On Nov. 22, 1963, Tom Wicker was in the first press bus following John F. Kennedy’s motorcade when the president was assassinated. Wicker, The New York Times’ White House correspondent, would later write in a memoir that the day was a turning point for the country: “The shots ringing out in Dealey Plaza marked the beginning of the end of innocence.”
At that moment,
however, all he knew was that he was covering one of the biggest stories
in history. “I would write two pages, run down the stairs, across the
waiting room, grab a phone and dictate,” Wicker later wrote. “Dictating
each take, I would throw in items I hadn’t written, sometimes whole
Although Wicker didn’t even have a
reporter’s notebook that day and scribbled all of his notes on the
backs of printed itineraries of the presidential visit, his story
captured the detail and color of the tragic events.
Wicker died at his home in Rochester, Vt., after an apparent heart attack Friday morning, his wife, Pamela, said. He was 85.
been ill with things that come from being 85,” she said. “He died in
his bedroom looking out at the countryside that he loved.”
grew up in poverty in Hamlet, N.C., and wanted to be a novelist, but
pursued journalism when his early books didn’t catch fire. He worked at
weekly and daily newspapers in North Carolina before winning a spot as a
political correspondent in the Times’ Washington bureau in 1960.
Three years later, he was the only Times reporter to be traveling with Kennedy when the president was shot in Dallas.
Talese, author of the major history of The New York Times, wrote of
Wicker’s coverage: “It was a remarkable achievement in reporting and
writing, in collecting facts out of confusion, in reconstructing the
most deranged day in his life, the despair and bitterness and disbelief,
and then getting on a telephone to New York and dictating the story in a
voice that only rarely cracked with emotion.”
year later, Wicker was named Washington bureau chief of the Times,
succeeding newspaper legend James Reston, who had hired Wicker and
called him “one of the most able political reporters of his generation.”
1966, Wicker began his “In the Nation” column, becoming, along with
colleague Anthony Lewis, a longtime liberal voice on the Op-Ed page. Two
years later, he was named associate editor of the Times, a post he held
He ended his column and retired
to Vermont in 1991 but continued to write. He published 20 books,
ranging from novels about gritty, hard-scrabble life in the South to
reflections on the presidents he knew.
his books was “A Time to Die,” winner of the Edgar Allan Poe Award in
1976, which recounted Wicker’s 1971 experience as an observer and
mediator of a prison rebellion at New York’s Attica prison.
the son of a railroad man, started in journalism in 1949 at the weekly
Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen, N.C., where he was paid $37.50 a week to
report on such local news stories as the discovery of “the first beaver
dam in anyone’s memory on a local creek.”
moved on to a local daily and then to the larger Winston-Salem Journal,
where he worked for most of the 50s, with time out in 1957-58 to serve
as a Nieman fellow at Harvard University. He went to work for the
Nashville Tennessean in 1959 but then a year later was hired by Reston.
mid-1961, when Times veteran Bill Lawrence abruptly quit his post as
White House correspondent in a dispute with management, Wicker got the
assignment. He said it was a dream assignment – “sooner or later most of
the government’s newsworthy business passes through the White House” –
and especially covering the excitement of the Kennedy era.
the president’s assassination, he described Jackie Kennedy as she left
the hospital in Dallas: “Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at
the floor,” he wrote. “She still wore the raspberry-colored suit in
which she greeted welcoming crowds in Fort Worth and Dallas. But she had
taken off the matching pillbox hat she had worn earlier in the day, and
her dark hair was windblown and tangled. Her hand rested lightly on her
husband’s coffin as it was taken to a waiting hearse.”
1966, Wicker was named a national columnist, replacing retiring Times’
icon Arthur Krock, who had covered 10 presidents. Wicker’s first column
reported on a political rally in Montana. He would later say that it was
a huge step to move from detached observer to opinion holder – and
especially in the times he was writing.
own transition from reporter to columnist coincided roughly with the
immense American political re-evaluation that sprang in the sixties from
the Vietnam War and the movement against it, from the ghetto riots in
the major cities, and from the brief flowering of the counterculture,”
Wicker wrote in his 1978 book, “On Press.”
was not lacking in opinions, though, and over the years took strong and
sometimes unpredictable stands, emphasizing such issues as the nation’s
On race, he said in a 1991
interview in the Times: “I think the attitudes between the races, the
fear and the animosity that exist today, are greater than, let us say,
at the time of the Brown case, the famous school desegregation decision
Although Wicker was attacked by
President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew for his negative
coverage during the Nixon administration, he argued in a 1991 book, “One
of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream,” that Nixon accomplished
much in his presidency and deserves a high ranking in history.
his final column, published Dec. 29, 1991, Wicker commented on the fall
of the Soviet Union and urged President George H.W. Bush to “exercise
in a new world a more visionary leadership” on non-military issues like
“As the U.S. did not hesitate
to spend its resources to prevail in the cold war, it needs now to go
forward as boldly to lead a longer, more desperate struggle to save the
planet, and rescue the human race from itself,” he wrote.
Source: Dave Gram, The Associated Press