Historical allusions cling to Barack Obama and they usually compare the president-elect with Lincoln or FDR. Not a few writers have drawn parallels between Obama and John F. Kennedy, which, together with this pre-inaugural season, have reminded me of how the late David Halberstam had opened his Vietnam War history, The Best and the Brightest. The book's first lines grip our senses and don't release them until we've finished the last page; for some, these lines will remain with us the rest of our lives. The Best and the Brightest's curtain raiser so succinctly captures a certain time and attitude in American history that we must resist shedding a tear for that era's breathtaking self-confidence. Here is Halberstam setting an almost symphonic tone for his story:
A cold day in December. Long afterward, after the assassination and all the pain, the older man would remember with great clarity the young man's grace, his good manners, his capacity to put a visitor at ease. He was concerned about the weather, that the old man not be exposed to the cold or to the probing questions of freezing newspapermen . . .
(David Halberstam photo from the East Bay Express.)
This first, impressionistic paragraph, with its wintry milieu that is made to visually rhyme with the cold reporters huddled outside of president-elect Kennedy's home, describes the dawn of Camelot – even though we cannot yet see that this chapter is not about Kennedy at all but, instead, one of Washington's consummate insiders, Robert A. Lovett.
Of course, there is a tear to be shed for Halberstam, who died last year in a senseless car crash south of San Francisco as he was being driven by a student from the University of California, Berkeley's journalism school. It was on the Berkeley campus that I first saw Halberstam speak. He addressed an overflow auditorium of students about the storm gathering around Richard Nixon's involvement in the Watergate scandal. Halberstam commanded the podium like a classic tribune, leaning forward with the Byronic collar of an open white shirt folded over the lapels of a sports coat.
“The White House has been exposed as an open sewer,” he'd said. “Americans are turning away from Wall Street and State Street in looking for answers about the country's problems.”
It was great sounding stuff at the time, but I had no idea who Halberstam was. I was going through a long period when I'd cut myself off from many things and only got my news from the radio. I didn't read the papers or watch TV, and had certainly never heard of The Best and the Brightest, which had been published two years before. Everyone in my journalism class at Cal, it turned out, had read the book.
I forgot about it until a year and a half later. I was lying in my bunk in a county jail in Indio, and a check forger in my cell was reading a worn paperback edition of Halberstam's book. He loved it and said I must read it. People were always telling me that. One guy in the Riverside jail swore that Sometimes a Great Notion was the book I had to read. I was making all kinds of promises to myself of what a better person I'd be if I could only get out of this jail I'd somehow gotten myself into, and reading The Best and the Brightest was one of those pledges. It was the only one I kept.
I'll always feel a deep, shuddering sadness when I think of that book's opening lines, and about JFK and how the country slid into Vietnam. And now I'll feel bad for what happened to David Halberstam – did he imagine, just before his death, that Obama would be president? Halberstam's first paragraph set the mood for the rest of his book, a story of what happened when a young president-elect, “on the threshold of great power and great office,” turned not to the bold and visionary for advice, but to status-quo consensus builders who guided Washington from the wings. Which is another reason, I suppose, why Obama, with his sensible cabinet choices, can be compared to Kennedy. After a long, globally warmed autumn, it's beginning to feel like a cold day in December.