Mr. Wicker was an energetic reporter who had written several novels before joining the Times’s Washington bureau in 1960. He became a protege of the influential James B. Reston, who ran the Washington bureau as if it were an independent news operation.
From the beginning, Mr. Wicker distinguished himself with his coverage of Capitol Hill and the White House. He became renowned for his moving firsthand account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
As the only Times reporter with the president in Dallas, Mr. Wicker put together a 106-paragraph story about the shooting, which he dictated from an airport telephone booth, after running half a mile while carrying his typewriter and briefcase.
Describing the newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, Mr. Wicker wrote: “Her face was sorrowful. She looked steadily at the floor. 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.”
Author Gay Talese, in his 1969 history of the New York Times, “The Kingdom and the Power,” praised Mr. Wicker for “a remarkable achievement in reporting and writing, in collecting facts out of confusion, in reconstructing the most deranged day in his life . . . and then getting on a telephone to New York and dictating the story in a voice that only rarely cracked with emotion.”
“It was the sort of assignment,” Talese wrote, “that could make or break a Timesman’s whole career in a few hours.”
Less than a year later, Reston put Mr. Wicker in charge of the Times’s 48-person Washington bureau. Two years after that, in 1966, Mr. Wicker began writing his influential column, “In the Nation.”
But Mr. Wicker soon found himself in the middle of a fierce power struggle. Several editors in New York, led by the ambitious A.M. Rosenthal, believed him to be an inept manager and in 1968 tried to engineer his removal.
In something of a palace coup, Rosenthal and his allies arranged to have a newcomer, James Greenfield, installed in Mr. Wicker’s job. As a result, the independent Washington bureau would be brought under the direct control of editors in New York.
The resulting maneuvers rivaled the most intense political wrangling in Congress.
“Wicker exploded, and so did his Washington bureau,” Max Frankel, then part of the bureau and later the paper’s executive editor, wrote in his 1999 memoir, “The Times of My Life.”
Reston and Mr. Wicker — and Mr. Wicker’s wife — appealed directly to the paper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger. Frankel and several top reporters threatened to resign in the middle of a presidential election campaign.