Newspapers have been called the first rough draft of history. A newspaperman who saw history as it happened died last month at his home in Vermont. Tom Wicker will be forever a part of American history as the reporter who was on the scene in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in that Texas city on Nov. 22, 1963. Wicker’s hastily cobbled report of the crime was the lead story in the next morning’s edition of The New York Times.
Following in a press bus behind Kennedy’s limousine, Wicker was there when, as he later wrote, “The shots ringing out in Dealey Plaza marked the beginning of the end of innocence.”
An old-school scribe in the days before cellphones and personal computers, Wicker ran to a phone booth and dictated his story from notes he had scrawled on a White House schedule sheet. What was to have been just another presidential campaign trip before the 1964 election instead turned into a tragedy that catapulted the 37-year-old reporter into the top rungs of American journalism.
Wicker’s account of the assassination crackles with the confusion and mystery of the moment that has been seared into the minds of millions across America and around the globe. As the only New York Times reporter covering what was to have been a routine political trip by the president, Wicker was thrust into the unique position of writing history as it happened for readers of America’s newspaper of record.
Datelined “Dallas,” Wicker’s historic news story began with the bare-boned sentence, “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.” Those 12 matter-of-fact words were followed by Wicker’s lengthy story that covered much of the front page and all of the second page of his paper, the Times. Wicker quoted a Dallas TV newsman who said he saw “a rifle extended and then withdrawn from a window” of the Texas School Book Depository at the scene of the shooting.
Writing for his readers at the time and for history ever after, Wicker described a distraught first lady Jackie Kennedy with her dress spattered with the president’s blood. He quoted doctors, priests, policemen, politicians and ordinary citizens who were witnesses to the assassination and its aftermath.
Ending his story with the observation that in the Dallas of 1963, “right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception,” Wicker quoted from an advance copy of the speech that Kennedy was to have given in the city. In words that still ring true today, Kennedy was to have blasted politicians who believed “that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”
In 1971, Wicker was again on hand for history as it happened. Reporting from the Attica prison in upstate New York, Wicker covered the revolt of prisoners there and the massacre of convicts and their prison guard hostages by authorities who quelled the rebellion with gas and gunfire. Wicker had the courage and commitment to go inside the prison as an observer and negotiator during the takeover by inmates. He wrote about the experience in his 1975 book, “A Time to Die.”
A native of North Carolina, Wicker was a Southern liberal journalist in the mold of Atlanta’s crusading editor and writer Ralph McGill. In a career that spanned more than half a century, Wicker skewered presidents, press pundits and politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties. Wicker was a powerful and prolific journalistic voice who warned readers and news executives, “What the press in America needs is less inhibition, not more restraint.”
• Ed Tant has been an Athens columnist since 1974. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Progressive and other publications. For more, see his website,www.edtant.com.