There are those of us of a certain age and generation, probably not too many now, who still wonder whether the assassination of John Kennedy marked a turning point not only in American politics but in America itself. We will never know. But it does seem, looking back over the half century, that we, and our politics, have become narrower, angrier, less giving, less civic minded, certainly less optimistic.

All this came to mind when Tom Wicker died yesterday. He was a young reporter who covered the assassination for the New York Times and thereafter rose to become one of its best known columnists. In many ways he was one of the last of the traditional gentlemen journalists–polite, respectful, thoughtful, but very direct and very tough. Unlike today’s prominent journalists, he did not write about himself or his own feelings and he did not see a need to prove that he was smarter than or superior to the public figures he interviewed.

Tom Wicker had a conscience. He championed equal and civil rights and got deeply involved in prison conditions after becoming engaged in the Attica prison riots. Today that sense of conscience has been replaced by snarky opinions, cute personal attacks, denigration of political figures, and insider cleverness. Today’s political journalists start from the position that the world would work much better if political leaders would simply govern the way the journalist thinks they should. Mr. Wicker knew that his job was not to govern: his job was to provide a conscience for those who governed, to point out the gap between what was and what should be. He wrote at a time when the word scandal applied to poverty, hunger, homelessness, and injustice.

Mr. Wicker and I talked a few years ago, after he had retired to write in Vermont. He encouraged me to seek national office again, not because he necessarily thought I had a chance but because he believed I might still retain the disappearing sense of idealism and possibility that many believed had died with John Kennedy, and because he thought I might inspire young people toward public service. That now seems an age ago and a different world. But somehow, somewhere there must be young people who will pick up the fallen torch and there must also be some Tom Wickers who will guarantee that they stay true to their conscience.

11 Responses to “Tom Wicker and the Age of Conscience”

  1. Jim Engelking Says:

    I also remember Tom Wicker, and I remember and still search for real journalism. Corporatocracy and commercial television have destroyed much of it, and cellphones are doing the rest as they involve only one-one communication. Nick Kristoff is one still doing good work.

    I also was left emotionally empty and politically leaderless when JFK was assassinated, a crime still unexplained to Americans, especially our generation. It fell to us to step forward, pick up the torch, and continue to change the world around us. How have we done so far?

    As for new political leaders, you will have to find and mentor them, Gary. Help them see the possibilities in public service. Show them how one can live honorably and overcome the current obstacles to helping us form a more perfect union. They are out there now, just as you were, looking for inspiration and opportunity.

    In the meantime, I’d suggest that we each grab an oar and help President Obama row our ship of state through these troubled waters. He is as intelligent, as visionary and as honorable as any political leader in my lifetime, and he needs all of us putting selfishness aside and working together to make the change we still need. Our future is in our hands.

  2. Elizabeth Miller Says:

    The assassination of John F. Kennedy (and of his brother and Martin Luther King, Jr.) undoubtedly marked a turning point not long after which the truth ceased to matter – whether in public discourse or throughout the media – due in no small part to the enduring official narrative of the assassination itself. I don’t think the American people have ever, or will ever, come to terms with the truth of what happened on that terrible day in Dallas.

    When people continually choose not to seek the truth and to ignore the implications of that over time, then perhaps we shouldn’t expect to see a great deal of conscientious examination of the critical issues of the day reflected back at us through the media.

  3. Nancy Lee Says:

    I am of that “certain age” and I can remember the shock I felt when my brother told me that the president had been shot. I thought it was some sick joke. I recall the long days of watching the funeral procession on our black and white TV. There was the disappointment when our church was crowded with those seeking comfort from this horrendous act, and the pastor, refusing to chage his sermon. We never went back to that church.
    I remember hearing of children in Dallas cheering when they heard that our president was dead. Was that the beginning of our national divide? I thought that if we all worked for the things that Kennedy stood for, like civil rights legislatiion and helping those who lived in poverty, that his senseless shooting would be justified. I still wonder about Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby and why the Dallas police allowed Ruby access to Oswald. It is still murky. It now seems like our country is hopelessly splintered and the Civil War never ended.

  4. Giacomella Milesi Ferretti Says:

    I deeply appreciate your article Gary, it conveys the sense of the great change that America and not only American politics underwent since the assassination of JFK! I belong the the generation that was attending university then, Georgetown University, even if I was the younger student at that time, I recall the schock that struck all of us and the days glued to the black and white TV trying to understand what had happened and figure what may ensue…
    I thank you for underlying the importance of the responsibility of a journalist’s mission, and clearly see how you described the enormous difference with nowadays predominant journalism,and political careerism…
    Tom Wicker was right in suggesting you got back to be active in politics in the US, there was and still is a great need for a man with ideals and political correctness and capacity as you were and are!

  5. Debbie Lackowitz Says:

    Those of us of a ‘certain age’ DO remember the JFK assassination (I was 10). And yes, of course I read Tom Wicker. You’re right. It doesn’t FEEL like a half century ago. But reality check. It IS. I’m fifty eight now, and also wonder where the ‘future generations’ of politicians and yes REAL journalists are. Gary. There ARE good journalists out there. A LOT of them are at the NY Times and the Washington Post. I like Nicholas Kristoff a LOT. And I love Maureen Dowd’s take on Washington. And Paul Krugman is a great columnist too who brings economics into the mix. I would have LOVED having him for an economics prof! Yes, the above mentioned ARE established. Which also means, well you KNOW what that means. They’re NOT young! So yeah. Where does that leave us? Where ARE the NEXT Woodward and Bernstein? Ahem. Blogging of course! Ezra Klein? Dave Weigel? They’re the youngsters who are upcoming. And they’re GOOD too! Catch them sometime. And then there’s always MSNBC. Rachel Maddow? Ed Schulz? Lawrence O’Donnell? And of course, MY favorite now on Current TV…Keith Olberman. You may NOT agree with them. But you HAVE to respect them for what they do. So its OUT there. You just have to look for it! Oh by the way Gary. Think you’re too OLD to get in the mix? NO Way! Whatever Mr. Wicker saw in you. He was RIGHT!

  6. Ken Dean Says:

    Gary, Happy Birthday this November 28th. Thank you for everything you have done in this life. All part of the training for the greater good. And the greater work and greater good are always before us.

    As a Vermonter would run into Tom Wicker on occasion, not often or a lot but all memorable, and always a treasure. Rochester, Vermont his adopted home, was relatively close by (as most Vermont villages are on beloved Route 100.)

    He admired you greatly. Saw your depth, vision, clarity and deep soul of wisdom. He also saw what David Broder saw and wrote about you, your inner compass. Tom Wicker met many political leaders in his long career. Had a key sense you were way high way high on his list, in the top five he admired most, maybe the top three. You were way up there. He could not say enough about you.

    The people in Rochester, Vermont saw the same. You Gary Hart carried that Vermont town easily in 1984 against Walter Mondale. And all those other towns on Route 100, which goes the full length of the State of Vermont. Gary Hart carried every one. Madeline Kunin,Howard Dean and Patrick Leahy were full steam full throttle working hard daily for Walter Mondale state wide in Vermont in 1984. The headline in the Vermont newspapers the day after the election said it all , “Gary Hart Carrys Every Town In Vermont.” You did. Every one. Every town, every city, every county, all of them.

    Tom Wicker saw it in you. The people of Rochester,Vermont (his later adpoted home) saw it as well. Remember one day many years back, his said he wanted to get a letter out to you. Surely you remember its content. All true.

    You came to earth on November 28th for a reason. We still have that mission to complete. The greater work still ahead.

  7. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    Senator Hart,

    I have to agree with Mr. Engelking, Ms. Ferretti, and Ms. Lackowitz in suggesting that you still have much to offer to the younger generation, which you so wisely say needs to get involved in service to our conutry. Not to say that you personally have to run for office, but you have so much to offer in the way of advise for those who are willing to accept your challange to serve our nation.

    I too am of that “certain age” and also have fond memories of Tom Wicker and his insightful writing. He has been missed for far too long. His passing is a loss for all of America and the world.

  8. Diane Carman Says:

    Happy Birthday, Sen. Hart.
    We miss you!

  9. Paul G Says:


    Like good wine on the occasion of your 75th. birthday, we toast your boundless energy and ageless wisdom for our present and future generations.

    As our treasured wind among the reeds, you keep our hopes and dreams alive.

    But who may offer finer tribute than Yeats himself as the best has yet to come … so keep your glass wet but your powder dry!

    “Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
    Enwrought with golden and silver light,
    The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
    Of night and light and the half-light,
    I would spread the cloths under your feet:
    But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
    I have spread my dreams under your feet;
    Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

    – William Butler Yeats [Wind among the reeds]

  10. Tommy Gilmore Says:

    I know the name of Tom Wicker. I cannot remember any of his specific articles in the NY Times or anywhere else. I only wanted to thank Professor Hart for the wisdom & courage of a great man, whom as of today, has circled the sun 75 times.
    V-H.B. Gary,,,
    It is all together possible that you will get 40 more.

  11. Gary Hart Says:

    To those sending birthday greetings, my thanks.
    But next time let’s leave the number of years out.

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