Books

In the cult of personality the biggest are the best

THE POWERS THAT BE by David Halberstam

Doug Fetherling May 28 1979
Books

In the cult of personality the biggest are the best

THE POWERS THAT BE by David Halberstam

Doug Fetherling May 28 1979

In the cult of personality the biggest are the best

Books

THE POWERS THAT BE by David Halberstam

(Random House of Canada, $19.50)

Make no mistake about it, David Halberstam’s colleagues in the media will despise this book. Whether they work in any of the news organizations he writes about (Time, CBS News, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times) is immaterial. They will loathe it with an assertiveness that transcends corporate allegiance. And not because it is an indictment of their profession. (It’s really a loving anthology of communications folklore.) Nor because Halberstam shamelessly passes out compliments to those who could harm him while taking vicious swipes at the dead and the old. (He writes best who lives to write another day.) The reason, simply, is that they’re all so bloody jealous.

This is a big work, the modern equivalent of one of those folios Charles and Mary Lamb would spend an entire winter reading. Moreover, it’s a shambling, macho, dumb sort of book, with a score of reactionary, brilliant, dynamic fig-

ures, so that reading it is like attending a party where all the guests are John Bassett. It’s precisely the volume Halberstam’s co-workers always threaten to write when they retire, but never do. He has done it, damn his eyes, and he’ll never be forgiven.

It shows a different Halberstam from the one who wrote The Best and the Brightest seven years ago. In that passionate Vietnam war book he was working with information that was largely fresh and immediate. The Powers That Be, by contrast, is less a masterpiece of reporting than of organization. He writes about Time’s Henry Luce, for instance, and William Paley and Edward R. Murrow of CBS, who have all been done to death in histories, biographies and other people’s memoirs. And legends already surround Phil Graham, who took The Washington Post and made it profitable, and his wife, Katharine, who inherited it and made it famous. The Chandler family of Los Angeles is less well known nationally, bu* this still means that little of Halberstam’s story is new. What’s interest-

ing instead is the way he marshals anecdotes to show the relationship between the media and politics. For this is a book with an Idea.

Halberstam’s subtext goes like this: American presidents, starting with Franklin Roosevelt, began latching on to radio first and then television to sidestep both the party press and party loyalties and sell themselves directly to the masses, as one might sell soap. Television, in turn, killed off a lot of newspapers but made the surviving ones far wealthier and more powerful. So the printed monoliths competed with the networks in exaggerating the cult of personality inherent in the presidential system. This suited the candidates fine and probably the voters as well. On balance, Halberstam thinks this situation shameful and dangerous. But how does he make the point? Why, by concentrating on personalities, naturally. And pretty colorful rascals they are, too, for all their overfamiliarity.

One of Halberstam’s weaknesses (there aren’t all that many) is that he’s not a business writer and can’t make financial manoeuvres fascinating. He therefore refuses to acknowledge that Time Inc. or the Times-Mirror Co. have ongoing existences of their own, the way other large enterprises do, apart from the people who built them. Thus we get another rerun of crude-man-

nered, China-born Luce feeling ever the outsider and “more intensely American, more accepting of American values than most men of his intellectual achievement.”

In much the same way he chooses CBS over the other networks, not because its news is better, but because it provides in founder William Paley a single figure on whom to focus. Truth to tell (and Halberstam does), Paley put profits far ahead of responsibility, stabbing Mur-

row in the process. Halberstam’s more successful with the Grahams and the Chandlers, especially when they fail to fit his thesis.

A joke once had it that Katharine Graham lay bedridden in a New York hotel and asked her husband to run down and buy her a magazine. He bought Newsweek for $15 million. Phil Graham, in fact, comes across as a fine head who methodically made the once inconsequential Post the top paper in

the capital both editorially and financially. But Halberstam is at a loss to explain the mental illness which led Graham to commit suicide in 1963, when he was 48. Halberstam also shines when failing to explain just how, in the course of one generation, the Los Angeles Times went, if not from rags to riches exactly, then from being a rich rag to being one of the two best papers in the country.

General Harrison Otis, a Civil War veteran, had made it a weapon to promote extreme conservatism and destroy Los Angeles unions (20 employees were killed in 1910 when strikers blew up the building). The tradition, only somewhat modified, was kept alive by two generations of Chandlers. S.J. Perelman once wrote that he asked a train porter to fetch him a newspaper, “but unfortunately the poor man, being hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times.” As recently as 1960 (the year the present publisher, Otis Chandler, took over) readers were amazed to find that the Democratic presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, was even allowed a mention. After all, the Times had discovered Richard Nixon and made him what he became, though in the end they turned on each other.

Otis Chandler inherited not only a cushion of capital but a non-union shop, and turned them to good account in the greatest journalistic success tale of the age. The story line shows through despite Halberstam’s curious style. (He writes of a Times reporter: “To most politicians that was simply Bergholz being Bergholz, Bergholz was tough with all politicians, part of the game, but to Nixon, with that terrible sensitivity, everything always so personalized, it was not Bergholz being Bergholz, it was Bergholz being against Nixon.”) Yet the prose, after a while, takes on an addictive rhythm that carries you above the theme and the shopworn anecdotes. This is the book all slick American newsmen have wanted to write but, despite its faults and its own limitations, could not have done half so well.

Doug Fetherling