Tom Wicker, who died Friday of an apparent heart attack at age 85, was one of the most significant print journalists of the 20th century. He was a reporter, a pundit, an author of many books, a longtime bureau chief of The New York Times, a contributor to The Atlantic, and an outspoken critic of journalism itself (as well as a frequent target, the Times candidly noted in his obituary, of many of his own critics in and beyond the media).
To reporters and journalism professors, Wicker's legacy is a vast and varied one. But to the American people, indeed to the world, he will forever be known for his work over a four-day stretch in November 1963, when he covered the assassination and then the burial of President John F. Kennedy. The man was in the right place at the wrong time, you might say, and he performed brilliantly during the story of his lifetime.
The story long ago passed into lore. Wicker was the lone Times' reporter on the trip to Dallas. He was in the motorcade when the president was shot. He stoically reported the events -- the first of their kind ever to be broadcast on television news. Much in the same way that the shooting quickly elevated local reporter Dan Rather toward his 40-plus years of success at CBS News, the Kennedy assassination helped make Wicker a huge force at and for the Times.
Here was Wicker's lead story for the Times on Saturday, November 23, 1963 under a triple-decker banner headline:
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's, was sworn in 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy's death as the 36th President of the United States.
Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, described as a one-time defector to the Soviet Union and chairman of a "Fair Play for Cuba Committee" was arrested by the Dallas police.
Three days later, on November 25th, Wicker wrote the lead story for the paper's coverage of the Kennedy funeral. He wrote:
The body of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was returned today to the American earth.
The final resting place of the 35th President of the United States was on an open slope among the dead of the nation's wars in Arlington National Cemetery, within sight of the Lincoln Memorial.
Mr. Kennedy's body was carried from the Capitol to St. Matthew's Roman Catholic Cathedral for a requiem mass. From there, in a cortege, it was taken to the cemetery.
During the day, a million people stood in the streets to watch Mr. Kennedy's final passage.
Across the land, millions more -- almost the entire population of the country at one time or another -- saw the full proceedings on television.
Tom Wicker died 48 years to the day after writing that. In 2003, on the 40th anniversary of the Kennedy slaying, Wicker wrote the introduction to a book titled Four Days in November: The Original Coverage of the John F. Kennedy Assassination by the Staff of The New York Times. The book is worth having in your library for many reasons, but I have always been struck by his conclusion:
In the shock of the assassination -- the first of a president since Leon Czolgosz had shot William McKinley more than a half century earlier -- no one could be sure how the cold war would be affected by a new man at the head of American policy. What about Kennedy's civil rights bill, deadlocked and stymied in Congress? Could his space program, including the promise to put a man on the moon, be continued? Might the war in Vietnam be won -- or should it be abandoned?
Four decades after the shooting in Dallas, it's surprising how little the assassination -- at the time a veritable thunderclap among events -- affected these specific questions, much less the inexorable time of history. Kennedy's absence from the government and the political scene, of course, immediately changed the presidential succession -- but politics already was changing, not necessarily for the better, and would have changed even if Kennedy had lived.
In the long perspective of time, sad to say for those who believe in the primacy of the individual, John Kennedy's death mattered less to the future than the mushroom development of television.
They could understand assassinations, these journalists of the 1960s, because they had so much practice covering them. But in November 1963 they had no idea that the way in which the Kennedy Assassination was covered would forever alter almost everything about their own craft. In less than 100 hours, over four days, Wicker witnessed both an assassination and the birth of television news. For reasons anyone can understand, he seemed, later in life, still to be in awe of both.
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