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Fed Up with Big-Bucks Athletics, David Halberstam Explores the Passion of Unknown Olympians

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The night flight from their summer home in Nantucket through a thunderstorm was a “real white-knuckler,” he says. But now David Halberstam, his beautiful wife, Jean, and 5-year-old daughter Julia are settling back into their co-op directly across from ABC News headquarters on New York City’s Upper West Side. With its soaring ceilings, modern curved staircase, bare terra-cotta pink walls and, in a corner, one Brobdingnagian adobe pot holding a 15-foot-high spray of barren branches, the living room reflects Jean’s cool, minimalist style—Manhattan chic by way of Santa Fe.

The study, however, is pure Halberstam: Two functional black office chairs flank a large wooden worktable heaped with books. Pegged to a wall-length bulletin board are the fragments of a journalist’s life—photographs of Halberstam in the Congo and Southeast Asia, a framed letter from Graham Greene praising Halberstam’s first best-seller, The Best and the Brightest, and—displayed with equal pride next to the 1964 Pulitzer Prize he won for his Vietnam reporting—one of Julia’s brightly colored kindergarten drawings.

It is only fitting that tucked to one side of the room is a rowing machine; The Amateurs (William Morrow, $14.95), Halberstam’s nonfiction account of four oarsmen bound for the 1984 Olympics, is a surprise critical and commercial hit. Warner Bros., seeing the potential for a Chariots of Water, has snapped up the movie rights for about $100,000 plus. Paperback rights went to Penguin for just under $150,000.

No one seems more surprised by The Amateurs’ success than the author, who embarked on the project as a sort of vacation from his magnum opus-in-progress, a study of competition between Japanese and American automakers tentatively titled The Reckoning. “When David is occupied with a big, bone-crushing masterwork, he gets in up to his armpits and needs to take a break,” says journalist and author Harrison Salisbury, who first met Halberstam while covering civil rights sit-ins in Nashville 25 years ago. “So he writes something for pure enjoyment. And that means sports, since he’s the ultimate fan.” Thus far The Reckoning, which Halberstam has been researching and writing for five years, has required two such sabbaticals; the first was for Breaks of the Game, his 1981 exploration of the world of professional basketball.

Halberstam, 51, came upon his new subject 16 months ago while watching a pre-Olympic event on television. “I was appalled by the amount of hype,” he says. “It was clear to me that ‘amateur’ athletics suddenly meant money, commercialism, drugs. So I went to find the flip side of those petulant athletes like [Olympic track-and-field gold medalist] Carl Lewis, to a sport where there was absolutely no chance for endorsements or money or fame.” He found what he was looking for among the rowers at the Olympic sculling trials in Princeton, N.J. Fascinated by the intrigue among coaches and competitors, he discovered he had stumbled upon “a hermetically sealed 19th-century world peopled with articulate, obsessed young men. All their lives they’d been waiting to be asked why they do what they do, and here I came.”

Being at the right place at the right time with the right questions is a talent Halberstam traces back to his grammar-school years in the blue-collar mill town of Winsted, Conn. There his father, a physician who was one of seven children born to Polish-Jewish immigrants, and his mother, a schoolteacher, instilled in David and his older brother, Michael, a burning interest in world events. The day after Pearl Harbor, Halberstam Sr. signed up with the U.S. Army Medical Corps and shipped out. David was 7. He saw little of his father until the war ended, and three years after that, when David was 15, the elder Halberstam died unexpectedly of a heart attack at the age of 52. Ever since, Charles Halberstam has loomed large as a personal and professional model. “My father,” says David, “was a mythic figure made even larger by his death.”

Halberstam’s own talent and ambition, combined with what he still regards as an exemplary public-school education, were enough to get him into Harvard, but not enough to keep him from coming dangerously close to flunking out. He sought refuge at the Crimson, the school’s prestigious and demanding daily newspaper, where he was elected managing editor. He graduated in 1955 with only one major regret. “I only wish my father had been around to see that I didn’t turn out to be the great screw-up it seemed I would,” he says. “I wanted him to know I turned out okay.”

After graduation David went south to cover fires and school board meetings as the sole reporter for the 4,000-circulation West Point, Miss. Daily Times Leader, then spent four years covering civil rights for the Nashville Tennesseean. It is a time he still regards as “wonderful—the most exciting and happiest of my life. Trucks would try and run us off the road, we’d be threatened with guns—there was always this palpable sense of violence in the air. But it was worth it because it validated all the reasons anybody becomes a reporter in the first place.”

Lured to the New York Times by James Reston in 1960, Halberstam was first assigned to cover Washington, though he found the town not to his liking—and vice versa. “Coming from a small-town newspaper background, I was very uncomfortable with the social relationship between the press and the government in Washington,” he says. “It struck me as very unhealthy. Still does.” Within a year he was sent to cover the war in the Congo. “It was truly terrifying,” he says. “All forms of authority had unraveled, and we were caught in what amounted to a free-fire zone between U.N. peacekeeping troops and secessionist forces. Events were totally out of control, and you knew there was no one there to protect you. It was more frightening than anything I’ve experienced before or since.”

Then came Vietnam, where Halberstam arrived in 1962 (“It was the place I was always destined to go”) with little skepticism about the Kennedy Administration’s attempts to shore up Saigon’s Diem regime. “The line was that we were there to help another country against encroachment from within, and I did not dissent,” he says. “I believed in the cause that was at stake and in the men who were fighting it.” When it became clear to him that Washington was largely ignoring the disheartening reports from its own “advisers” in the field, Halberstam began to write pessimistically about the U.S. presence. “The more you saw,” he says, “the more you realized it just didn’t work.”

His early criticism of the war earned him not only his Pulitzer, but also the enmity of President Kennedy, who asked New York Times publisher Punch Sulzberger to pull his upstart reporter out of Vietnam. Lyndon Johnson went JFK one better: He lambasted Halberstam as “a traitor to his country.” There were subtle accusations of cowardice despite the fact that David had gone along on scores of combat missions. Halberstam claims he was less bothered by the criticism of Presidents and generals than by the thought that his late father might have considered his son’s actions unpatriotic. “I finally decided that he, more than anyone else, taught me to stand up for what I believed in—even if it meant standing alone,” says David.

Halberstam quit the Times in 1967 to become a contributing editor of Harper’s magazine. The Best and the Brightest, his provocative autopsy of U.S. Vietnam policy and the men who created it, was published in 1972. His follow-up book, in 1979, was The Powers That Be, a study of four communications giants: CBS, Time Inc., the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. His reasons for choosing those four were various: “CBS was, and probably still is, the best network. TIME is the most important opinion-shaping magazine. The Washington Post uncovered Watergate. And the Los Angeles Times invented Richard Nixon.”

The book was another best-seller, but the pleasures of his success were soon eclipsed by personal tragedy. On Dec. 5, 1980 Halberstam’s brother, Michael, a surgeon and novelist, was shot to death while struggling with a thief he found ransacking his Washington home. David did not attend the trial of the killer (“I didn’t want to appear like an avenging angel”), but doubts he will ever fully recover from the blow of the murder. “It’s torn apart my childhood,” he says. “There isn’t an early memory I have that doesn’t include Michael, and now those memories are to some extent made painful. When something like this happens, it changes you—it makes you savor and treasure the moments you have with your own immediate family all the more.” Halberstam was upset last May when his brother’s killer, serving a 143-year-to-life sentence, escaped from the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago and remained on the loose for almost three months before finally being recaptured. “You’d like,” he says sarcastically, “for the Feds to be a little lighter on their feet.”

The force of Halberstam’s convictions has earned him the respect of his peers. “Passionately moral, the last of the Old Testament prophets,” is columnist Russell Baker’s description of his Nantucket neighbor. Although Halberstam is disarmingly friendly and generous, he also has a formidable temper and an ego to match. “He takes everything that happens to him very seriously,” explains Jack Langguth, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and a pal of Halberstam’s since their days on the Crimson. “To David it all matters. He cares deeply, feels strongly and he acts boldly. Very few people burn with that white heat of conviction the way he does.” Concurs Salisbury: “If you don’t know him, his passion can be menacing.” And even those who do know him have found themselves victims of his relentless probing at dinner parties.

Unflappable, self-possessed Jean Butler Halberstam, 37, is the perfect foil for her driven husband. His 10-year marriage to Polish actress Elzbieta Czyzewska ended in 1975, and he had been dating actress Hope Lange, among others, when he met Jean at a party in 1977. “The friends I came with left early,” he says, “and hers were already smashed by the time I arrived, so we just gravitated toward one another.” Butler, then a life-styles writer for the New York Times, began living with Halberstam later that year. They married two years later. Jean has no desire to return to writing and recently opened a home-furnishings store, One South Beach, on a cobblestone lane just a few blocks from their large gray-shingled house near the center of Nantucket. “She knows about writing and is one of David’s best critics,” says Jack Langguth, “but she has her own interests and can stand apart from him. That’s important to the marriage.”

With money rolling in from The Amateurs, Halberstam has now returned to The Reckoning. He has done four years of saturation interviewing in the auto industry and has spent eight months researching in Tokyo. “The book is the story of the conflict between a culture of affluence and a culture of adversity,” he says. “Unlike us, the Japanese waste nothing. We’re going to have to learn to live in this changed world or continue to see foreign competitors get the best of us.”

Meanwhile Halberstam is making his own adjustments to marriage and fatherhood. He writes primarily in the morning and tries to spend at least part of every afternoon with Jean and Julia. Halberstam is a shamelessly doting parent, but at one point he seemed daunted by the long-term obligations of becoming a first-time father at 46. “When I turned 50, I told Jean I couldn’t see myself working this hard 20 years from now,” says Halberstam. His levelheaded wife knew just how to reassure him. “Stop whining,” she said. “You’re doing what you love.” And he is.