Thomas Grey Wicker was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on 18th June, 1926. He served in the United States Navy during the Second World War and afterwards studied at the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1948. After leaving college he became a reporter on the Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen. He eventually became the Washington correspondent of the The Winston-Salem Journal.
In 1957 he won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and in 1959 became associate editor of The Nashville Tennessean. In 1960, James B. Reston hired him to work for the New York Times. Over the next few years he reported on politics.
On 22nd November, 1963, he was in Dallas with President John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated. According to Robert D. McFadden: "The searing images of that day - the rifleman’s shots cracking across Dealey Plaza, the wounded president lurching forward in the open limousine, the blur of speed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and the nation’s anguish as the doctors gave way to the priests and a new era - were dictated by Mr. Wicker from a phone booth in stark, detailed prose drawn from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet. It filled two front-page columns and the entire second page, and vaulted the writer to journalistic prominence overnight."
Tom Wicker, who was in the press bus at the back of the procession, wrote in the New York Times the following day: "Most reporters in the press buses were too far back to see the shooting… It was noted that the President's car had picked up speed and raced away, but reporters were not aware that anything serious had occurred."
Despite the problems of finding out the truth of what had taken place, journalists were highly praised for their reporting of the assassination. Harrison Salisbury, who worked for the New York Times, claimed that "The coverage had begun with classic reportage - Tom Wicker's on-the-scene eyewitness. It could not be beat I told him to... just write every single thing you have seen and heard. Period. He did. No more magnificent piece of journalistic writing has been published in the Times. Through Tom's eye we lived through each minute of that fatal Friday, the terror, the pain, the horror, the mindless tragedy, elegant, blood-chilling prose." It would seem that the readers of Times could not get enough of Wicker and sales of the newspaper increased dramatically in the days following the assassination. On 26th November, 1963, the circulation of Times reached 1,089,000, nearly 400,000 more than its normal sales.
In August 1964, Wicker replaced James B. Reston as chief of the newspaper’s 48-member Washington bureau, and two years later he inherited the column of the retiring Arthur Krock. Wicker acclaimed the success of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but opposed his involvement in the Vietnam War.
He denounced President Richard M. Nixon for covertly bombing Cambodia, and in the Watergate Scandal accused him of creating the “beginnings of a police state.” As a result Nixon put Wicker on his “enemies list". Wicker also criticised Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and George H. W. Bush, for "letting the Persian Gulf war outweigh educational and health care needs at home".
Robert D. McFadden described Wicker as "a hefty man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a ruddy face, jowls, petulant lips and a lock of unruly hair that dangled boyishly on a high forehead. He toiled in tweeds in pinstriped Washington, but seemed more suited to a hammock and straw hat on a lazy summer day. The casual gait, the easygoing manner, the down-home drawl set a tone for audiences, but masked a fiery temperament, a ferocious work ethic, a tigerish competitiveness and a stubborn idealism, qualities that made him a perceptive observer of the American scene for more than a half century."
Tom Wicker remained a staunch supporter of the Warren Commission conclusions and this was reflected in his book on the assassination, Kennedy Without Tears: The Man Beneath the Myth (1964). When the House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the "scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy" and added that "on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy", Wicker mounted a campaign against it. Wicker was chosen to write the preface for the Bantam edition of the HSCA's final report. In nearly ten pages Wicker gave the reasons for doubting the committee's findings and criticised it for "excessive sensationalism". Wicker was obviously influenced by his own reporting of the assassination. In the days following the assassination he constantly supported the lone-gunman theory.
Other books by Wicker, include JFK & LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics (1966), A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (1975), Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991), Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (1996) and Shooting Star : The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy (2006).
Wicker also objected to the movie, JFK, made by Oliver Stone. In the first few months after the movie was released, over 50 million people watched the movie. Robert Groden, who had worked as an advisor on the film, predicted that: “The movie will raise public consciousness. People who can’t take the time to read books will be able to see the movie, and in three hours they’ll be able to see what the issues are.” Wicker was well aware of the danger this film posed: “This movie… claims truth for itself. And among the many Americans likely to see it, particularly those who never accepted the Warren Commission’s theory of a single assassin, even more particularly those too young to remember November 22, 1963, JFK is all too likely to be taken as the final, unquestioned explanation.” This was confirmed by a NBC poll that indicated that 51% of the American public believed, as the movie had suggested, that the CIA was responsible for Kennedy’s death and that only 6% believed the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory.
The coverage had begun with classic reportage - Tom Wicker's on-the-scene eyewitness. It could not be beat I told him to... just write every single thing you have seen and heard. Period. He did. No more magnificent piece of journalistic writing has been published in the Times . Through Tom's eye we lived through each minute of that fatal Friday, the terror, the pain, the horror, the mindless tragedy, elegant, blood-chilling prose.
Mr. Wicker covered Congress and the Kennedy White House, the 1960 political campaigns and presidential trips abroad. His output was prodigious - 700 articles in his first few years, many of them on the front page, others in the form of news analysis in The New York Times Magazine or the Week in Review....
On Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Wicker, a brilliant but relatively unknown White House correspondent who had worked at four smaller papers, written several novels under a pen name and, at 37, had established himself as a workhorse of The Times’s Washington bureau, was riding in the presidential motorcade as it wound through downtown Dallas, the lone Times reporter on a routine political trip to Texas.
The searing images of that day - the rifleman’s shots cracking across Dealey Plaza, the wounded president lurching forward in the open limousine, the blur of speed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and the nation’s anguish as the doctors gave way to the priests and a new era - were dictated by Mr. Wicker from a phone booth in stark, detailed prose drawn from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet. It filled two front-page columns and the entire second page, and vaulted the writer to journalistic prominence overnight.
Nine months later, Mr. Wicker, the son of a small-town North Carolina railroad conductor, succeeded the legendary James B. Reston as chief of The Times’s 48-member Washington bureau, and two years later he inherited the column - although hardly the mantle - of the retiring Arthur Krock, the dean of Washington pundits, who had covered every president since Calvin Coolidge.
In contrast to the conservative pontificating of Mr. Krock and the genteel journalism of Mr. Reston, Mr. Wicker brought a hard-hitting Southern liberal/civil libertarian’s perspective to his column, “In the Nation,” which appeared on the editorial page and then on the Op-Ed Page two or three times a week from 1966 until his retirement in 1991. It was also syndicated to scores of newspapers.
Riding waves of change as the effects of the divisive war in Vietnam and America’s civil rights struggle swept the country, Mr. Wicker applauded President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but took the president to task for deepening the American involvement in Southeast Asia...
The Wicker judgments fell like a hard rain upon all the presidents: Gerald R. Ford, for continuing the war in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter, for “temporizing” in the face of soaring inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan, for dozing through the Iran-contra scandal, and the elder George Bush, for letting the Persian Gulf war outweigh educational and health care needs at home. Mr. Wicker’s targets also included members of Congress, government secrecy, big business, corrupt labor leaders, racial bigots, prison conditions, television and the news media.