“Wishing I Could Be Out in the Cold Again”

By Walter Mears

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Walter Mears covered 11 presidential elections for the AP.

As the New Hampshire primary approaches every fourth year, I find myself wishing I could be out in the cold again, covering candidates and reporting the stories. Since I can’t—my last campaign coverage there was in 2000—I think back to the campaigns and election nights I covered beginning in 1964. Here are a few of those memories.

The 1964 Republican campaign was classic right versus left, Barry Goldwater against Nelson Rockefeller. Each man campaigned intensively—Sen. Goldwater was my assignment, but I saw a bit of the New York governor, too.

Goldwater stirred constant controversy. Rockefeller was the one-on-one campaigner. “Hi, ya, fella” he’d say to everyone he encountered, sometimes including women. Goldwater said he wasn’t going to be a back-slapping, blintzel-eating candidate. And yes, he did say blintzel, coining a word that never caught on.

Rocky knew a blintz when he saw one. He constantly gave the same speech, extolling the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God. Which led to the reporters’ shorthand: bomfog.

Goldwater varied the fare, and said things that haunted his campaign to the landslide end in the fall. He said he would make Social Security voluntary, that if he’d been president he would have bombed Cuba to win at the Bay of Pigs, and lots more. It was the style that made copy, if not votes.

While they spent a month working the state, a crew of volunteers went to work for non-candidate Henry Cabot Lodge, the U.S. ambassador to Saigon. He was remote, he was silent, and he won the primary on write-in votes, the high-point of his non-campaign.

The AP set up an election bureau in a Concord hotel and prepared for the suspense of the counting. But there wasn’t any. Before we tallied the first ballots, CBS declared Lodge the winner, based on exit polling, the voter interviews that foretold the outcome as in every election since. It was a first, and it changed election nights forever.

I had a problem with the Boston desk that primary day. I wrote my overnight and went to sleep—and a snowstorm swept in during the early morning early hours. I got an angry call from the desk at 6 or so, demanding to know why I had not filed a lead saying that primary voters were going to have to brave heavy snow. Since the storm blew in after I went to sleep, I said wait a minute and looked out the hotel window into the blizzard. Then I filed the lead. I always wondered why the overnight guy in Boston didn’t combine the weather report with the primary story.

I remember the lead I wrote that night: Lodge won on a snowslide of write in votes.

By 1968, the Vietnam war was a dominant issue. That was the year of Gene McCarthy, the anti-war senator from Minnesota, whose campaign recruited legions of young volunteers, while President Lyndon B. Johnson watched from Washington. LBJ was not on the primary ballot, and McCarthy’s came close enough to embarrass the White House and begin the process that led Robert F. Kennedy to get into the campaign and Johnson to drop out.

Richard Nixon was unchallenged in the Republican primary, but he campaigned anyhow. I remember—ruefully, as it developed—covering him at an old textile mill in Hampton when he said flatly that it he became president he would end the war in Vietnam. Along with other reporters, I asked him how he would do it, and he wouldn’t say. I filed a straight lead that said he promised to end the war but would not say how. A more inventive UPI reporter wrote that Nixon said he had a secret plan to end the war in Vietnam. That became part of the lore, although he never said it. A historian once told me that he had spent countless hours trying to find the precise quote in which Nixon said he had a secret plan, impossible because he never said it.

In 1972, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine had an overwhelming lead in the early polls, eventually beat Sen. George McGovern by 9 percentage points, and never got over the victory because he lost badly on the game of expectations, in which he was supposed to win by a landslide. The reaction left him angry at the oddsmakers—some of whom were his own managers—and at reporters and commentators. As he reflected to me long afterward, his strength was in the image of a calm, reassuring leader. The testy, sometimes angry campaigner did not match the image. I think the failure to match that expectation, not the numbers game, was his undoing.

Fast forward to 1980. I remember the sweltering crowd in the Nashua high school gymnasium at the debate which produced a trademark Ronald Reagan moment. The Nashua Telegraph was going to sponsor a one-on-one debate between Reagan and George Bush, but couldn’t because of the rules against corporate contributions. So the Reagan people asked Bush to split the cost, all of $3,500. Bush refused so the Reagan side paid, and then decided to open the debate to four other candidates. So while the audience waited, the campaigns haggled about who could be on stage. That’s when Reagan started talking and the moderator ordered his microphone turned off. “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green,” Reagan snapped at John Breen, the Telegraph editor doubling as debate moderator. Bush sat in silence, Reagan grabbed the stage, and held it through his two to one primary victory.

A later victory and another memorable line: Bill Clinton lost the 1992 primary by 8 percentage points, and staged a victory rally to pronounce himself the comeback kid because he had been so far behind in the polls.

Bush was running for a second term that year in difficult economic times. He explained to the folks in Somerset in what we called Bushspeak. He said he knew he had problems but “don’t cry for me Argentina.” Whatever that meant.

Enough campaign memories. The first in the nation primary is a special stage. I’ve been watching it for more than 50 years, and will be again on Tuesday.
This reminiscence is reprinted from Connecting, an email newsletter edited by Paul Stevens for Associated Press staffers and alumni and news industry friends. Walter Mears joined the AP in 1955 and reported on national politics from 1960 to 2001. In 1977 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the 1976 election.

In 1968 I saw him in action covering the Humphrey-Nixon race. When it came time for reporters to file, the question most often asked was, “What’s the lead, Walter?” Other reporters wanted to know what he was using as his lead before writing their own stories.

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