David Halberstam
David Halberstam
The Fifties
ISBN: 0449909336
The Fifties
Mr. Halberstam, author of The Best and the Brightest, discussed the research behind his latest book, The Fifties, published by Fawcett Books. He talked about the social climate of the 1950s including the effects of the spread of television across the country, the introduction of situational comedies, the birth control pill, Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the H-bomb. He reflected on his own experiences during the 1950s and in writing the book.
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TRANSCRIPT
The Fifties
Program Air Date: July 11, 1993

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: David Halberstam, author of The Fifties, who were Herb Stempel and Charles Van Doren?
DAVID HALBERSTAM: (Author, "The Fifties"): Oh, my goodness. They were almost one of the first attempts of television to go to casting in everything you shot -- the idea that television, everything it did, had to be cast -- and they were part of the great quiz show scandal. What had happened was the producers were looking for a whiz kid, a guy who could answer every question, and Herb Stempel was someone who had this brilliant mind. I mean, he had sort of an encyclopedic knowledge, and he went on and he did very well. They tested him, but he was, by their standards, incredibly unattractive, so they didn't know what to do. They had a kid who could answer all these questions but there was nothing winning about him, so they decided to cast him as the unlovable Stempel. They cast against him this great scion of a family -- the Van Doren family, a great literary family -- Charles Van Doren. Van Doren was elegant. He was the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, the nephew of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer. He had grace. He had just enough diffidence that it made him seem particularly attractive on television because he never seemed to want it so much. The whole nation fell in love with him. To me the important thing about Charles Van Doren is it shows what television could do; that it could take overnight someone who had never been on television, no one knew his name, and within two weeks make him into a national hero, someone who could run for the presidency, almost like the Perot phenomenon. They did it, and they brought Van Doren out and the whole nation fell in love with him.
LAMB: What year was this?
HALBERSTAM: 1957, I believe, although the scandal, I think, breaks later on. The problem is, it's rigged. The country is falling in love with Van Doren. It wants Van Doren, graceful, charming and winning, to beat the dreaded Herb Stempel, who is considered to be sort of unattractive, lower-class, whatever. Van Doren keeps winning and winning and winning. What the country doesn't know is that both Stempel and Van Doren have been given the answers to the questions, and it's all manipulated. It's a fix.
LAMB: The network was?
HALBERSTAM: NBC.
LAMB: The program's title?
HALBERSTAM: It was "Twenty-One."
LAMB: But there was a program called "The $64,000 Question?"
HALBERSTAM: Yes. It began with the "The $64,000 Question," and then in the final manifestation, it was "Twenty-One" with Van Doren and Stempel and a guy named Dan Enright as the fixer and a guy named Al Freedman as his sub-fixer. It led to congressional hearings on it, in which finally Van Doren, who had protested his innocence, protested his innocence, protested his innocence, had to go before the country, scion of this great family, and say, "What I did was wrong. It was rigged. In fact, a lot of my life has been rigged and fixed." It was a traumatic moment for a lot of people. A lot of people said, "This is the end of innocence. Have we corrupted everything? Is there anything left that is pure in America?" It was a shattering moment for many Americans, particularly because Van Doren was an intellectual all-star, coming from that family with that charm. Mark Van Doren, his father, was arguably one of the greatest teachers and English professors of his time, and here was Charlie, who was going to follow in his footsteps and teach English at Columbia, and then was pulled aside from a salary of $3,500 a year by the promise of this enormous money in this quiz show.
LAMB: I noticed in the back, where you list all the people you interviewed, that you interviewed Herb Stempel, but you did not interview Charles Van Doren.
HALBERSTAM: Well, I wrote him a note. You know, he's not available for interviews, and he has made that pretty clear. I think it's such a painful thing in his life that he's never quite come to terms with it. I wrote him a note saying, "Listen, I'd like to interview you. I think that what happened with you has a broader resonance, that really what it shows is that television will cast everything. The president, a race for the presidency -- television has to have casting. It's drama. Politics has to be not just politics but entertainment. I think what happened with you and Stempel is the first great example of it." I got back a very nice, very polite letter saying, "I don't know if you're right or not, but I'm not giving interviews." It was a very polite letter, but it said nada.
LAMB: He moved to Chicago and went to work for Mortimer Adler?
HALBERSTAM: Yes. Mortimer Adler with the Great Books series was a family friend, and he went out there. A friend of mine saw him there. I asked a friend of mine who is an editor of a Chicago paper what he was like, because in a city like Chicago, the journalists and writers tend to hang out together. I said, "Was he part of your group?" He said, "No. On a very rare occasion I would see him, and he struck me as someone living in exile from another country." A very sad phrase. He would write books that are still books of some distinction, but he cannot promote them the way I'm promoting my book now because he knew that if he went on any kind of television show, they wouldn't ask about whatever book it is, "Great Thoughts of the Western Mind." The first question would be, "What about the quiz show scandal?" so he was never able to promote his own books.
LAMB: Was the "Twenty-One" program and the quiz show scandal a portent of what we've gotten since 1957 on television?
HALBERSTAM: I think it was a reflection of the power of the medium. The country's much more skeptical now. There was an innocence about television. Television was brand-new. Anything that worked, worked and stunned people. When they first did the "$64,000 Question" and it was sponsored, I think, by Revlon, you couldn't buy a Revlon product the next day. Revlon doubled its percentage of the market practically. The other companies that were in the same cosmetic field went way down. In fact, one of the other companies had to write a letter to its stockholders saying, "Because of the extraordinary success of our rival company with a quiz show, our stock went down this year." It really changed everything. I think it was a portent of how television casts everything, and it wants good guys and bad guys. "60 Minutes," which is arguably a very good show, is also like a western. I mean, there's Mike Wallace wearing the white hat, and whoever he's interviewing has got to have a black hat on. Television loves that. It doesn't like complexity. It likes simplicity -- good and evil.
LAMB: Where do you live?
HALBERSTAM: New York City near Lincoln Center in a lovely apartment that was once designed for artists. It's a block called the cafe de artiste block, and the main room is theatrical. It's two floors with sort of almost rabbit warren other rooms off it. It's a wonderful privileged life, you know, being a book writer. I'm about to be 60 on my next birthday, and I go out and I write books. I live a good life, and I can have both my private life and my professional life in a way that an anchorman on television or a superstar television reporter can't. There's a wonderful level of privacy and a wonderful level of engagement in the society. I have the best of both worlds.
LAMB: I counted in the front of the book 12 books plus this one.
HALBERSTAM: Yes, 13 I think it is now. I've been on a very nice road because I think all the last eight, starting with The Best and the Brightest, have really all done well. They've made best-seller lists, and it's allowed me to have the ability to go out and write books that sometimes take four or five years. It sometimes takes four or five years, like going to a university. You enter a door one day and then four years later you come out and you've sort of got your intellectual degree and you've learned so much more, and yet you make enough money to live in New York City. That's very, very lucky.
LAMB: Where were you born?
HALBERSTAM: I was born in the Bronx. My father was a doctor. My brother and I were probably two years younger than we should have been because of the Depression. We're really Depression children. He was born in '32; I was born in '34, and about the time that our father was going to make some money -- my father was a veteran of World War I. He'd been a poor kid, an immigrant's son from a small town in Pennsylvania. He graduated from medical school in 1929, having been encouraged by the field hospital doctors in World War I to go back and study medicine because he could be more than a medic. He graduated in '29, and he graduated to the Depression. About the time he was finally going to make some money, World War II came along. At the age of 46 he went back in the service, so we left New York and the Bronx then and we moved all over. Our main home from then on was a little town in northwest Connecticut, a mill town called Winsted. I am one of the few people who has known Ralph Nader since he was 8 years old when we in the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth grades together. We went from Winsted to El Paso to follow my father; then to Austin, Texas, then to Rochester, Minn. It was difficult going to a new school all the time, but it also gave you a sense of the size of the country and it allowed me, when I finally graduated from college and went on to journalism, to be more fearless and more adventurous in the assignments I took on.
LAMB: You mentioned Ralph Nader in your book in regard to the Corvair. Why did you write about the Corvair in the 1950s?
HALBERSTAM: Just as a symbol. One of the things that the book is about is it really says -- when you put down the book, I wanted people to know about the '50s, but I also wanted them to know why the '60s happened. When you put down this book, you should be able to say to yourself, "Ah! Now I know why the '60s happened!" So by doing the roots of the '60s, I dealt lightly with the coming of Ralph Nader and the building of the Corvair, when GM begins to cheat just a little on the roll bar, when it should have the balance and for about $18 they take out something that makes the car more stable. You begin to sense the power of the accountants on a car that GM doesn't really want to do anyway because it's a small car, and they think, small cars, small profits. So it cheats on this car as it shouldn't cheat, and out of that you get these terrible lawsuits and these terrible, terrible accidents.
LAMB: Did some Americans resent the little VW Beetle running around because it was German?
HALBERSTAM: I don't think it was that it was German. I think when there was resentment of things German postwar -- and there was -- in the early '50s the attitudes of some people were still formed in World War II. Anything German was bad. I don't think we were as tolerant yet. The resentment was more toward a Mercedes-Benz. It wasn't towards a little dinky bug-like car. I think the resentments that the Beetles brought were the resentments of Detroit towards a car that was small. The worst thing about the Beetle was that the people who were buying it could afford Cadillacs. That's what drove Detroit crazy. The people who were buying the Beetle were these scientists and college professors, and they were the affluent people of the upper-middle class. By all rights, they should have at least had a Buick and probably a Cadillac. Instead they're buying miniaturized transportation, a much smaller part of their budget, and instead they're going on skiing vacations or going on vacations to Europe. They're not using their disposable income the way a good, loyal, true American should back in the 1950s, which is to maximize their transportation, to have two or three of the biggest cars you can get.
LAMB: By the way, as you can see here, there is no index in this book. In order to find out what's in each of the chapters . . .
HALBERSTAM: There's no index?
LAMB: No.
HALBERSTAM: You got cheated. There is an index to the book.
LAMB: Really?
HALBERSTAM: Yes. You got cheated. I'm very sorry. We will replace this with a hand-signed book. There is an index. They gave you a flawed copy. It probably makes it all the more valuable.
LAMB: This is a collector's item.
HALBERSTAM: It's a collector's item. You can probably auction this book at an auction with your notes on it, and it would probably be worth a great deal. I will personally get you a book with an index, maybe before the day is out.
LAMB: I really wasn't complaining, because it forces you quickly to learn what's in the book so you know what you have.
HALBERSTAM: But you really should have an index on a book like this.
LAMB: All right. Forty chapters, 800 pages.
HALBERSTAM: Well, 730 in terms of the book. The invisible index or the non-index and the author's notes take up another 50 or 60 pages. We wanted to bring the book in at under 750 pages in terms of the manuscript itself. We had to cut 500 pages out. My wonderful editor Doug Stumpf cut out stuff that was good. I mean, there was a portrait of Rocky Marciano as the last white heavyweight fighter, sort of Rocky before "Rocky." We had to cut it out. We had to cut out some really good stuff.
LAMB: What else was cut out?
HALBERSTAM: We cut out a section on The Catcher in the Rye as an early rebel. We cut out longer chunks of some of the stuff that made it. We just had to cut out a lot of really good stuff.
LAMB: Did you talk much about the airplane anywhere?
HALBERSTAM: There is some sense in there, I think, of the jet airplane, the coming of jet planes. I'll tell you one plane that is in there, which is brilliant, is the U-2. Here is this great spy plane that they do almost door to door in 90 days. American science and technology and aeronautical engineering is so good that from the time they have the idea for a spy plane that can fly at 75,000 feet to the operative model takes only three months. You couldn't do that today.
LAMB: Where were you in 1950?
HALBERSTAM: In 1950 we had moved briefly back to Westchester County. I was still in high school.
LAMB: In New York?
HALBERSTAM: Yes, in New York. We'd moved there because my father had come back from the war, and we briefly lived there. In 1951 I graduate from high school in Westchester. The Korean War is on, but my generation had, in effect, draft deferments based on class in the Korean War without anybody knowing it. If you went to college, your draft board left you alone. No matter whether you were going to be a scientist or not, we were II-S. Korea was the coming of a class line who fought for our country. We didn't even realize it at the time. I had the benefit of that, and I went on, a public high school kid, to Harvard, not a very good student but managing editor of the Harvard Crimson and I graduated in 1955. I'm a child of the '50s, really.
LAMB: When did you get the idea for this book?
HALBERSTAM: I've had it for a long time. I wanted to do an autobiography, but I don't think journalist autobiographies are any good. Someone writes a biography, "Six Presidents Who Have Known Me and Six Presidents I Have Known," and it turns out he hasn't known these presidents very well. It turns out you write about being overseas in your overseas incarnation. I was a young reporter in the Congo. I don't really remember much about the Congo except the difficulty I had filing from the telex. I mean, it's not a clear memory. I don't have clear memories of many Congolese, or now Zairian, people. I think journalistic memoirs usually go, "I did not know Gen. de Gaulle very well and he and I were not intimate, but I'd like to think that we had this warm, respectful relationship, and one day after one of his press conferences, the general came over to me, signaled that he wanted to talk, and he said to me, 'Monsieur Halberstam, I thought your question today was beautifully phrased and your French was perfect.'" That's your relationship with Gen. de Gaulle. So this was a way of doing an autobiography -- that which formed me, that which I lived through -- without having to go through the boredom of my own life.
LAMB: Did you select the way that the book was laid out and the way the chapters followed?
HALBERSTAM: Yes. I envisioned the book six years ago. Another reason I wanted to do it was that the last long book I'd done was The Reckoning, which was a story of the American economy coming under pressure, becoming vulnerable from the challenge of the Japanese, so I wanted to look at America when it was rich in a world that was poor, when everything seemed to work. These were the dual things, and I had a vision of the book about six or seven years ago before I started out, and it was this vision. I mean, there would be sections on television, sections on the affluence, sections on the McCarthy period, and, if possible, near the end of the book they would begin to twine together. As one person said, they would braid, so that you would have television and then you would have civil rights, and then late in the book television would be covering civil rights. That's what I had. I wanted to show the impact, among other things, of television on the society, so that you get the speeding up. I not only have General Motors and its supreme affluence, but late in the book I have a wonderful chunk, I think, on Gerry Schnitzer and Kensinger Jones doing these astonishing commercials for those Chevrolets that are beautifully done, that are like Norman Rockwell going to television -- the Chevy in the heart of the American culture -- and so we have the ability now to sell over television, the coming of this powerful instrument that comes right into your home, not just in politics but as a salesperson. I had that in my vision that these different parts would begin to braid together.
LAMB: Were you working on any other book in the middle of trying to do this?
HALBERSTAM: Yes, I did. I think this book was about six years long, and in the middle of it I did a small sports book, The Summer of '49, which was great fun, and which was, by the way, informed by this book because this is a book on the coming of television to society and The Summer of '49 is on the last radio era in baseball -- before big money, before television -- when you hear a game on the radio and you form a mythic vision of a DiMaggio or a Williams. They live larger because you create the myth for them in the fantasy of your mind. I did that book in the middle of it, and I did a very small book called The Next Century, which was an essay based on some of the things that I had learned in doing The Reckoning about America in jeopardy.
LAMB: Why did you start in the first chapter with a fairly long discussion about Hiss-Chambers, Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers?
HALBERSTAM: I think it's the shadow of a case like that -- and it was not just Hiss-Chambers. There were other things -- the Rosenbergs, Judith Coplon. What I wanted to show was that here was America that was very affluent in its postwar era, as I say, in a world that is poor. But the anxiety of living in a divided world with the Communists at a time of nuclear weapons where both sides have nuclear weapons and then thermonuclear weapons and both sides have delivery systems -- which even creates greater anxiety, because the things that have always protected us, our security blankets, the two oceans, no longer matter because you can deliver the ultimate weapon by jet or by rocket. In addition, if the book has, in effect, a revolutionary idea -- and I don't know if it's revolutionary -- I believe from my research that the McCarthy period begins and gets a virus into the bloodstream of the society when the Republicans lose to Truman in '48. They've lost four times to Roosevelt. They are chomping at the bit. They are already afraid that they are going to be a permanent minority party, but they believe that Dewey will win. When the little haberdasher, as they thought he was -- and we know now was an extraordinary American politician and an extraordinary American -- beats Dewey and they have lost five times in a row, the fear that they are a permanent minority party is very real. In fact, very early in the book -- I think it's about Page 4 -- I quote a meeting of Thomas E. Dewey going to see Dwight Eisenhower and asking him to run because he's this independent who's above politics. Dewey is saying -- we have Eisenhower's notes of it -- "A Republican can't be elected anymore because the Democrats demographically because of Roosevelt have so changed the nation that you have a plant, in effect, where there are 500 people; five people are managers and they wear a suit and tie and they vote Republican, and 495 are blue collar and they're Democrats and they vote for the Democrats. The demographics are against us." It is this fear of being a permanent minority party that I think begets the McCarthy period, because for the first time they have to seize on another issue. You know, the pure economic issues, they're a minority, but if they seize on this issue of subversion in government, the idea that our government has been soft on the Communists or even hand in hand with it, that we have been subverted here domestically by our own people, that will get them back in. That issue begins only after Dewey's defeat. Dewey runs a very honorable campaign. He does not use smut, he does not use the anti-Communist, he does not use softness on Communism. That stuff comes after his defeat, and even someone as elegant as Robert A. Taft -- we've really not had many senators better; more elegant or more distinguished -- finally says to Joe McCarthy, "Joe, keep going. If one case doesn't pan out, try another," i.e., put the Democrats on the defensive, use this issue to keep them on the defensive.
LAMB: Let me read this sentence. "The setting was this: Aug. 3, 1948. The House committee, which included a large number of the most unattractive men in American public life -- bigots, racists, reactionaries and sheer buffoons -- held hearings in which Whittaker Chambers not only said that he himself was a Communist but that there was a Communist group in the government in the late '30s and that Alger Hiss was a member of it." Let me just do that again -- "bigots, racists, reactionaries and sheer buffoons." Who were you talking about?
HALBERSTAM: About the House Un-American Activities Committee. The one solid person on that committee was a young congressman from California named Richard Nixon. I mean, they were known for their buffoonery. Nixon was intelligent, serious, smart. He was by far the most reliable member of the committee. He was being fed stuff by J. Edgar Hoover. He had access to the FBI files, and he performed very skillfully in the Hiss hearings. He did not, by the way, have a bad press in the Hiss hearings. He would later claim, "The press is against because of this." That's not true. The press was against him finally for a variety of other reasons, but in the Hiss case, you really had a bunch of buffoons on that committee. In fact, when Hiss made his first presentation -- because he was so elegant and so sophisticated, the epitome of Harvard Law School and the establishment, and Chambers, who was brilliant but really sort of a disheveled man with a very bizarre past -- most of the committee members said, "Let's get out of this thing. That guy Hiss looks terrific. I don't like the look of Chambers." It was only Nixon -- and I think in part because he was being fed by the Hoover people, he knew a bit more than the others -- who said, "No, let's stay on it." He noticed that there was an odd, a certain quality to Hiss's denials; that they were really kind of calculated. They were not complete denials. There were little phrases in there that protected him from complete denials, and he pursued the case and more and more stuff came out. It turned out that two juries, in effect, believed that Chambers rather than Hiss was telling the truth. In the first case you had a hung jury. I think it was eight to four for conviction of perjury against Hiss, and then the second jury voted to convict.
LAMB: Alger Hiss is still alive?
HALBERSTAM: I think he's still alive, yes.
LAMB: You write that even though last there was a spurt of information coming out of the Soviet Union that suggested that he might be innocent that that was proved wrong also.
HALBERSTAM: Yes, what happened is the head of the KGB files sort of said, "Alger Hiss, we've checked it out and you're a free man." Apparently he was told by people representing Hiss that this was a very old man and he's near death and it would be a wonderful thing if he could let him go, not knowing that this was still a burning issue in America, so he did this. Of course, nobody's really gone through all the files. The files are probably incoherent and all over the place. So he then, having started a firestorm of protest among the pro-Chambers, anti-Hiss people -- George Will and others wrote about it -- he backed down very quickly and said that, in fact, he had not had access to all the files.
LAMB: Looking back from where you sit, what do you think about the whole Hiss-Chambers thing?
HALBERSTAM: I think there are missing pieces. Nobody really knows all. I am inclined to believe that obviously Hiss knew Chambers, despite his denials. I am inclined to believe that either Hiss was a member of the Communist Party or he was protecting his wife who was. There's something there. There's just an awful lot of stuff that is there that doesn't go away. Obviously as well, Chambers is incredibly conspiratorial and living this life of the double agent, deep in his paranoia, but also a brilliant man. The case was made out to be, in effect, the lesson for a generation, as if Hiss would then symbolize the entire New Deal and the end of the New Deal. I don't think it's a symbolic case, but Hiss was made into a symbol, which I don't think he was.
LAMB: One of the things that pops up in your book periodically is how you often mention along the way, "Whittaker Chambers was a homosexual." Later on you talk about Tennessee Williams being a public homosexual. I think Jack Kerouac and . . .
HALBERSTAM: A high percentage of those . . .
LAMB: But coming today, reading about this in 1993, this was back in the 1950s. Was that an issue back then?
HALBERSTAM: I think there was a lot of back-channel word about Chambers, and one of the reasons that his credibility at the time was relatively low was that they had a lot of stuff in the file that showed that his life had a darker side, and that certainly for someone like J. Edgar Hoover,with his own homophobia, made him a less-than-perfect witness. Whittaker Chambers was hardly a white knight to the people who would have wanted him to be one. There was a quality of so much pain and anguish in his life that they were wary of pinning their great hopes on him. You can read his book Witness. It's a brilliant, mordant study of human frailty.
LAMB: Whittaker Chambers's book?
HALBERSTAM: Yes, his book is a great book, Witness.
LAMB: But let me ask you about this, though. You were talking about the homophobia of J. Edgar Hoover, then you kind of refer to the fact that he and Clyde Tolson were -- what?
HALBERSTAM: Well, there was an odd thing. They were always together. They were each other's best friends. I don't think anything ever happened. I don't believe these stories that they have now about Hoover dressing up in drag. I don't believe it for a minute. J. Edgar Hoover's whole life was devoted to getting dirty stuff, gossip on other people. The last thing in the world he was going to do was provide gossip for his enemies. I mean, he just wasn't going to do that. But there was this odd relationship between him and Tolson. They were together at every meal. They went to work together. They ate alone, nobody else. Nobody else need apply -- the two of them eating lunch and dinner almost day of their lives. It was an unusual friendship. I don't think anything was consummated, but it really did make people talk about them.
LAMB: I want to come back to television and politics in just a second. If someone were to have followed you around over the last six, seven years and watched you put this book together, what would they see? For instance, all these interviews you list in the back, do you go to them personally, do them on the phone? Where do you write?
HALBERSTAM: I think most interviews should be done personally. I think it's great fun. I think you interview better when you see someone. I think as you show up, you get a higher validation. You've made the effort to come to their house, you see people. It's more fun. The fun is in doing the interviews. You often do follow-up interviews. When you see someone, "Hey, I forgot to ask you such-and-such." They would see me go to the library a great deal for this and read books and check out.
LAMB: Where?
HALBERSTAM: In New York there's a wonderful library that I love going to called the New York Society Library. It's a small private library, 79th between Park and Madison. It's wonderful. It's not very expensive. While I do go to the New York Public Library, there's something about the New York Society Library that I really love there. A friend of mine named Eli Zabar, who runs a wonderful little food shop, the most expensive food shop in America -- probably a roast beef sandwich is about $200 these days -- is over there at 80th and 81st and Madison, so if I work until about 2:30, I often go and have a light lunch and I can get cappuccino there and then Eli will come over and talk with me. I check in with a friend, I have this great cappuccino and a light lunch -- maybe a salad -- and I've had five hours in the library. Five hours in the library is just wonderful. It's always an adventure. It's like eating salted peanuts. You never know what you're going to get next.
LAMB: Where do you write?
HALBERSTAM: I write at home. In addition to our regular apartment, we have a very small apartment in the back. My wife wanted to get me out of the main house where I work because she thought the steam and angst that came out of my ears and nose during the day while I was working there significantly detracted from her calm and her control of space. So we got this back apartment, which is really quite nice. I get up in the morning when I'm writing, if I write in the morning. I get up and I have a very lazy cappuccino -- I love the cappuccino -- and a very light breakfast. Then about 9:30 or so, I go up to what I call the cage, which is where I write. I've got a nice little CD player. Sometimes I play the blues or sometimes it's Mr. Vivaldi or Mr. Mozart. Then I work for about five hours. There's some exercise machines there and whatever and some books and it's a nice place, but when it's done, I want to get out of there. Jean, my wife, says, "Come on. If you're going to read, why don't you read in the office?" I said, "It's a cage when I'm there. I'm exhausted. I'm writing. Everything I think about in that office is writing. The moment my writing for the day is done, I want to get out. I want to be here. I want to be with you." The pressure of writing and being in that room is so great that when it's over, I don't want to be in the room. I can't relax almost until I'm out of the room.
LAMB: What do you write on?
HALBERSTAM: I used to be an old-fashioned typewriter hunt-and-peck. I never went to an electric typewriter. Then about 10 years ago, friends convinced me to try word processors, and it has liberated me and probably doubled my productivity. It's a great instrument with which to rewrite, to clean up. In the old days, you made one typo and you had to retype the whole page because of a typo. I make a lot of typos. I'm a fast hunt-and-peck man. I make a lot of typos. Now it's like playing Pac Man cleaning up the typos, so it's really made my life a lot easier, and it's really damn near doubled my productivity.
LAMB: Are you writing another book?
HALBERSTAM: I've got two books I'm working on that I'm very excited about. I did Summer of '49, and that's the beginning of the Yankee dynasty, and then I'm going to have a book on the Cardinals and the Yankees in the World Series of '64, which is sort of the end of it, and the rise of the great St. Louis team with Gibson and Flood and Brock and McCarver and White -- good characters. Then I'm going to do a book -- I was a reporter in Nashville, Tenn., 33 years ago. The first sit-ins started there, and it was a very interesting group of young black kids. I was the reporter from the then-Liberal Tennessee, which would cover stories like this as a lot of newspapers did not, and it was triumphant, terrifying -- the fear, the violence. I covered it. I was a year older than they were. They came finally to trust me, and I've had friendships and associations -- for example, with John Lewis, who's a congressman; Marion Barry was part of that group -- and I want to track their lives then and now. I think it's going to be a wonderful book.
LAMB: John Siegenthaler, Al Gore, there's lots of other names.
HALBERSTAM: Walt Westfeld. It's a great paper.
LAMB: The Nashville Tennessean.
HALBERSTAM: The Nashville Tennessean. I had worked for a year in Mississippi. I got out of college in 1955, and I had been managing editor of the Harvard Crimson and I wanted to be a journalist really badly. You know, you're managing editor of the Harvard Crimson and that's pretty good. You're putting out a paper six times a week for a very sophisticated audience. But I knew I was incomplete. I knew I didn't know enough about talking to people. I had to learn how to go out and interview ordinary people. I had to do an apprenticeship. I just started this myself, because I think I could have gotten a job in New York or Washington. It was a year after Brown vs. Board of Education. If I was going to do an apprenticeship, why not do it in the South? Why not in the Deep South? Why not in Mississippi, which was the deepest of the Deep South, the most recalcitrant state? There was a guy at Harvard named Tom Carsell, who was a Nieman Fellow, a 35-year-old journalist, and he said he was going to be the editor of this new liberal paper in Jackson and he said he'd hire me. Terrific. We graduated. All my other friends on the Crimson are going off to Rhodes scholarships or different fellowships. I'm going to where? I'm going to Mississippi. I get down there; he's not working for the new liberal paper. He's working for the old racist paper, The Jackson Daily News. I've got everything I own packed in my '46 Chevy. What do I do? They find me a job as the one reporter on the smallest daily in the state of Mississippi, the West Point, Miss., Daily Times Leader. I go there and I work, $46 a week -- $45 plus a dollar extra because I cover the Kiwanis Club every Wednesday. The greatest experience, probably, of my life. Fresh out of Harvard, Jewish. If you want to be in a different environment, my friend, you are in a different environment. I learned a lot. I learned how to deal with ordinary people, to listen to them, to see the value in people who didn't agree with the same things I agreed and how they worked, what their lives were. From there I went to four wonderful years on the Nashville Tennessean, again honing my skills, learning to interview people. I looked around, I knew I wasn't as good a leg man digging, so I figured out who the good reporters on the Tennessean were, and I just watched them every day. Every night I went out to dinner with them, and I'd say, "How did you do that? How did you do that?" When I got out of there after that five-year apprenticeship, I was a really good reporter. I mean, everything had come together for me.
LAMB: For those people who want to know whether they should buy this book, if you don't mind, I want to tick off a lot of different names. Give just 30 seconds, and then they can get the rest of it. There's so much that it might be helpful. Betty Furness.
HALBERSTAM: She was wonderful. She was the Westinghouse lady. She'd been a B actress out in Hollywood and was doing some small television work in New York. She watched the coming of early television. They had all these people who were trying to display their things, couldn't do it. She became the lady from Westinghouse. She was smart and attractive. Men liked her, but women liked her as well. You could almost chart the coming of the super appliance. It begins, she's twice as big as the refrigerator, and then year by year in the '50s, the refrigerator sort of becomes bigger and bigger and dwarfs her. She would go out to do the conventions in '52 and '56, and they had to do stuff live. She'd have 60 different outfits which she'd keep changing so that she would never look boring. She became as famous as Walter Cronkite, as anybody on those shows. She is a lovely lady. What television caught about her was that she was nice. It wasn't by mistake that men liked her and women didn't feel threatened by her, because she's a good person.
LAMB: Alfred Kinsey.
HALBERSTAM: A great American, distinguished scientist, ultimate square -- the squarest man -- a professor of zoology, the man who had the greatest collection of bugs. Midway in his career, his students come to him and say, "We don't really know much about sex," so he starts giving a course on sexuality. It's a great guarded secret in the '40s, and suddenly it's the most popular course at Indiana University. With that, knowing that these students don't know the most elemental things about sex, he gets interested in sexual studies and he begins to do these classic studies of sexuality, taking the darkest subject covered with the most superstition and trying to ventilate it. What are our sexual habits? What do we really do? How much experience have we had? He publishes first the sexual habits of the American male and then later the female and is pilloried for having done a brilliant scientific study. Even liberal ministers, heads of universities like Princeton attack him, saying, "He should attack his own findings. This is wrong. He's publishing this stuff, and it's wrong." He was a brilliant, brilliant scientist, a truly revolutionary man.
LAMB: Betty Goldstein?
HALBERSTAM: Oh, well, that's the maiden name of a lady who wrote rather large on the decade to come. Her name later became Betty Friedan. She was bright, summa cum laude, went to Greenwich Village, was filled with the excitement of being a young reporter in the Village. Then she marries, begins to have children, is pulled to the suburbs, and she's suddenly beginning to wonder, "Is this all there is to my life?" In 1957, she starts doing a study for her 15th reunion at Smith. She starts sending out a questionnaire to other people, and she finds out from all the other Smith women of this generation that they share, many of them -- I won't say all -- the same despair, frustration and this question, "Is this all there is to life, us sitting out in the suburbs, driving station wagons, taking care of our children or is there going to be something more?" Out of that comes The Feminine Mystique, a seminal book.
LAMB: A couple of weeks ago this lady died and you write a couple of pages on her.
HALBERSTAM: Pat Nixon. I think she's heartbreaking. She has a childhood so harsh it is Dickensian. It is hard as if she lived in the time of Charles Dickens. It's hard to imagine anybody with so difficult a life. Her mother, who's the one person she really loves, dies when she's young. Her father dies. She raises her brothers, cooks for them, keeps house, cleans, and then goes off and studies herself, puts herself through school. Utterly admirable, really beautiful when she was young, eventually marries Richard Nixon. At first when they dated, she was not that enthusiastic about going out with him, but he was nothing if not persistent and I think he was the one way she could get out of Whittier, Calif.
LAMB: I want to ask if this was new information. You interviewed Jim Bassett, who was a press secretary to Richard Nixon, and you talk in this book about the fact that Richard Nixon treated her differently in private than in public. Is that new?
HALBERSTAM: I think it's been there before, but I think I've brought it out a little bit more in this book. I think from almost the Checkers speech on, people were astonished by how when they were in public she was the great prop to him. She would look up adoringly at him, but then they would get back in the plane and they'd sit separately as if in two universes and they would never touch. When he had his farewell speech when he was driven out because of Watergate, he talks about his mother at great length, his father at great length in this very sentimental moment, what wonderful people they were. He never mentions her, and she's the person who's gone through more agony because of his career than anyone else. I think she never wanted a career in politics. She wanted a nice suburban life with the children, with the kind of middle-class affluence and security that she had been denied herself.
LAMB: Did you see the funeral, by the way?
HALBERSTAM: I saw just brief clips of it.
LAMB: There was a rather emotional former President Nixon. I just wondered if you had any sense as to why, after all these years, he would be so emotional in public over this.
HALBERSTAM: I don't know. Maybe it finally came home to him how much she had given him and how high a price she had paid, I think, for his career. She's really fascinating. She's a classic wife of the '50s -- stoic, do what your husband wants even if it's not what you do, go along with it, that's your role. You would not find many political wives like that today.
LAMB: Ozzie and Harriet, Ricky and David.
HALBERSTAM: Well, they're the symbol of America in the '50s. When people talk about America in the '50s and they talk about it as an innocent time, they think of those early shows -- "Leave It to Beaver," "Father Knows Best," "Ozzie and Harriet" -- and they were the all-American family. Yet the '50s were not that innocent. Even in this all-American family, no one knows what Ozzie does, but he's a good, easy, relaxed guy. In real life, Ozzie was a workaholic, quite authoritarian -- really dictatorial -- wrote, directed and produced all these shows, used his own children in the shows and really in some ways, you could argue, took away part of their childhood. Particularly with Rick, he took away the one thing that mattered, his music, and put it into the show. Ricky, I think, was always unhappy with that. You could make the argument that in the end the Nelsons were something of a dysfunctional family even though they were the ideal to all those other American families back in the '50s.
LAMB: I saw Kemmons Wilson listed as one person that you interviewed. Where'd you find him?
HALBERSTAM: He's in Memphis, Tenn. He's still very much alive. Holiday Inns. In the early '50s, he drives to Washington from Memphis -- is a home-builder -- with his wife, and he's annoyed because they've got a couple of kids with them and everywhere they go -- the motels are still pretty primitive -- you have to check out the motel. Is it clean or is it sleazy, as some motels were wont to be in those days? Then you have to pay a dollar extra for each child. He's furious and he vows to his wife, "When I get back, the first thing I'm going to do is I'm going to go in business and build a chain of 400 hotels." She says, "You're just crazy." He does it. He's a home builder, so he knows how to build something big. The cost is in the plumbing and the windows, but if you make it big, it's not that much more expensive. So he does this. He sketches it out. An architect friend looks at it, finishes it off, and comes back with a big sign that says "Holiday Inn." Kemmons says, "Where'd you get that?" He said, "Well, while I was finishing, I was watching this movie with Bing Crosby, so I put it on." From that comes the Holiday Inn chain with thousands of motels, and he becomes brilliant at going to every city and spotting the entryways and where to put his motel, right on the outside at just the right junction with just the right approach so the sign can be seen. An American genius, an American original.
LAMB: Of all those people that you tracked down that you list in the back that you've interviewed, which one do you remember the most? Who are some of the interesting characters?
HALBERSTAM: Oh, I think Bill Levitt. You talk about the American revolution of affluence. This book is a little bit about the century of the ordinary man, the common man, where the common man lives as the wealthy had lived in the past. I mean, we take middle-class affluence for granted today, but it wasn't always that way. It began in the '50s. Never was there a country so rich and never was there a country which shared its wealth so equitably. Probably the great enabler of that, signature figure, is Bill Levitt, who does this mass-produced housing. He's really a lineal descendant of the first Henry Ford, who does mass-produced cars, assembly-line cars, and the worker for the first time can buy a car, the worker as consumer. Bill Levitt takes it an additional way. He takes it into mass-produced housing. Well, you can't have houses roll down the assembly line. They're too big, so he does something different. He brings the workers to the site, and the site is the assembly line. Each day a different group goes out and does one of about 21 functions -- boom, boom, boom. Eighteen houses finished in the morning, 18 houses finished in the afternoon, 180 houses -- and really well built -- finished at the end of a week, and they are good and they are sturdy and you can get them with $100 down. "Mr. Veteran," says the ad, "you're a lucky guy. With $100 down, you can get a Levitt house."
LAMB: Where'd you find him?
HALBERSTAM: I found him with about four phone calls. Couldn't find him, couldn't find him. Finally, a lawyer friend of mine who had worked for him in the past found him. I interviewed him. He came by my home. I could not have had a better day. I think if there's a hero in the book, it may be William Levitt. I mean, we are talking about an era of affluence, the century of a common man where the ordinary person has dignity, affluence and the fruits of his labor as has never happened in the history of mankind. Other societies have followed us -- Europe, now the Japanese and now the beginning of it in Korea -- but we were the first, and one of the great enablers is someone like Bill Levitt.
LAMB: How old is he?
HALBERSTAM: God, I think he's probably in his early 80s now.
LAMB: Where does he live?
HALBERSTAM: He lives in Long Island.
LAMB: Who else? Anybody else that's memorable?
HALBERSTAM: Well, I like the McDonald brothers. I think they're wonderful. They're these guys who haven't made very much of a success in American life, and then one day they open this little place out in San Bernardino and they begin to do well, but they begin to check their menu out. They don't have any computer, but they start checking out what works, and they figure out that it's time to narrow the menu. Nobody's buying the barbecue. They get rid of plates and silverware. They get rid of the carhop girls because people stick around too long for these pretty girls. They begin to mechanize the process of the American hamburger, and they become geniuses. Stainless steel grills, a stainless steel thing that you can squirt just the right dollop of ketchup out of. They have a friend who's an inventor. They tell him their problems, and he goes out and does it. Suddenly they have assembly line hamburgers, 15 cents, and each is making $100,000 a year. Then Ray Kroc, another American genius, comes and decides to franchise it, becomes their franchiser. The McDonalds really aren't very interested in franchising. They don't want more wealth. They're very happy with what they have.
LAMB: Are they alive?
HALBERSTAM: One is.
LAMB: Did you talk to him?
HALBERSTAM: Yes, I did. Mac McDonald, yes. It was wonderful talking to him! He's a wonderful man.
LAMB: Where'd you find him?
HALBERSTAM: He's up in New Hampshire. The people out at McDonald's helped me find him.
LAMB: Is he a rich man?
HALBERSTAM: He said, "I could have been a lot richer, but if I were a lot richer, I'd have a lot more problems. I'd be up on the top floor of some 40-story building and I'd be surrounded by nothing but tax lawyers and I don't want that. I made all the money I needed." They made about $100,000 a year, and the first thing they did each year was what in those days the wealthiest man in every town did. He took his one-year-old Cadillac plus $700 and turned it in for a brand-new Cadillac. That's what you did in the '50s.
LAMB: I said we'd come back to television and politics. The Hiss-Chambers hearings were televised. You say this was the first national politician . . .
HALBERSTAM: That was the first. It was almost not even national. It was a small network of hook-ups -- I think New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. The Hiss thing, I don't know that it was really televised in any real sense, but with this you had the first moment where there's Frank Costello being accused of being a mob guy, and they had the camera on him and he says, "I don't want the camera on me." They put the camera on his hands, so you could see his hands knotted and you see them sweating. I mean, it is a dramatic moment in the power of television. This is 1951. The next year Estes Kefauver is a serious candidate for the presidential nomination, and you get a quick sense of the power of television.
LAMB: What did television do for Richard Nixon?
HALBERSTAM: Well, it kept his place on the ticket when there was a slight scandal. There was a fund some wealthy backers in California had created for him, the alleged slush fund. I think it was pretty small goods, but he had these charges and suddenly there was Ike who had promised to clean up the corruption in Washington and he gives this idea of hound's tooth club, that Nixon has to be cleaner than a hound's tooth. With that, Nixon defends himself in this speech, the Checkers speech, where he sort of says, "Pat has a cloth coat and it's a Republican cloth coat and she'd look good in anything." It's quite a bit of bathos in that. He opens up their checkbook; he says how poor they are. She, who has fought this draconian poverty, hates it. She hates the Checkers speech. She hates revealing how poor they've been and how hard their lives have been. But he wins his place back on the ticket with this speech.
LAMB: Is that where you write about the shave stick?
HALBERSTAM: No, that's the Kennedy-Nixon debate. Nixon, like I do, has a very dark beard and a light skin. He arrives in Chicago. It's the climactic moment of the book, the end of the decade, and he's going to debate John Kennedy. There's a great question, will they use makeup? Neither wants to use makeup and then find out the other guy hasn't. Well, unfortunately, Nixon has pale skin, dark beard, and he looks sick anyway because he's been ill. His clothes hang on him. Kennedy comes in, and he looks wonderful. He's been out campaigning in California, so he has this great tan. Nixon is very sensitive to light, and suddenly in the middle of the debate with the heat, you see rivers of copper sweat washing down. It's kind of a cosmetic meltdown on his face, and he, in effect, loses the televised debate. My friend Russ Baker says it's the moment in America where images replaced words as the currency of American politics. Also what he loses in this -- you have to remember, when he goes into the debate, he's not only famous debater, because he's debated Khrushchev earlier, but he's been vice president of the United States for eight years. The one thing he has is his great experience, whereas Kennedy is allegedly this young junior senator, too callow, too young. When it's over, that debate has brought Kennedy to peer position. Nixon loses his eight years of expertise as vice president in that night. From then on, he's fighting defensively to stay alive.
LAMB: We haven't got much time, so . . .
HALBERSTAM: This has been fun.
LAMB: Little things. This isn't so little, really. Of the 13 books you've written, is there one that's sold more than all the rest?
HALBERSTAM: I think this one's going to sell more. Even as we talk, it's number one on a bunch of lists. I think it's the right book at the right time. I sort of sensed that about a year ago when I saw the wonderful response to David McCullough's wonderful book on Truman. I had a sense that a book on the '50s, probably the timing was going to be good. I have a small book that I did about four young men rowing for an Olympic medal that I really love. When you ask someone, "Which of your books do you prefer?" it's sort of like asking somebody with a large family, "Which of your children do you love the most?" But sometimes in your family you have a child that's not as big as the others, is not as famous and whatever, but you know that that child has the sweetest heart. The little book I did called The Amateurs about these four young men rowing is my inner, secret favorite.
LAMB: As you went about researching the '50s and Charles Van Doren wouldn't talk to you, were there others that you would have liked to have talked to?
HALBERSTAM: Well, there were a couple of times, I think, where I didn't get much response or people didn't respond. In some cases, I think they were very old. Some of the people who were players were in their 80s, but I think of it myself generally as having very good access. It's a lovely time in my life. You spend 30, 35 years building a constituency and doing things, and suddenly it seemed to me that it all came home with this book. I do a section on the Emmett Till trial and the coming of mass journalism at the Emmett Till trial in 1955. That was a section I've been trying to write for some 35 years. As a young reporter, I tried to write a magazine piece about all these reporters coming down to cover this trial, and I didn't have the skill to pull it off. I finally pulled it off 38 years later in this book.
LAMB: What's the best thing, in the last minute we've got, that somebody can come up to you and say, somebody you don't know? I assume you get that all the time. When you walk away from somebody who's just met you and they've said things to you, what's the best thing they can say?
HALBERSTAM: I think if someone came up and said, "Listen, I really not only liked your book, but it made me understand better where the country was then and in the '60s and, more importantly, why we have some problems today." If someone says, "Your book has informed me and allowed me to understand where we are as a country and what happened then and why and why we have different problems now." You're trying to be a part of an informed society. You're trying to help a society know that it has a compass and use that compass well. If I can be part of finding true on the compass -- and that's an ongoing struggle, finding true on the compass for a society as large, as contentious, as diverse as ours -- then you've done your job well.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's by David Halberstam, and it's called The Fifties. Thank you very much, sir.

Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1993. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.