Tom Wicker Essay - Critical Essays

Wicker, Tom

Wicker, Tom 1926–

Wicker, a journalist who has been based in Washington, D.C., writes novels and nonfiction works on political topics. He has also written "thrillers" under the pseudonym Paul Connolly. A Time to Die, Wicker's best known nonfiction work, is an account of his experiences as mediator at Attica prison.

Historians will value [Wicker's detailed book, JFK and LBJ]. For laymen, it has the virtue of describing sophisticatedly the cavernous understructure of political maneuverings without ever falling into conspiracy theory or mere inside dopesterism. More successfully than in his earlier Kennedy Without Tears, Wicker combines the commanding overview of an historian with the earthy frankness of a working reporter. He is neither sentimental nor bitter.

There are faults in Wicker's style—he gets enthused with phrases that twit but don't define, a frequent failing in journalists…. His shrewdness here and there seems merely facile: I don't believe, for example, that the electorate and the Congress were quite as captivated by Kennedy's 1960 campaign rhetoric as Wicker suggests. But he needs to make that argument as part of his thesis that Kennedy was the victim of his own excessively pre-inaugural promise. As I recall 1960, most people didn't take Kennedy's rhetoric much more seriously than Nixon's. Captivation came later.

But as political books go, especially books by journalists, especially books by journalists of the press establishment, Wicker's JFK and LBJ is tough, honest medicine against the half-truths popular among a people which hates its current President and loves its murdered one. History, and Tom Wicker, won't have it quite that way, and they are right. The sentimentalists and hysterics are merely fashionable. (p. 28)

Michael Janeway, "Neither Sentimental nor Bitter," in The New Leader (© 1968 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), May 20, 1968, pp. 27-8.

Tom Wicker has accomplished a rare and wholly laudable feat: he has written a novel about Washington in which the people are more important than the politics. Facing the Lions is very much a novel of the moment, filled with allusions and parallels to current political issues, but it is chiefly interesting as a deeply felt, painfully personal examination of the people who are drawn to the capital and how it changes their lives.

A fellow journalist who often finds himself in disagreement with Wicker's political opinions remarked the other day that when Wicker is writing in top form he is a genuine stylist. He certainly is that in this novel. There is little journalese here. The prose is graceful and at times powerful, and Wicker's command of his material almost never falters. The novel is frequently amusing, and always astute in its observation of Washington and its people, but its real strength is the emotion with which it is written and into which it so forcibly draws the reader….

You can't avoid playing pick-the-personality with this novel (as a onetime employee of the Times's Washington bureau I find, or think I find, all manner of familiar faces), but it is to be hoped that Facing the Lions will be given a more thoughtful reading than that.

For one thing, this is an uncommonly knowing and observant piece of work. It would be worth reading if for nothing else than Wicker's caustic commentary on the Washington press corps, that band of men (and a few women) in chummily fierce competition for hot news that overnight becomes stale; journalists will read Facing the Lions with fascination and no little discomfort….

The novel's great strength, however, is in its portrayal of the two [protagonists]. Both are viewed with sympathy, compassion—and utter candor. Anderson is the man "in the arena," Morgan the allegedly dispassionate observer….

[Anderson's] zest for combat is also a lust for power, and ultimately Anderson is destroyed by excess of ambition; politics can be a killer, twisting men from their true selves, forcing choices and compromises that scar and diminish them. But Morgan is ambitious, too, always pressing for more by-lines and more column-inches and more influence, and he must face his own private lions. His marriage borders on dissolution as the novel closes, and he is possessed by a sense that he has been unfaithful to the deeper, nobler ambitions that first drew him to the writer's craft.

There may well be elements of personal confession and expiation in Wicker's telling of Morgan's story; that heightens the novel's poignancy. But in its richness of emotion and its breadth of observation, Facing the Lions transcends such considerations.

Jonathan Yardley, "Capital Fiction," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 3, 1973, p. 8.

[In Facing the Lions] Mr Wicker gamely abandons the racier traditions of The Best Man and Advise and Consent in a cooler, more expansive, infinitely more sober analysis of his national scene.

The devices of fiction are resorted to with a good deal of apparent weariness. Within the framework of a southward journey to a politician's funeral, intermingled with flashbacks, plot and characters seem—as in fact they turn out to be—irrelevant…. [Characters] are hardly more than stereotypes, and the scatter of names unrelated to credibly human substances offers no more illusion of life than … an entry in the peerage.

It is the very absence of such illusion which ultimately destroys the book's validity as a novel. The whole construction is relentlessly authentic, to the point where we may feel that the brief descriptive interludes are slotted in only as further guarantees of accuracy. Every fact, carefully checked, is as carefully registered, even down to the cherubs and black leather couches of the President's Room in the Senate. The political jargon-slinging, too,… serves to increase our oppressive sense of the genuineness of it all.

But the authenticity is that of journalism, not of fiction. Half as many technicalities and personnel would have worked the trick, had Mr Wicker cared, in lieu of telling the absolute truth, to use a novelist's privilege and improvise reality. Instead, we might be reading a sharply-phrased feature in Time or Newsweek, and it is scarcely marvellous that the best section, couched in gaunt, edgy prose, describes a visit to a camp for migrant workers (though even here the author has done his homework, reading articles … and minutes of Senate Subcommittees).

As a political statement the book reverberates with passion and sincerity: as a novel it is flat, stilted and perfunctory, almost a subversion of the imaginative process in which, presumably, it was conceived. In a significant note at the end, Mr Wicker tells us: "Except for a few historical personages to whom I found it necessary to refer, all the characters in this novel are imaginary." One wonders, after all, why he bothered.

"As It Is, Alas," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 2, 1973, p. 1334.

Wicker's contribution to an understanding of the tragedy of Attica [in A Time To Die] does not lie in his Faulkneresque excesses of rhetoric (such as "No American would ever be free, he thought in his exhaustion and despair. That was the inescapable truth of it, harsh as the story of Lucifer's fall. They who had sought to be masters would be forever slaves. Having loosed in the traffic of souls the darkness within themselves, they had loosed as well as the black living image of that darkness, and the fear of darkness made flesh, darkness rising in savage triumph…."). It does not lie in such irrelevancies as references to his impending divorce, or that, having neglected to bring along a suitcase, he could not don a clean shirt and underwear after a shower in a Buffalo motel; or that once, "in a fierce dinner-table debate with James Baldwin" he (Wicker) had declared "a willingness to trade his white skin for Baldwin's literary talent." (It is to be assumed that Baldwin did not take him up on this.)

Wicker's contribution lies in his depictions of the various prison officials, as well as of Rockefeller's representatives, and also in his credible (if at times uncharitable) analyses of his fellow members on the observers' committee. (p. 24)

Kay Boyle, "The Crime of Attica," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 15, 1975, pp. 23-5.

Like James Agee's "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," another transplanted Southerner's classic attempt to identify with the insulted and injured, "A Time to Die" is both eloquent and awkward. The awkward element in Wicker's book is his casting himself in the third person—"a disappointed man who believed he had fallen short…, overweight, affluent beyond his sense of decency, a writer who feared he had written nothing that would last, a political commentator who believed he preached mostly to the converted." I see why Wicker wanted to avoid "I"; but he lacks the galvanic ego and ironic virtuosity that made the third-person artifice work for Mailer in "Armies of the Night." Here a sympathetic reader must simply learn to live with it….

"There's always time to die. I don't know what the rush was," said Herman Badillo, one of Wicker's fellow observers at Attica. Fixing the rush to bloodshed for our inspection, the newspaperman who feared he had written nothing that would last has produced a permanent, heartbreaking book.

Walter Clemons, "We and They," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1975, p. 95.

[A Time to Die] charts an inner transformation brought on by collision with external events—the way most of our internal geological shifts occur. The life of the spirit, after all, is not concerned with what goes on in our bell-jar psyches, but is a matter of the 'soul' in our relationship to the things of life. Wicker's book is there to keep us real and alive to a world to which no inward turn should blind us. (p. 158)

David S. Toolan, in Commonweal (copyright © 1976 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), February 27, 1976.