A former Times man and presidential observer weighs in on world — and Vermont — events
One of the great journalists of the 20th century lives quietly now in a comfortable old farmhouse in central Vermont. Tom Wicker has come a long way from Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. That's when he first earned a place in American journalism history by writing the lead story in the New York Times on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Rochester, Vermont, is also a world away from D Yard at the Attica Correctional Facility. lt was there, in 1971, that Wicker and several other invited observers tried in vain to mediate a standoff between rebelling inmates and prison authorities.
The observers – and a horrified general public – then watched as hundreds of New York State Troopers stormed the yard, shooting to death 29 prisoners and 10 of the hostages they were holding.
Sept. 13. 1971, was "one of the bloodiest days in America since the Indian wars," Wicker wrote in a recent Times story marking the 30th anniversary of the Attica uprising. But just a week and a half after that remembrance article appeared, a far bloodier day in America occurred, setting off shock waves felt even at Wicker's Austin Hill Farm.
President George W. Bush’s military response to the Sept. 11 attacks has been "very restrained, confident, well handled," Wicker recently observed from the living room sofa in his refurbished 1793 farmhouse. Following the terrorist onslaught, "It would have been easy for the United States to start bombing all over the world," he said. "So as far as the war effort goes, I think Bush has done very well."
ls that really Tom Wicker talking — the same Tom Wicker who for a quarter of a century took consistently liberal positions in his national political column in the Times? The Tom Wicker whom Pulitzer Prize-winner David Moats of the Rutland Herald remembers as "an unapologetic raiser of questions" during the Reagan era?
Wicker hasn’t actually turned into a "Bushie." While conceding that the President has responded skillfully to the terrorist atrocities, he remains wary of the Republican administration's domestic agenda. "I’m very concerned about the decisions [Attorney General John] Ashcroft has been making," he says. "The military tribunals, intrusion on lawyer-client confidentiality - all that is worrisome to me."
At age 75, Wicker’s liberalism turns out to be as well preserved as his honeyed Carolina drawl.
Though 50 years removed from the state where he was born and began his journalism career — editing the weekly Sandhills Citizen in Aberdeen, North Carolina — Wicker remains very much the courtly Southern gentleman in manner as well as in accent. He's not one of those media stars who seeks to outshine everyone he encounters.
Wicker's half-century in journalism — much of it spent at the pinnacle of the profession — gave him an up-close look at the high and the mighty. And he tells charming as well as enlightening stories about some of those bigfoot politicians, beginning with Harry Truman — the first of the 11 U.S. presidents about whom Wicker has written.
In On the Record, his recently published "insider's guide" to the rudiments of journalism, Wicker remembers entering the polling booth in Southern Pines, North Carolina, on Nov. 2, 1948, fully determined to give his first-ever presidential vote to Republican nominee Thomas Dewey. Truman, the Democratic incumbent, had infuriated young Wicker two years earlier by threatening to conscript striking railroad workers, including Wicker's father, a conductor on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad.
"Because I revered my father, on the spot I made up my mind about Truman," Wicker writes. "I swore to myself I'll never vote for that little S.O.B."
In the end, however, he couldn’t bring himself to tick the box beside Dewey’s name. "I was not only the son of a railroad man," Wicker had realized at the last moment. "l was the youngest member of a family of yellow-dog Democrats."
Truman got Wicker's vote that day if not his affection. It was the start of a carefully considered, often critical, relationship with a long line of White House occupants.
Despite his almost-genetic allegiance to the Democratic Party, Wicker’s eyes aren’t sealed by political labels.
He describes one Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, as "unscrupulous and underhanded" and views another, Jimmy Carter, as a failure in office. Wicker also has some kind things to say about two Republicans who don’t get many positive reviews from liberals. One of them is Richard Nixon.
"I have a higher regard for him than many do," Wicker says.
"Nixon was a very unpleasant man in many ways, but his first term was one of the most progressive terms in American history. What he did on social issues was quite impressive."
Gerald Ford impressed Wicker as well – so much so that "I wish he had been elected in his own right in 1976." But Ford lost that race to Carter, a Georgia Democrat whom Wicker might be expected to regard as a political and regional kinsman. Carter's performance, however, only caused Wicker to proclaim with a sigh some years later, "Please, no more Southern governors." And that was before the nation got two more of them: Bill Clinton and George W Bush.
So how about a New England governor for a change? Does Wicker consider Howard Dean’s bid to become president a preposterous ambition?
"No, I wouldn’t say that, especially since we don't even know who the other contenders are," he says. "But it is unlikely for a governor of a small state like this."
Wicker, who knows Dean only slightly, is more comfortable commenting on Vermont politicians of the past than on today's leaders. He says he remembers six-term Republican Sen. George Aiken "with great fondness," and he points out that it was another Vermont Republican, Sen. Ralph Flanders, who "took on Joe McCarthy."
In 1954, as the reckless red-hunter continued to cow most of his colleagues, Flanders rose in the Senate to warn that McCarthy’s paranoid brand of anticommunism "so completely parallels that of Adolf Hitler as to strike fear into the hearts of any defenseless minority." It’s that kind of integrity and tolerance that Wicker finds so appealing about Vermont's political tradition.
Wicker became a part-time resident of the state in the early 1985 when he and his wife, Pamela Hill, a former producer for ABC and CNN, rented a ski condo not far from where the couple lives now. Pamela, a Bennington College alumna, was the original link between Wicker and Vermont. It was an easy decision to purchase Austin Hill Farm when that home and its 160 acres came on the market in 1987. Wicker retired from the Times four years later, and became a full-time Rochester resident in 1999.
"But I'll always be a flatlander to the natives," he acknowledges with a smile.
Although he isn't active in local affairs or state politics, Wicker says he identifies "very closely" with Vermont. "We have no thought at the moment of leaving here. But at some point, perhaps, a house like this might be too much to keep up."
Wicker seems a long way from that point. "He has a great curiosity about what’s going on in this country," says the Herald's Moats, who has met Wicker on a few occasions. "His curiosity remains very strong, even in retirement."
"I'm having something of a renaissance for an old has-been," Wicker himself says in response to a question about how much he’s writing a decade after leaving the Times. In addition to regular commentaries for Earth Times, an online publication edited by another former Times writer, Wicker contributes articles to The Journal of Military History and is completing a short biography of Dwight Eisenhower. For his next project, he’s trying to decide whether to write a book about Bush the Elder or McCarthy the Slanderer.
The author of 10 novels, Wicker says he isn't currently writing any fiction, but hasn’t given up entirely. His most recent fictional work is Easter Lilly: A Novel of the South Today, published in 1998.
The best-known book of his career, A Time to Die, chronicled the Attica prison rebellion. A gripping narrative as well as a thoughtful critique of the U.S. prison system, A Time to Die was published in 1975 to generally admiring reviews — Newsweek called it "a heartbreaking book."
Wicker observed the Attica insurrection from the unique perspective of both journalist and mediator. The 1300 inmates who seized control of the prison had asked that he be included among a group of about 30 trusted observers. The mostly black and Latino prisoners knew that Wicker had written insightfully about issues of race and criminal justice. And in his commentaries for the Times, Wicker pointed out that the prisoners were demanding a set of reforms that included less pork in meals and permission to shower more than once a week.
Four days after the rebellion began, state officials ended it in gruesome fashion. What Wicker describes as "indiscriminate police gunfire" took the lives of 39 people — three others had been murdered by inmates. After the prison was retaken, authorities beat and tortured several of the men who had taken part. Nearly 30 years after those events, a federal court ordered New York State to pay $12 million in damages to survivors and their attorneys.
"Attica should be remembered as a sort of collective failure of humanity, one that could be repeated," Wicker wrote in his 50th anniversary piece for the Times.
The Kennedy assassination story is the other piece of journalism for which Wicker is most famous. Anyone researching the murder of the charismatic young President will soon come across the dispatch from Dallas that led the Nov. 23, 1963, edition of the nation°s newspaper of record. Despite the confusing circumstances and Wicker's lack of eyewitness material, his account was composed in typically precise and dispassionate Times style, as the opening paragraphs demonstrate:
Dallas - Nov 22
President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.
He died of a wound in the brain caused by a rifle bullet that was fired at him as he was riding through downtown Dallas in a motorcade.
Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was riding in the third car behind Mr. Kennedy, was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy's death.
Mr. Johnson is 55 years old. Mr. Kennedy was 46.
It was quite an assignment for a reporter who then had only three years’ experience at the Times. In the year following that fateful day in Dallas, Wicker was appointed chief of the paper’s Washington bureau. In 1966 he began writing the twice-weekly "In the Nation" column that would provide Wicker with a prominent podium for the next 25 years.
He used it to offer liberal commentaries that came from both the head and the heart.
Wicker's column enabled him to express deeply held beliefs that, as a news reporter, he was required to suppress. "In the Nation" was always gracefully written and occasionally moving, but often predictable in its left-of-center analyses.
The recent retirement of Anthony Lewis, another respected liberal voice on the Times op-ed page, prompted Wicker to muse about "the quartet of journalists" who worked together at the Washington bureau and went on to become columnists for the country's most influential daily. In addition to Lewis and Wicker, the four horsemen include Russell Baker and James Reston. The latter died in 1995.
Although Wicker helped record the political history of the United States during the second half of the 20th century, he’s not one to indulge in nostalgia for some purported time when "giants strode the Earth." That quartet of which he was part did make an indelible mark, but Wicker is quick to acknowledge that the Times is "certainly a better paper today than 30 or 40 years ago."
When he started there in 1960, Wicker said, the paper was focused on international news. Gradually the number of overseas bureaus was reduced and more attention was given to national stories and to news about New York itself. Overall, Wicker finds, "the paper’s coverage is more comprehensive and the writing is better now than it used to be."
Over the course of his four decades in journalism, did Wicker’s thinking change in any significant way?
None of his bedrock principles were eroded, he replies, but some of his beliefs did become more trenchant. "If any single event developed my views," Wicker says, "it was Attica."
The slaughter in D Yard demonstrated that "the state was not as benign as I had thought."
Two experiences bracketing Attica — the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal — taught the same lesson, but his up-close encounter with official violence had the most searing effect, Wicker explains.
The ever-present potential for abuse of state power would henceforth be obvious. "At one level, there’s the arrogance of the guy behind the counter where you get your driver's license. Take that up the line," warns Wicker, the inveterate liberal, "and you get to Ashcroft."