Walter, Walter, What’s Our Lead?

From a post on headlined “History in 10 words”:

Walter R. Mears, who died yesterday at 87, was the legendary presidential campaign chronicler for The Associated Press.

  • Why he mattered: The lore about Walter’s speed, clarity and credibility had been passed down among reporters to the time I started covering campaigns a quarter century after his heyday.

A note on style: He had such an aura that generations of reporters called him “Walter” even though they’ve never met him — or read him.

Walter would be proud of the taut, jazzy lead of his obit, written by his colleagues Mike Feinsilber and Cal Woodward:

WASHINGTON (AP) — Walter R. Mears, who for 45 years fluidly and speedily wrote the news about presidential campaigns for The Associated Press and won a Pulitzer Prize doing it, has died. He was 87.

Here’s the tales that still gets told on campaign buses decades later, from Timothy Crouse’s “The Boy on the Bus,” about the press pack on the 1972 campaign:

Two … reporters, one from New York, another from Chicago, headed toward Mears shouting, “Lead? Lead?” Marty Nolan [of the Boston Globe] came at him from another direction. “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?” he said.

Translation, from the AP obit: “Mears had to bang out stories about campaign debates while they were still underway. Newspaper editors would see his lead [first sentence] on the wire before their own reporters filed their stories. So it was defensive for others on the press bus to wonder what Mears was leading with, and to ask him.”

  • To this day, after some mishmash of a speech, one reporter will say to another: “What’s the lead, Walter?”

The obit points out that in his openers, Walter “captured the essence of events, not just the words but the music”:

  • 20 words, 1968: “Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds early today, prey like his president brother to the savagery of an assassin.”
  • 18 words, 1968: “Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the politics of joy, won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight under armed guard.”
  • 10 words, 1976: “In the end, the improbable Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”

Now that’s Smart Brevity.

  • Go deeper: Read the 6 Walter Mears stories that won the Pulitzer.

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