Journalism in the Public Interest

A Closer Look

A Closer Look: ‘The Best and the Brightest,’ Steve Bannon and Us


A Closer Look

Examining the news

Richard Tofel and
Stephen Engelberg

We are honored to report that the daughter and son-in-law of David Halberstam, one of the greatest reporters of the 20th century, have decided to donate to ProPublica the royalties for 2017 from increased sales of Halberstam’s landmark book, “The Best and the Brightest.”

Julia Halberstam told us she was moved to do this by reaction to a story in The New York Times reporting that White House assistant Stephen Bannon was reading the book during the presidential transition and recommending it to colleagues.

We agree with Bannon that the book is “great for seeing how little mistakes early on” in an administration “can lead to big ones later.”

“The Best and the Brightest” chronicles how Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were drawn into a catastrophic war in Vietnam. It is a cautionary tale of the dangers of arrogance in power — a risk to every presidency, especially in its earliest days.

There is another lesson from the career of David Halberstam that also strikes us as having resonance at this moment.

In 1962-63 Halberstam was reporting from Vietnam for the Times. He uncovered evidence that the government of South Vietnam was corrupt and failing, and he wrote a succession of stories questioning the key assumptions underlying U.S. policy in the region.

Kennedy was incensed by the coverage, which contradicted everything he was hearing from his military advisors. He confronted the Times’ publisher, Punch Sulzberger, and demanded he recall Halberstam from Vietnam. Sulzberger refused, as any publisher worth his salt should when facing such a request, and the American people were the ultimate beneficiaries. (Halberstam, for his part, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Vietnam in 1964.)

If you have not read “The Best and the Brightest,” or have not read it recently, we join Steve Bannon in urging you to do so. ProPublica will benefit, to be sure, but we believe anyone seeking to be an informed citizen will as well.

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