Sunday, May 27, 2007

Legends on Legends

I'm aware that what follows is gushingly positive, so if that's not your thing, be forewarned.

A couple of weeks ago back in Shantou, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture of epic proportions: Peter Arnett, the new addition to the J-school faculty, speaking about the life, times, and untimely death of his good friend David Halberstam.

(Halberstam, for those who don't know, was a journalist who wrote nonfiction books, the most famous of which was probably The Best and the Brightest, an account of how the Kennedy and then Johnson administrations got mired in Vietnam. Halberstam was killed in April. Though in his 70s, he was still writing, and was getting a ride to an interview from a Berkeley student. The car was broadsided; Halberstam was in the passenger seat, and was killed instantly.)

Arnett's presence in Shantou is both extremely lucky and oddly appropriate, considering the ravenous appetite for all things China among journalists and media types in the States. Not to toot our own horn, but it's fascinating to me how this small university in a strange isolated corner of southern China is attracting more and more heavy hitters from the journalism world. I guess it's a case of the right program at the right time in the right country.

Two things struck me about the lecture: One, how having a figure of such experience provides living, speaking history to the listener and two, how one of Arnett's strongest memories of Halberstam was quite personal.

"In Saigon, in 1962..." How many working journalists today can begin sentences like that? Things that most of us read in books or have only seen in movies are the man's memories, his working experience. To be able to hear those stories is simply incredible.

While he covered Halberstam's work extensively in the lecture, one anecdote stood out: Halberstam personally rescued Arnett from a beating by Diem's security forces. They'd been at some kind of protest or rally, and the increasing hostility that the police had had toward journalists bubbled over. They attacked Arnett. Halberstam, a large man with a large presence, waded into the fray and pulled Arnett out.

At the time, they were young guys, hungry for stories and passionate about covering a war. But, Arnett said, one of his strongest memories of Halberstam would always be that -- not how accomplished he was, but how Halberstam took a risk for him.

Even legends need a helping hand sometimes.

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