What J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. thought they knew about Tom Wicker of the ‘Times’

"MENTAL HALITOSIS" WAS A FAVORITE INSULT OF HOOVER'S, one he used many times over the years. That it was directed at Wicker was originally reported by Anthony Summers in his 1993 book Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, along with other instances of the Director’s hyperbolic media commentary. Drew Pearson was “a jackal” and Jimmy Wechsler “a rat,” while Walter Lippmann was the “coyote of the press” and Art Buchwald a “sick alleged humorist.” Hoover did worse to others, maliciously divulging secrets, like telling the White House that columnist Joe Alsop was gay.

More slights toward Wicker would follow and be filed away for reference. Hoover distributed a 1971 William F. Buckley, Jr., column that accused Wicker of selective reporting on the prison death of Black Panther George Jackson. “This clearly portrays Wicker’s bias + tendency to angle the real facts. H.” He had this to say about a 1971 Wicker article in the Boston Globe: “The usual Wicker lies interspersed with innumerable “faceless informers.” H.” (Along with that clipping, the name of the paper’s editor was attached.)  

In the meantime, the F.B.I.’s concerns over a Wicker book had been put to rest. A December 11, 1970 memo from Bishop relayed a conversation he had had with someone—name redacted—at Random House, who “emphatically stated that Random House was not in the process of publishing any book written by Wicker and would not under any circumstances publish a book by him that would be critical of the Bureau or the Director.” (Though Wicker may have explored the idea, his high-dollar book advance was nothing but a rumor.)

The redacted Random House employee “stated that he would like Mr. Hoover to know that he considers the Director a “friend” and would never publish any book critical of him.” Furthermore, the source “stated that he saw Wicker a week or so ago at a cocktail party, at which time Wicker told him he was very busy with his normal duties for the “New York Times” and that he has no time to write any books.” Yet, the Random House source couldn’t rule out whether Wicker might be collecting material for a future publication.

WICKER'S FILE TOOK A TURN IN TONE after Hoover’s death in May of 1972. The article clippings with reassuring letters from Hoover loyalists around the country stopped. Wicker continued to make mentions of the bureau in his reporting, but with Hoover gone, it had stopped paying attention.  

Then in June 1974, Wicker called F.B.I. headquarters to request some interviews for a follow-up to his 1969 Times magazine piece. An internal memo said, “He intends that the current article … to be a comparison of the Bureau today with what it was at the time of the previous article.”   

The memo revisited the Wicker file compiled in the Hoover years and then made these observations: “Although experience demands that we be guarded in our approach to Mr. Wicker, his requests afford us an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the professional validity of the “open stance” policy with the media and to present our side of many crucial issues to a major news outlet.”   

Two weeks later, a date was set for Wicker to interview the F.B.I. director.

The article never ran.