11/26/2011 09:36 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2012

Tom Wicker and the Age of Conscience

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 Today that sense of conscience has been replaced by snarky opinions, cute personal attacks, denigration of political figures, and insider cleverness.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.