Tom Wicker, columnist and D.C. bureau chief for New York Times, dies at 85

November 26, 2011

Tom Wicker, 85, a longtime Washington reporter and columnist for the New York Times, who helped ignite opposition to the war in Vietnam and who called for the ouster of President Richard M. Nixon during the Watergate scandal, died Nov. 25 at his home near Rochester, Vt.

The Times reported that he had an apparent heart attack.

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.

One day before Greenfield was supposed to take over the bureau, Sulzberger rescinded the order and kept Mr. Wicker in charge. After the 1968 election, Frankel was named bureau chief, while Mr. Wicker concentrated on his column.

Mr. Wicker was seen as a liberal voice of the Times, with his opposition to U.S. intervention in Vietnam and to the tactics of Nixon. When he wrote that the Watergate scandal marked the “beginnings of a police state,” he found himself on Nixon’s “enemies list.”

Long before Nixon resigned in 1974, Mr. Wicker called for him to be impeached.

Mr. Wicker became a popular public speaker on college campuses and a fixture on public affairs television shows. He was attacked from the left and the right and came to believe that there were times when journalists had to forgo an evenly balanced approach and have a stance.

The “biggest weakness” of the press, he told students at Columbia University, was “its reliance on and acceptance of official sources – indeed, its ‘objectivity’ in presenting the news.”

Thomas Grey Wicker was born June 18, 1926, in Hamlet, N.C. (The jazz saxophonist John Coltrane was born three months later in the same town.)

The son of a railroad freight conductor, Mr. Wicker worked his way through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating in 1948. He served in the Navy Reserve during the Korean War and worked for newspapers in his home state, including the Winston-Salem Journal, which made him its Washington correspondent in 1958.

As a young man, Mr. Wicker wrote several thrillers under the name of Paul Connolly and continued to publish fiction, including several bestsellers, throughout his life. He also wrote more than 10 nonfiction books about politics, race and journalism.

In 1971, Mr. Wicker was invited by prisoners at the Attica prison in New York to help mediate talks with prison officials. Other journalists accused him of becoming a participant in a story he was covering, rather than just an observer, especially when negotiations collapsed, and a prison rebellion turned deadly, with at least 39 people killed.

Mr. Wicker recounted the Attica episode in a 1975 book, “A Time to Die.”

He wrote his final “In the Nation” column in 1991 and retired to Vermont.

Mr. Wicker’s first marriage, to Neva Jewett McLean, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 37 years, Pamela Hill Wicker; two children from his first marriage, Cameron Wicker and Thomas G. Wicker Jr.; and three stepchildren, Kayce Freed Jennings, Lisa Freed and Christopher Hill.

“My life in journalism has persuaded me that the press too often tries to guard its freedom by shirking its responsibility,” Mr. Wicker wrote in his 1978 book, “On Press.”

“What the press in America needs is less inhibition, not more restraint.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.