Commentary Magazine

The Powers That Be, by David Halberstam

Bill, Phil, Buff & Harry

The Powers That Be.
by David Halberstam.
Knopf. 771 pp. $15.00.

In days gone by, “the powers that be” meant bankers and the owners of huge corporations that produce steel, oil, motors, and the like—barons who through the power of advertising towered above the media and to whom the media were thought to be subservient. But now, David Halberstam tells us, the media have turned the game upside-down. They—specifically CBS, Time Inc., the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Times—are the new “powers that be,” not least in politics. Indeed, Halberstam begins his book with a quotation from Lyndon Johnson in 1971: “All you guys in the media. All of politics has changed because of you. . . . You’ve given us a new kind of people. Teddy. Tunney. They’re your creations, your puppets. No machine could ever create a Teddy Kennedy. Only you guys. They’re all yours. Your product.”

Halberstam believes that this shift in power originated with Roosevelt, the rhythm of the times and great inventions and the swift pace of events “working to centralize power. . . . Issues became national rather than parochial or regional. . . . Technology was bringing the central state a longer and more powerful reach. The central state could reach areas previously isolated.” So Roosevelt “quite consciously” elevated the importance of the press, “needing the Congress and the party structure less.” The press “became more and more architects of the national agenda. . . . The press corps was becoming a different, more serious, and better informed body . . . as the stories become serious and more complicated, the people writing them become better qualified, better educated, and more serious.”

In tune with this note, Halberstram spends over 700 pages portraying a race of geniuses, handsome as gods, full of grace and command. William S. Paley of CBS:

He was a sensualist and hedonist who was, at the same time, a rigorously disciplined and organized businessman . . . an unerring instinct for the bottom line . . . always seemed to ask just the right question . . . just so much smarter than anyone else in the business, so much more subtle . . . tough, that above all, . . . young and handsome and rich and smart, and the enthusiasm, indeed the avidity for life, for every phase of it, seemed to jump out from him . . . a forerunner of the Beautiful People. . . .

The late Philip Graham of the Washington Post:

He was the incandescent man. Phil Graham walked into a room and took it over, charming and seducing whomever he wished, men and women alike. . . . He was handsome and slim and when he smiled, at first shy and then bold, everything stopped. He was the Sun King.

Buff Chandler, wife of Norman Chandler of the Los Angeles Times:

A woman before her time. A feminist in pioneer country. Always, above all else, a presence. Fierce, intense, driving. Easily wounded, easily moved to tears, yet resilient, always ready to work the next day. A mover, always driving and pushing. A relentless woman. . . . She was the woman who kept the Chandler dynasty alive, pushed Norman to reach beyond his parochial orbit and touch a larger world, drove by the most subtle pressures her son, Otis, to deeds of excellence (not by chance was he world-class shot-putter). She was the most important Chandler of modern times, her mark was everywhere in downtown Los Angeles, the cultural world of the city would not exist without her.

The late Henry Luce of Time:

Harry. Everyone called him Harry, it was a sign of terrible ignorance to call him Henry. . . . He was the outsider, the poor boy at both Hotchkiss and Yale who later towered over his contemporaries but never really became an insider himself. . . . “Why don’t the Rockefellers like me?” he once asked a friend plaintively. . . . He was a big man, little ideas and little concepts and little men did not interest him; he was always in search of giants . . . and he was a big man himself. He was a major figure in American journalism, the leading innovator of more than two decades, and perhaps only Walter Lippmann in a different way was as important a figure of the same era. . . . He was large on the landscape.

Curiously, however, despite these highly romanticized and glamorized portraits, the “powers” in Halberstam’s book turn out to be less the founding fathers whose lives he actually chronicles—the owners, publishers, and editors—than the writers and reporters they hire. His hidden story line is how the latter came to prevail over the former, first on Joseph McCarthy, then on Vietnam, finally on the expulsion of Richard Nixon from the Presidency. The ideology of the “powers” has had constantly to give way to a new, morally superior, more powerful ideology.

One may question the moral superiority of this new ideology but Halberstam is certainly right about its power. With a blast of relentless publicity its purveyors can destroy the reputation of a Senator, a corporate executive, their own employers, even an entire industry (like nuclear energy).

In this respect, one of the oddities of this fat book is how little space Halberstam devotes to Spiro Agnew’s attack upon the press, barely a page and a half. Yet his own account of how, through the media, a new national morality has replaced regional and parochial moralities; of how the national media are more and more staffed by a new elite of superior educational attainment; and of how they are bearers of a new political idea about the United States and the world, is paralleled by his pithy summary of Agnew’s speech in Des Moines in 1969: the national media have become “a special, arrogant, small but far too influential elite, unrepresentative, unelected, and highly paid. They all lived in the same two unrepresentative cities, Washington and New York, spoke only to each other, and constantly reinforced their own particular viewpoint . . . [they] did not just report, they constantly editorialized.”

Of course the last thing Halberstam wishes to do is repeat Agnew’s indictment. Yet apart from providing a feast for gossips and a pool for each Narcissus of the media, that is precisely what The Powers That Be ironically does.

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