Tom Wicker: Reporter who covered the killing of John F Kennedy

 

Huge stories seal the reputations of great reporters. Just as no story in modern American history was bigger than the assassination of John F Kennedy, few journalists were more respected and more authoritative than Tom Wicker, reporter, columnist and editor at The New York Times for more than three decades. Wicker was a White House correspondent for the Times when he was the sole reporter assigned by the paper to cover a routine presidential visit to Dallas on 22 November 1963 – so routine that he didn't even have a proper notebook with him. But when shots were fired at JFK's limousine as it passed through Dealey Plaza, the world was turned upside down.

Wicker was in a press bus at the back of the motorcade, as initially utter confusion reigned. "No one knew what happened, or how, or where, much less why," he wrote in a subsequent memoir, but "gradually, bits and pieces began to fall together."

He scribbled notes on the back of White House hand-outs of the president's itinerary, sending his account in bursts, as and when he could, back to head office; "I would write two pages, run down the stairs, across the waiting room, grab a phone and dictate." The result was a first draft of history whose immediacy and power even now is undiminished.

Somehow, Wicker kept personal emotion out of his prose, but the photographic exactness of his words rendered emotion superfluous. Describing Jackie Kennedy as she left the hospital where the president had died, he wrote that, "Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. She still wore the raspberry-coloured 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."

Wicker caught the journalism bug in his teenage years, when he worked on his high school newspaper. His real ambition, however, was to be a novelist, and by the time he arrived at The New York Times in 1960 he had written several books as well as working for four newspapers from his home state of North Carolina.

His coverage of the Kennedy assassination turned him into a star. Within a year Wicker had succeeded James Reston as chief of the Times' 48-man Washington bureau, effectively a state within a state at what, then as now, was America's most important newspaper. By 1966 he was also writing a column, "In The Nation", which would run for a quarter of a century until he retired in 1991.

For all his writing and reporting skills however, Wicker was less gifted in the arts of management also demanded by the bureau chief job. Only a joint threat by several of his colleagues to quit during the 1968 presidential campaign staved off a putsch by editors in New York to remove him, but once Richard Nixon was elected, he moved full-time to column writing and punditry.

Wicker, a hulking man whose languid drawl gave scant hint of the passions that flowed beneath, was a true Southern liberal – a crusader for civil rights and a fierce opponent of the Vietnam war, whose relentless criticism of Nixon earned him a place on the 37th president's celebrated "enemies list". Opinionated and outspoken, he became a fixture on network TV talk shows. Even some of his peers accused him of overfondness of being part of the news, not least during the deadly 1971 prison riots in Attica, New York, when inmates asked him to help mediate negotiations with the state authorities.

But Wicker was unrepentant. Too often the media tried to preserve its freedom by shirking its responsibility, he wrote in a 1978 book. "What the press in America needs is less inhibition, not more restraint."

Rupert Cornwell

Thomas Grey Wicker, journalist and author: born Hamlet, North Carolina 18 June 1926; married 1929 Neva Jewett McLean (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1974 Pamela Hill; died, Rochester Vermont 25 November 2011.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 3rd Line Virtualisation, Windows & Server Engineer

£40000 - £47000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A 3rd Line Virtualisation / Sto...

Recruitment Genius: Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Service Engineer

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A successful national service f...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Sales - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Fixed Term Contract

£17500 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently require an experie...

Day In a Page

Syria civil war: Meet the military commander who says his soldiers will not rest until every inch of their war torn country is free of Islamist 'terrorists'

‘We won’t stop until Syria is back to normal’

Near the front lines with Islamist-controlled towns where Assad’s troops were besieged just last month, Robert Fisk meets a commander confidently preparing his soldiers for battle
The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation may undermine Hillary's chances

The inside story of how Bill Clinton built a $2bn global foundation...

... and how it may undermine Hillary's chances in 2016
12 best olive oils

Extra-virgin, cold-press, early-harvest, ultra-premium: 12 best olive oils

Choosing an olive oil is a surprising minefield. Save yourself the hassle with our handy guide
Rafa Benitez Real Madrid unveiling: New manager full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

Benitez full of emotion at Bernabeu homecoming

There were tears in the former Liverpool manager’s eyes as he was unveiled as Real Madrid coach. But the Spaniard knows he must make tough decisions if he is to succeed
Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?