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Where Have You Gone, Tom Wicker?

How much better newspaper opinion pages would be if Tom Wicker was still writing. He was the New York Times’ best liberal columnist for those many years in the 1970s and 80s: he had more muscle than Anthony Lewis, and unlike Flora Lewis, who could have even Roberto Benigni dozing by the end of her first paragraph, he was almost never dull. But his last by-line for the paper, long after he’d quit writing his column, goes back to a May 9, 2002 piece about Lyndon Johnson, whom he’d covered as a reporter: “Clashing ambition and compassion was not the only contradiction in Lyndon Johnson's remarkable self. The glowering, near villainous-looking figure who took the nation so deeply into Vietnam could be charming, a funny and eloquent raconteur. His hand-wringing, quaver-voiced mimicry of Adlai Stevenson, for example, was no doubt unfair, but hilarious and memorable. […] I once complained to his press secretary that the president was not holding as many news conferences as promised. The telephone on the secretary's desk rang in the middle of my protest, and I was summarily called into the presence. L.B.J. had been eavesdropping on his own press office and seized on my complaint to regale me with one of his nonstop, no-questions-possible monologues.”

I came across Wicker’s work again while researching a piece on the Kent State shootings in 1970. (The Times reported on May 2that “An audio recording of the shootings 37 years ago at Kent State University includes the voices of Ohio National Guard leaders ordering troops to fire into a crowd of students, according to a man wounded in the shootings, who obtained a copy of the recording. It’s irrelevant, it seems to me, whether the shots were ordered or not: the Guard was ordered to be on a college campus, its weapons armed with live ammunition and fitted with bayonets, pointed at fellow-Americans, most of them students, some of them teens. That alone is crime enough.) On May 7, after the shootings, Wicker wrote about Nixon’s and Spiro Agnew’s responses in a column that reflected the debilitating law-and-order mindset that had led to the shootings in the first place:

It was obtuse and heartless for President Nixon to say of the dead at Kent State only that “when dissent turns to violence it invites tragedy.” It was indecent for Spiro Agnew to call this awful event “predictable and avoidable, then to go on with one of his standard denunciations of students, as if he and the president, pledged as they are to “bring us together,” had not instead done as much as anyone to drive us into conflict. No one has less right than they to “murder the mankind” of these senseless deaths with “grave truths” about violence and dissent.

Mr. Agnew’s sustained and inflammatory assault on some young Americans could have had no other purpose, and no other result, than to set generation against generation and class against class for the calculated political purposes of the Nixon administration. Mr. Nixon’s blurted condemnation of “bums” on the campus is all the more culpable for apparently having been spontaneous and from the heart, a true revelation of his inmost feelings.

Wicker went on to remind readers why Kent State students were protesting: Nixon had just broken his promise “in reversing the whole course of what he had said was his Vietnamese policy with the invasion of Cambodia and the reopening of the bombing of North Vietnam. […] hence violence and counter violence, rebellion and repression.” How familiar it all sounds today, although what columnist has had the courage to use the word “repression,” so apt in so many subtler ways of the Bush administration?

Wicker is 81 years old and living, maybe, either in vermont or New York. Barring senility (I mean the word clinically only, my affection for him or the senile being indisputable), why, one has to wonder, the silence in these times so demanding of Wicker’s muscle?

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