Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Little Red Lie, Redux

David Halberstam's death by car crash has the American mainstream media, The New York Times most especially, lighting funeral torches and sermonizing about Halberstam's journalistic integrity and deep moral vision. This is what happens when a senior scribe priest passes on, for it gives those still alive yet another opportunity to congratulate themselves for working in such an elevated profession as journalism. And to a certain generation of writers, Halberstam was among the elevated elite.

Halberstam did little for me -- he was too middle-of-the-road for my taste, and helped to keep the present system of recording acceptable history well-oiled and intact. I wrote about him once, during my brief gig with Ironminds, an online mag whose corporate backer, Novix Media, cheated many contributors before collapsing altogether. I was hired to write about the social impact of sports (alongside Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News), coming off the just-published "American Fan" and my appearances on dozens of sports radio shows nationwide. I took a big swing at Halberstam in my first column, as well as at the top sportswriters of the time, figuring I should piss off as many mainstream sports aficionados as I could from the jump, just to clear the ground if nothing else (such was my conceit in those innocent, pre-9/11 days). But I never did get Halberstam to correct his flawed history lesson, not that I had a serious chance to begin with, but you take your shots when you can and see what sticks. Here's my take on Halberstam as it appeared in Ironminds, July 10, 2000.

Little Red Lie

The Vietnam War inspires revision. After all, when you've slaughtered millions of men, women and children, and bombed large parts of their country into moonscape, it's best to dip the memories in bleach and hope the blood rinses away.

Such was the case during the 25th anniversary of the American pullout in April, a festival of revisionism on the order of MTV's Spring Break. And now, on a smaller but no less important scale, we find a senior member of the sportswriting fraternity engaged in the same squalid enterprise.

David Halberstam is well regarded by his peers. He has written about many topics during his illustrious career: civil rights, war, American politics and, of course, sports. He is the author of "Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made," a companion volume of sorts to MJ's own "For the Love of the Game: My Story," a monument to self-love that recalls the Age of Pharaohs. Halberstam's effort is less grandiose than Jordan's, and this is what Halberstam's partisans expect -- restraint, fairness, the ability to assess a subject in the proper light. We can trust what Halberstam says. They don't give Pulitzers to just anyone.

In the July 2 New York Times Book Review, we find Halberstam assessing (hell, celebrating) Red Smith, one of the better stylists of sportswriting's old guard. Smith's chief love was baseball. He was there when the greats played the game. He recorded the feats of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson in cool, measured prose and served as an inspiration to a new generation of sportswriters, of which Halberstam was one. With the release of "Red Smith on Baseball," a long-awaited anthology of the late scribe's best work, Halberstam falls to his knees and pays unlimited respect, gushing for paragraphs about the greatness of his hero.

Which is fine. We all have our idols, I suppose, and Red Smith's writing is far superior to that of Mike Lupica, Mitch Albom, Rick Reilly and Tony Kornheiser. But that's not enough for Halberstam. After going on and on about Smith's ability to capture the poetry of the national pastime and turn it into literature, he suddenly drags in Muhammad Ali as a prop to further glorify Smith:

"When Cassius Clay embraced Islam, changed his name to Muhammad Ali and refused to serve in Vietnam, his actions outraged many sportswriters; Smith wrote with sympathy of Ali, his talent and his integrity."

This is, how you say, bullshit. In fact, Smith was one of the outraged sportswriters. He belittled Cassius Clay and openly hoped that Sonny Liston would pound the piss out of the brash young fighter. When Clay defeated Liston, won the heavyweight title and shouted to the sportswriters who were ringside to eat their words, Smith hesitantly obliged in print and conceded that the taste was not to his liking.

When Clay became Ali and refused to help butcher Vietnamese, the pro-war Smith went nuts. Here are two samples of his "sympathy of Ali," omitted by Halberstam:

"There are draft-dodgers in every war, and Clay isn't the only slacker in this one."

"Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war."

Note, too, how Smith refused to call Ali by his Muslim name. This was standard practice among those of Smith's generation, with the exceptions of Howard Cosell and a young sportswriter for the New York Times, Robert Lipsyte, now one of the paper's elders. The documentary record shows that Smith was no fan of The Greatest (indeed, when Joe Frazier beat Ali in 1971, Smith practically choked with joy), and though he apparently softened his view in later years, Smith was one of the shriller voices of the media pack that hounded Ali when it mattered.

Halberstam surely knows this, so his attempt to exonerate Smith for mistreating Ali is especially dishonest. One may think that Halberstam truly believes what he wrote, that it was not a crass attempt to beautify Smith's ugly past. After all, it's become folk wisdom that the great Red Smith was nothing but supportive of Ali. (Wasn't everyone?) But one need only read Thomas Hauser's "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times" and David Remnick's acclaimed "King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero" to discover the truth about Smith. I'm certain Halberstam has, which makes his little Red lie even more difficult to digest.