwaves was staggering.” Other men might find these programs harmless, even (they would remember later) funny, not Halberstam.
So the real message of The Powers That Be would not be only that the media are powerful, but also that reporters are great, and in that respect it would most likely have an effect exactly the opposite of the effect of The Best and the Brightest. For The Best and the Brightest had certainly been influential, its title alone had passed into the language as a term of opprobrium, meaning, watch out for smart people who run the government. Halberstam, the big hunter, had helped destroy the respectability of an elite but now he was doing something different, he was helping make a new elite respectable (didn’t he always refer to it as “the profession”?), even glamorous, the subject of a book that would he widely devoured for the stories it told about their lives, a big, sprawling, powerful book, a book so big only one man could have written it. Halberstam.
Nicholas Lemann is an associate editor of Texas Monthly and a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly.