The Best and the Brightest
by David Halberstam
Random House, 688 pp., $10.00
What is the purpose of this book? Six hundred and eighty-eight pages of “colorful” narrative that seem to have been breathlessly dictated to a recording device and, except for the portions that appeared in magazines, never to have been touched by an editorial pencil wielded by the author or anybody else. One keeps asking oneself to what end all these excited words were assembled, what they add to the already replete literature on the US and Vietnam. The book is now a fantastic best seller, yet the author cannot have aimed simply at the market. He is too sincere, too “concerned,” and who could have foreseen that the time was right for a huge “backgrounder” on our Vietnam involvement, studded, like a ham, with anecdotes and gossip about historic decisions and high-status personalities, syrupy with compassionate insights into the gamesmanship of power?
In fact the book’s success is a mystery to this reader, who was unable to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs at a go without ferocious application of will power, tea, coffee, drinks of water, propping open of eyelids, pinches, strolls about the room. I attribute my stupefied boredom partly to Halberstam’s prose, which combines a fluency of cliché with deafness to idiom and grammatical incomprehensibility. Yet I have read many dull and badly written books about Vietnam with no particular effort. If Halberstam’s was such a grind to get through, there must be other reasons. A soft, spineless construction: nuggets of research stuck together with a repellent sweetish glue serving as connective? Still, unavoidably, the narrative moves ahead (since events did), though the persistent regular insertion of biographical flashbacks, like the occurrence of nuts and raisins in some rather doughy hermits, makes the plot thicken more perhaps than was necessary.
But even if the slowness of pace, especially on familiar ground, may cause one impatience, that is not the basic problem—one could skip. The basic problem lies in that question of purpose, which keeps arising: the crying lack of any discernible intention. The author has an air of having something on his mind, some weighty portentous burden (having to do, somehow, with the shaping of US foreign policy and the selection of personnel), but whatever it is, or was, he is unable to convey to the reader, who comes out of the experience with no clearer notions than he had before on the cause and prevention of Vietnams. And the bewildered demand “Why is he writing this book? What is he trying to say?” may become, in the course of pages, “Why, for God’s sake, am I reading it?”
Despite the tone of concern and civic commitment, the book has less to contribute to the public interest (compare the Pentagon Papers) than to consumer appetites for unauthorized prowls down the corridors of power. If Halberstam has any message to impart, it is the anguished cry “Can we not learn from history?” But the historian cannot learn much from him, since …
The Third Man April 5, 1973