Steve Bannon is reading this book about the Vietnam war (but don’t let that put you off) | Hadley Freeman

Hadley Freeman
Steve Bannon was seen clutching David Halberstam’s most celebrated book. Photograph: Getty Images

Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the sudden death of American journalist and writer David Halberstam. Perhaps some British readers will vaguely recognise that name – some, but not many. In America, however, he is a journalistic icon, and has been so for more than half a century, since he won a Pulitzer in 1964, at the age of 30, for his reporting from Vietnam. He has been in the news again of late, after a New York Times journalist reported in February that he had bumped into Steve Bannon, of all people, in an airport, clutching Halberstam’s most celebrated book, The Best And The Brightest. Published in 1972, it recounts, in painstaking, furious detail, the catastrophic errors made by the Kennedy administration that ultimately led to the Vietnam war.

“I’m having everyone in the transition read it,” Bannon said. “It’s great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”

I’d like to leave Bannon to one side, for the moment, and focus instead on Halberstam. As I said, he is one of those giants of American letters, up there with Tom Wolfe, Woodward and Bernstein, and Jimmy Breslin, one whose name alone evokes a golden and ever more distant era of American journalism. But to me he was always just Mr Halberstam, the man with a big nose and even bigger hands, a voice so deep it seemed to start from his shoes and silvery hair so thick, each strand looked like a wire thread.

I met him when I was seven, when he and his wife, Jean, became close if slightly improbable friends with my parents. We all lived in Manhattan, but by rights we should have been in different worlds: while my parents kept things pretty low-key in our dark apartment near the East river, the Halberstams occupied a far more starry sphere. They lived in a large duplex apartment with enormous paintings that, in my memory, went from floor to ceiling; to this day, whenever I read novels set in a glamorous New York milieu – by Jay McInerney, say, or Candace Bushnell – I picture the Halberstams’ apartment. They were very much a fixture among the Manhattan literati, friends with Joan Didion, Gay Talese, David Remnick and so forth. If you are successful and want to spend your life surrounded only by other successful people stroking your ego, New York, second only to Los Angeles, is the best place to live.

But Halberstam wasn’t like that. Yes, he knew those people, but he was just as interested in everyone else. The curiosity that drove him to write about multiple subjects never left him, even when success could have made him fat with self-satisfaction and lazy. He was fascinated by my father’s job in finance and asked him so many questions about it that my father finally suggested he come down to the bank and talk to people there. So he did – not because he was going to write about it, he just wanted to know how it all worked.

Friends of my parents were pretty interchangeable to me as a child: they condescended to me, they asked boring questions, and then they ignored me. But Mr Halberstam is as vivid in my memory now as people I spoke to yesterday, even though I haven’t seen him in decades. Even though I had no idea of his celebrity for a long time, even less what he wrote about, he was always interesting – a rarity among adults, I thought then, and still think now. Even more unusually, he took children seriously, and children notice that. When I was nine I started up a school magazine and my parents showed him a copy. He looked through it carefully: “We writers have to stick together,” he said solemnly, patting me on the back. My parents explained that Mr Halberstam was an author. “But he never made his own magazine, as I have,” I thought, graciously accepting his compliment nonetheless. When he died, at the age of 73, killed in a car accident, he was still writing, researching a book about American football.

It is hard to overstate how ironic it is that Bannon should find solace in The Best And The Brightest. He thinks it’s an indictment of the elite world in which President Kennedy immersed himself, but it’s actually a passionate defence of expertise. It argues that a president should appoint people with actual knowledge, not just because their worldview fits his own. But even if Bannon misunderstood the book, his endorsement will not go to waste: Halberstam’s daughter, Julia, is donating the book’s 2017 profits to ProPublica, a non-profit organisation that invests in investigative journalism. So please, if you haven’t read it yet, or even if you have, buy a copy of the book this year. Like its author, it’s important, from another age but still relevant, and it will stay with you for ever.

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