Tom Wicker was a southern liberal, born and educated in North Carolina and passionate about civil rights and civil liberties. He also early on developed the ability to write eloquent, piercing, streamlined prose and he just happened to be assigned to the Kennedy motorcade in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Wicker was 37 that day, a hardworking, but little known backbencher in the New York Times Washington bureau. It fell to him to write a story about an event that is still making news.
Wicker called the copy desk at the Times from a downtown Dallas pay phone – some of you may remember pay phones – and dictated his most famous story from notes scribbled on a copy of the official White House schedule for that fateful Friday. Every reporter wonders if they’ll be up to the task of describing a tragedy and a few find out. His voice breaking with emotion, Wicker dictated his lead:
Dallas, Nov. 22–President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.
Only twelve words in the first paragraph of Wicker’s story. In fact four of the first five graphs of Wicker’s story was but a sentence long. Here they are:
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 as the 36th President of the United States 99 minutes after Mr. Kennedy’s death.
Mr. Johnson is 55 years old; Mr. Kennedy was 46.
Shortly after the assassination, Lee H. Oswald, who once defected to the Soviet Union and who has been active in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, was arrested by the Dallas police. Tonight he was accused of the killing.
In those five, sparse paragraphs you really have the complete essence of what we remember from Dallas half a century ago. No word is out of place or unnecessary. With so much drama and tragedy and with so little time it would have been easy to overwrite, but Wicker didn’t succumb. That first draft of history from Dallas is simply a first-class piece of reporting created under the most awful and demanding circumstances.
Tom Wicker went on to become one of the most respected and important journalists of the post-war period. He covered presidents, and held them to a high standard, from Kennedy to Carter, wrote 20 books, went inside the prison at Attica, New York during a riot that eventually claimed 39 lives, and made Nixon’s “enemies list.” He never had a bigger story than his story 50 years ago today.
Wicker came to Idaho in the late 1970’s as a guest of the Idaho Press Club. I was an officer in the organization all those years ago, had a drink with him, talked shop, had him sign a couple of books and was too shy – or maybe too naive – to ask him about the Dallas story. Only later did I realize what a masterpiece he crafted on that awful day. With all we know about that day, with all the pictures and books, the conspiracy theories and the what-might-have-beens, Tom Wicker’s first draft remains hauntingly moving and overflowing with sadness. It is a timeless piece of writerly craftsmanship.
Wicker brilliantly chose to end his Dallas story with four paragraphs devoted to the speech John Kennedy was to have delivered, but never did on November 22:
The speech Mr. Kennedy never delivered at the Merchandise Mart luncheon contained a passage commenting on a recent preoccupation of his, and a subject of much interest in this city, where right-wing conservatism is the rule rather than the exception.
Voices are being heard in the land, he said, “voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness.”
The speech went on: “At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.
“We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will ‘talk sense to the American people.’ But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense.”