Tom Wicker, 1926-2011

By Duane Shank 11-29-2011

I am one of those who still prefer ink on paper to pixels on a screen.  But no matter how you get your news, the passing of a giant is worth noting. Tom Wicker, reporter and columnist for The New York Times for 30 years, died on Saturday. The Times described him as “one of postwar America’s most distinguished journalists.” 

Wicker was a meticulous reporter and a passionate advocate, so much so that he was sometimes criticized for overstepping the bounds of objectivity.  But when faced with the major events he wrote on, how could he not be?

Wicker’s career began with covering the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He applauded President Johnson for the former, but strongly criticized the president for extending the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. At a 1971 antiwar teach-in, he urged students to “engage in civil disobedience” against the war.  He denounced President Nixon for the secret bombing of Cambodia and what he called the “beginnings of a police state” during the Watergate scandal, which earned him a spot on Nixon’s enemies list.

Perhaps his most remembered reporting was during the rebellion by inmates at New York’s Attica prison in 1971.  Protesting prison conditions, more than 1,000 inmates took hostages and presented a list of demands.  Wicker was one of those invited by the inmates to come and inspect the prison and monitor negotiations as a mediator.  The talks broke down, and Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered an armed assault.  Ten hostages and 29 inmates were killed.  Wicker wrote about the events in his book A Time to Die.

Along with his news reporting, Wicker’s op-ed column, “In the Nation” was published several times a week in The Times from 1966 to 1991.  I remember it well.  During my first nearly twenty years in Washington, it became one of my “go-to” columns to read.

In his final column, published December 29, 1991, Wicker summarized the great challenges that lay ahead in a post-Cold War world.  He noted “the world needs to restrain its use of fossil fuels and emission of carbon dioxide,” the fact that “many nations are substituting military expenditures for sustainable development,” that “military and political confrontation needs to be replaced by a more demanding diplomacy.”

The concluding sentence was: “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.”  That was true twenty years ago, and it is even more true today. 

Duane Shank is Senior Policy Advisor for Sojourners.

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