In Praise of Tom Wicker, Antidote to the Age of Reagan
Pierre Tristam | November 27, 2011
As print journalism dies, so do its great practitioners. Tom Wicker died on Friday. He was 85. I expect his name means nothing to most. He wrote his last piece as a twice-weekly columnist for the New York Times on Dec. 29, 1991, when America was still congratulating itself over the first Gulf War—which Wicker opposed—and before the age of Clinton, the internet and Wall Street’s displacement of god on the nation’s motto: distant history in a country where year-old phones feel ancient and newsprint itself goes the way of papyrus.
Wicker was one of my journalism professors. I never had a class with him in the traditional sense, never attended journalism school, never even met him, though I vaguely remember exchanging a couple of letters from back in my teen-groupie phase when I harassed writers I liked with embarrassing attempts at eliciting a response. My journalism training in high school and college consisted of buying the Times every morning for 25 cents at the corner store on Queens Boulevard and 40th Street, hopping the subway to school in Manhattan and reading the paper’s OpEd page in the 20 minutes it took to get to Grand Central for the switch to the Number 6 line.
Wicker was one of the seven twice-weekly columnists, the Paul Krugman of the Age of Reagan, but with 30 years’ reporting on civil rights, Vietnam, inequality and America’s many other demons behind him. He was that vanished breed of Southern liberal to whom polite manners and suave language were for parlor games, not newspaper columns. He could be angry, cutting, unforgiving and particularly indifferent to making nice with the powerful he covered. (He ridiculed Reagan’s evocations to American exceptionalism at Reagan’s first inaugural, reminding readers that nothing Reagan said about the United States couldn’t be said about most democracies.) He was not interested in playing the games that so many powerful journalists like to play—cozying up to power, supposedly to cultivate good sources, but actually to stroke journalists’ own presumptions of power. That’s the Walter Lippmann school of ethically challenged journalism, whose current reigning champions are George Will, William Kristol, and of course Thomas Friedman, whose prose alone is a twice-weekly capital felony on the American language.
But then, most newspaper columnists are serious bores. I can rattle off the six other columnists on the Times’ OpEd page in the 1980s more easily than most of those of my relatives. They were, in order of preference, Syndney Schanberg, Russell Baker, Anthony Lewis, William Safire, James Reston and Flora Lewis. The last two were like reading C-Span transcripts of exhaling upholstery. Writing columns is one of those crafts that, like painting by numbers, anyone can master technically. Having something to say and saying it well is another story. H.L. Mencken spoiled the genre for everyone else with his combination of style, intellect, knowledge, wit and poison. Wicker had three of the five qualities (most columnists have none), wit and style eluding him most of the time.
That last column Wicker wrote on Dec. 29, 1991 wasn’t a farewell pontificating on his 30 years at the Times. He wasn’t into that sort of thing. It was about the end of the Soviet Union, which clocked out precisely two days later, and on the first George Bush’s failure to seize the moment, particularly in shrugging off global warming and sustainable development.
“Such quiescence is unworthy of a great nation, the last superpower, the leader of the free world in its ‘long, twilight struggle’ against despotism,” Wicker wrote. “As the U.S. did not hesitate to spend its resources to prevail in the cold war, it needs now to go forward as boldly to lead a longer, more desperate struggle to save the planet, and rescue the human race from itself.” The same column could have more or less been written about every president since, the present one included.
Wicker wrote as if he’d seen the country’s best days. He probably had even then, having witnessed the eight years of Reagan taking out a second, third and fourth mortgage on the nation’s prosperity while making Americans feel like a million bucks.
“Sometimes Ronald Reagan is a better performer in the White House than he was on the silver screen,” Wicker wrote in a 1983 column titled “The Biggest Spender” that deconstructed Reagan’s lies and delusions about the deficits and debt mushroom-clouding on his watch. “When he acts, for example, as if he’s not responsible for the huge budget deficits expected in this and coming years, he must be still hoping for the Academy Award he never received.” Reagan had that Jim Jones ability to make his flock swallow the lies whole and worship him for it. And so he did. “As things now stand,” Wicker continued, “Ronald Reagan is the biggest spender in American Presidential history; he will pile up deficits exceeding those of all other Presidents combined – including, in 1984, a single-year deficit larger than the total deficits of the quarter-century from 1950 to 1975.” For that, Reagan is enshrined in Republican lore as what would have been its fiscal-responsibility messiah’s second coming, had the GOP ever had a first (Lincoln being no more a Republican than Jefferson was a Democrat, though both were classical liberals).
Wicker was hired at the Times in 1960 by James Reston, along with Lewis and Baker. Wicker worked in obscurity for a few years as the sort of reporter who could pound out two to three stories a day. He became an overnight celebrity in journalism with these precise words, published on the front page of the Times on Nov. 23, 1963 and datelined Dallas: “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.” Kennedy’s ride through downtown Dallas was a routine trip. Few national reporters were covering it. Wicker was assigned the task, the political reporting equivalent of covering a county fair: nothing newsworthy was expected, but a story was. He heard the crackle of that rifle. Or those rifles, to conspiracy romantics. He dictated the entire front-page story from a phone booth, “in stark, detailed prose drawn from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet” (as Robert McFadden’s obituary described it). The rest was history he kept drafting.
Wicker never stopped writing after ending his column. He wrote 20 books, half of them novels, and never lost his verve for a liberalism that seems as fogged up today as Greek classicism in the dark ages, mostly for the same reason: that combination of religious and ideological dogmatism fed the masses like Xanax, with the same stupefying results.
Wicker had been an exceptional antidote, and for just 25 cents a day.