On Writing: And Coming Up With the Lead—Fast

By Mike Feinsilber

Walter Mears, happily in retirement in North Carolina, likes to say he knows what the first words of his obituary will be: “Pulitzer Prize winner Walter R. Mears…”

Mears won for his coverage for the Associated Press of the 1976 campaign for the presidency. But earlier than that he was given a pre-death epitaph that’s also sure to appear in his obit: “What’s the lead, Walter?”

Mears, who helped cover 11 presidential campaigns for the AP, may have been the fastest writer in the business. So fast that an evaluating editor wrote a memo to his boss: “Mears writes faster than most people think, and maybe faster than he thinks.”

So when a campaign event would end, Mears’ story was out and on the wire while others in the press pack, not having to meet the speed requirements of a wire service, were still wondering what to lead with. A Boston Globe reporter, knowing that his editors would judge his story against the AP’s, would ask, “Walter, what’s our lead?”  It was always safe to lead with the same aspect of the story as the AP.  Other reporters perked up to hear Mears’ answer.

Tim Crouse was listening too. While the reporters were covering the campaign, he was covering the reporters. He put what he learned into his book on the antics of the 1972 press corps,  The Boys on the Bus and “What’s the lead, Walter?” became a catch phrase capturing the tribal characteristics of the campaign bubble.

Years later, in his own book, Deadlines Past: Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter’s Story, Mears, not entirely ruefully, recalled all this: “I came away with a slogan not of my making, but one that stuck for the rest of my career.”

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