David Halberstam

Washington in the early days of a new administration is a didactic, lesson-drawing place, but even so, it has been striking to see how quickly the commentary on the death of Robert McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and architect of the Vietnam war, has turned to abstraction--as if it was not one exceptionally smart man being buried, but a certain kind of smarts itself. "What happened ... to Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents," editorialized The Times of London.

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Benjamin Wallace-Wells's newest TNR piece revisits David Halberstam's treatment of Robert McNamara in The Best and the Brightest and argues that, far from criticizing McNamara for his expertise, Halberstam indicts him for being a "brilliant generalist" who knew little about any particular subject. Be they "brilliant generalists" or experts in their fields, the executive branch has not lacked for academics, quantitative jocks, and other quintessential "nerds" throughout the years. Click through to learn more about past geeks in government. Photo courtesy of Getty Images --Dylan Matthews

Washington in the early days of a new administration is a didactic, lesson-drawing place, but even so, it has been striking to see how quickly the commentary on the death of Robert McNamara, defense secretary in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations and architect of the Vietnam war, has turned to abstraction--as if it was not one exceptionally smart man being buried, but a certain kind of smarts itself. "What happened ... to Robert McNamara teaches a lesson to all those who talk of governments of all the talents," editorialized The Times of London.

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The death of David Halberstam yesterday is very sad news for everyone who has come into contact with his work. He was someone who could write with skill and passion and dexterity on everything from the postwar Establishment to post-cold war foreign policy, from the Emmitt Till case to the sporting world. He will be sorely missed. --Isaac Chotiner

Blind Liberation

The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace By Ali A. Allawi (Yale University Press, 518 pp., $28)   Say what you will about the American experience in Vietnam, that war was well written. A Bright Shining Lie by Neil Sheehan had a character who could have stepped out of the pages of Graham Greene. John Paul Vann was an even more arresting figure than Alden Pyle in The Quiet American. "The odds, he said, did not apply to him," Sheehan wrote of the unforgettable man who embodied the war'shubris and the war's undoing.

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Field of Dreams

From Beirut to Jerusalem By Thomas L. Friedman (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 525 pp., $22.95) Thomas Friedman’s account of his journey as a reporter from Beirut to Jerusalem is rich in precisely the qualities that made his dispatches from those two capitals so memorable, and so breathtaking. We have to go back to David Halberstam, and perhaps to Homer Bigart, for another American foreign correspondent so unerringly alert to the illuminating detail.

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Front Man

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam By Neil Sheehan (Random House, 861 pp., $24.95) In Neil Sheehan's apt and accurate phrase, John Paul Vann was "the soldier of the war in Vietnam." He began his extraordinary career there as a military adviser to a South Vietnamese division, and he went on to become the single greatest influence on the young American journalists in Vietnam who were to come into such fierce conflict with their government. Then, in 1963, Vann suddenly quit the Army, in what appeared to be an act of conscience.

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The Powers That Be by David Halberstam (Knopf; $15) 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.

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Jungle Beach at Chilmark on Martha's Vineyard used to be the toniest plage in Massachusetts. A haven for bathers clothed and nude, it derived its name from the thick brush that cut it off from the island's south shore road. Reaching the beach involved hacking through the thicket, but the reward was a beach free of the crowding, vendors and photochemical oxidants of more popular spots.  That was until a syndicate led by Robert Strange McNamara won control of Jungle Beach in an estate sale.

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