Walter Mears: One of the Country’s Most Influential and Widely Read Political Reporters

From a Washington Post obit by Matt Schudel headlined “Walter R. Mears, Pulitzer-winning reporter featured in classic book on campaign journalism, dies at 87”:

Walter R. Mears, who was one of the country’s most influential political reporters while covering 11 presidential elections for the Associated Press, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and earning a place in history as a central figure in Timothy Crouse’s classic book about the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus,” died March 3 at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C….

Mr. Mears spent most of his career at the AP, which sent his dispatches to thousands of newspapers, making him perhaps the country’s most widely read political journalist, if not necessarily the best known. He covered every presidential election from 1960 through 2000, assessing the candidates and framing the issues of the day with seasoned authority and the reflexes of a sprinter.

“It is intense, high-pressure reporting and writing that, fortunately, turned out to be my special talent,” Mr. Mears wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Deadlines Past.” “In the right circumstances, I could produce a story as fast as I could type.”

In “The Boys on the Bus,” Crouse described Mr. Mears as “a youngish man with sharp pale green eyes who smoked cigarillos” who had “worked his way up the hard way, by getting stories in fast and his facts straight every time.”

By 1972, he was already regarded as something of a speed-writing savant and political oracle. Other reporters, uncertain of how to approach a story, went to him saying: “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?”

Mr. Mears had a knack for finding a new wrinkle or a fresh regional angle that would keep his political reports from being rote recitations of a speech he had heard dozens of times. As soon as a candidate started speaking, he started writing.

“The entire room was erupting with clattering typewriters,” Crouse wrote, “but Mears stood out as the resident dervish. His cigar slowed him down, so he threw it away. It was hot, but he had no time to take off his blue jacket. After the first three minutes, he turned to the phone at his elbow and called the AP bureau in L.A.”

Almost the only people in the country who did not regularly see Mr. Mears’s work were residents of major cities, whose newspapers were large enough to send their own reporters on the road.

His most challenging assignment came in 1968, he told NBC journalist Tim Russert in 2003. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek reelection in the face of a populist campaign by Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and a late grass-roots effort by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.). On the Republican side, onetime vice president Richard M. Nixon was seeking political rehabilitation.

That year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in April, followed two months later by the assassination of Kennedy, shortly after he won the California primary. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.), who had not participated in a single primary, was nominated during a Democratic National Convention in Chicago marred by protests and riots.

“Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the politics of joy,” Mr. Mears wrote, “won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight under armed guard.”

In “The Boys on the Bus” year of 1972, Mr. Mears covered such failed Democratic candidates as Humphrey, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (Maine) and Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace before the nomination was claimed by Sen. George S. McGovern (S.D.). McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon, who later resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

While following Nixon’s campaign, Mr. Mears later wrote in his memoir: “I never met so many people who later wound up in prison.”

Writing at a breakneck pace, Mr. Mears produced reams of copy that, through some kind of literary alchemy, was not only factual but also sometimes touched with notes of poetic grace. He won his Pulitzer for his coverage of the 1976 race between Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, summing up the outcome in a sentence: “In the end, the improbable Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”

When he began covering presidential politics in 1960, Mr. Mears said politicians were easy to approach and would even invite reporters for drinks. That irreverent, cantankerous style was captured in “The Boys on the Bus,” but there was still a widely held respect for the office of the presidency, among reporters and the public alike.

“When I covered Goldwater and Bobby Kennedy and Nixon,” Mr. Mears said in 2000, “when they went out to campaign, you would still see parents holding up children to see the next president of the United States.”

But the rise of cable television, political consultants and the ubiquitous presence of microphones “cheapened everything,” making candidates more guarded and voters more cynical.

“Information has been devalued in favor of opinion,” Mr. Mears said, “and the line between the two has blurred.”

Walter Robert Mears was born in Lynn, Mass. His father was an executive with a chemical company, and his mother was a homemaker.

“Journalism was my only ambition, from my earliest knowledge that people work for a living,” Mr. Mears said in a 1983 interview. “When other kids talked about being firemen or ballplayers, I talked about being a reporter.”

He began working for the AP while still a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. He graduated in 1956 and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

He was based in New England before becoming a Washington-based political reporter in 1961. The next year, his first wife, the former Sally Danton, and their two young children, Walter Jr. and Pamela, died in a house fire at the family home in Mount Vernon. Mr. Mears was injured while trying to rescue them.

He then threw himself into his job, working 18 hours a day, eventually becoming AP’s chief political writer. He was briefly the Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News, only to return to the wire service after a few months, because “I couldn’t take the pace. It was too slow.”

After five years as AP’s executive editor in New York, Mr. Mears returned to Washington in 1989 as political columnist. He retired after the 2000 presidential election, in which the Supreme Court determined that Republican George W. Bush prevailed over Democrat Al Gore.

Throughout his career, Mr. Mears was fond of the concession speeches — confession speeches — of losing candidates. One of his favorites came in 1976, when Arizona congressman Morris Udall lost several Democratic primaries: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”

Mr. Mears’s marriages to Joyce Lund and Carroll Ann Rambo ended in divorce. His fourth wife, journalist Fran Richardson, died in 2019….

In 1983, Mr. Mears published a book, “The News Business,” co-written with onetime NBC News anchor John Chancellor. He moved to Chapel Hill in 2005 and taught journalism at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.

Reflecting on his career in a 2003 interview with NBC’s Russert, Mr. Mears confessed that he missed the excitement of the campaign trail, the rush of reporting on deadline.

“I’m waiting for somebody to call and say, ‘Get on the bus,’ ” he said. “I’ll go in a minute.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004. He previously worked for publications in Washington, New York, North Carolina and Florida.
Also see the New York Times obit by Alex Traub headlined “Walter R. Mears, ‘Boys on the Bus’ Campaign Reporter, Dies at 87.” The opening grafs:

Walter R. Mears, a longtime reporter at The Associated Press whose on-the-spot analyses of American politics won him a Pulitzer Prize and a role in “The Boys on the Bus,” an enduring 1973 book about presidential campaign correspondents, died on Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Mr. Mears joined The A.P. the week after he graduated from college in 1956, and he remained there for the rest of his career, except for a brief stint at The Detroit News. At The A.P., he rose to Washington bureau chief and executive editor, yet always returned to his chief passion — deadline writing.

“I made my reputation as a man who could write and deliver copy almost instantly,” he wrote in his memoir, “Deadlines Past” (2003).

He won his Pulitzer for national reporting in 1977 for his work on the previous year’s presidential race between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. Mr. Mears’s writing was distinguished by his ability to judge the historical meaning of events he was witnessing in real time.

“It has been a campaign without compelling issues, a campaign structured around three nationally televised debates which are in retrospect more important for the fact that they were held than for anything that was said,” he wrote in an article published soon after the third and final Ford-Carter debate.

At the time, there had not been a televised presidential debate since 1960. In the years to come, there would be at least one in every general election.

Mr. Mears became “moderately famous,” as he put it, thanks to “The Boys on the Bus,” written by the journalist Timothy Crouse. For an American public that had largely accepted the omniscient posture of mainstream political reporters, the book provided a messy but savory view of journalistic sausage making.

Mr. Crouse quoted Mr. Mears, then only 37, calling himself an “old fart” and fretting that practitioners of the ascendant style of New Journalism had skipped over essentials of reportorial training, like “how to write an eight-car fatal on Route 128.”…

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