By MIKE FEINSILBER and CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Walter R. Mears, who fluently and quickly wrote presidential campaign news for The Associated Press for 45 years and won a Pulitzer Prize for his work, has died. He was 87.
“I could write a story as fast as I could type,” Mears once admitted – and he was a fast typist. He became head of the AP’s Washington bureau and editor-in-chief and vice president of intelligence, but he always returned to the keyboard, reporting on politics.
Mears died Thursday at his home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, eight days after he was diagnosed with multiple cancers, said his daughters, Susan Mears of Boulder, Colorado, and Stephanie Mears of Austin, Texas, who were with him.
They said he was visited on his last evening by a minister with whom he spoke about Alf Landon, the losing Republican presidential nominee in 1936, a year after his birth.
Mears’ ability to find the essence of a story while it was still in progress and get it to the wire—and to newspapers and broadcasters around the world—became legendary among peers. In 1972, Timothy Crouse featured Mears in The Boys on the Bus, a book chronicling the endeavors and antics of reporters covering that year’s presidential campaign.
Crouse related how, immediately after a political debate, a reporter from The Boston Globe called out to the AP man, “Walter, what’s our lead? What’s the lead, Walter?” The question has become a catchphrase among political reporters to describe the search for that most newsworthy aspect of an event—the lead. “Gave me moderate fame,” Mears cracked in 2005.
It was a natural question. Mears had to spill stories about campaign debates while they were still going on. Newspaper editors would see his trail on the wire before their own reporters submitted their stories. As such, it was defensive for others on the press bus to wonder what Mears was up to and ask him.
Early in his Washington career, he was hired to write updates on the 1962 congressional election. His office manager asked a senior colleague to assess how Mears worked under pressure and report back to him. “Mears writes faster than most people think,” the reviewer then wrote with a wink, “and sometimes faster than he thinks.”
“Walter’s influence at AP and throughout the journalism industry is hard to overstate,” said Julie Pace, AP’s editor-in-chief and senior vice president. “He was an advocate of a free and fair press, a tenacious reporter, an elegant chronicler of history and an inspiration to countless journalists, including myself.”
Kathleen Carroll, a former AP editor-in-chief, said he taught generations of journalists “how to watch and listen and ask and explain.”
“Walter was also a wonderful person,” she said. “He loved his family – being a grandfather was one of the great joys of his life. He loved golf and the Red Sox, in that order. He loved politics and he loved the AP.”
Mears didn’t seem to mind being known as a pacemaker. “I got away with a slogan that wasn’t mine, but it stuck for the rest of my career,” he recalled in his 2003 memoir Deadlines Past. Over four decades, Mears has covered 11 presidential campaigns, from Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 to Bush-Gore in 2000, as well as the political conventions, the campaigns, the debates, the elections, and finally the pomp and promise of the inaugurations.
In homage to Jules Witcover, who covered politics for The Sun in Baltimore, Mears said he combined speed and accuracy with an eye for insightful detail.
“His uncanny ability to pull any story to the point and tell it in spare, lively prose pointed the way for a generation of intelligence enthusiasts, and he did so with an enthusiasm for the nomadic life on the campaign trail,” said Witcover.
At other times in his career, Mears served AP as chief of the Washington bureau and as the intelligence service’s chief news manager, managing editor at its New York headquarters. But he missed writing and returned to it.
He once left to become the Washington bureau chief for The Detroit News, but returned to the AP nine months later. “I couldn’t keep up the pace,” he said. “It was too slow.”
In 1977 he received a Pulitzer Prize for his work on the election in which Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated an incumbent President, Gerald R. Ford, who had inherited office through the dishonorable resignation of Richard M. Nixon.
It was the Pulitzer catchphrase, not the Crouse catchphrase, that Mears thought would be remembered. When asked to reach out to a later generation of Pulitzer winners, he told them never to ask themselves what the first words of their obituaries would be: They would, he said, be “Pulitzer Prize winners.”
Winning his Pulitzer title, Mears said, was “the sweetest moment in a career unlike any other industry.”
In his motto, Mears captured the essence of the events, not just the words but the music as well.
– When the Democrats finally chose their nominee at a 1968 convention held amid anti-war riots on the streets of Chicago, he wrote: “Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the Politics of Joy, won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight by armed guard .”
– When a gunman killed John Kennedy’s brother earlier this year: “Robert F. Kennedy died early this morning of gunshot wounds, like his presidential brother, the victim of an assassin’s brutality.”
— And when former peanut farmer Carter took over the presidency from its chance holder in 1976: “In the end, the unlikely Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”
Terry Hunt, former AP White House correspondent and deputy bureau chief in Washington, said: “You can’t talk about Walter without using the word legendary. He was a brilliant writer, amazingly fast, colorful and captivating.”
David Espo, a former special correspondent and deputy head of the Washington bureau, agreed. “No one has ever written faster or clearer or worked harder and made it look easier than Walter,” he said.
Mears was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, and grew up in Lexington, the son of a chemical company executive. He graduated from Middlebury College, Vermont, Phi Beta Kappa in 1956 and within a week joined the AP in Boston.
Back then, messages were typed on typewriters and sent by teleprinter. “They were slow and they rattled,” Mears once wrote, “but the noise was music to me.”
His first assignment was far away from the noise. He single-handedly covered the Vermont Legislature. “It was fun to cover a citizenship with a representative from every hamlet in the state” — 276 of them, he recalled years later, including one chosen by his townspeople to keep the lad from being eligible for welfare Has.
Mears covered John F. Kennedy whenever Kennedy fought in New England in 1960 and Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated race against Lyndon Johnson four years later. He has returned every year in the presidency, even after retiring in 2001.
On election night in 2008, he wrote an analysis of Barack Obama’s victory and the challenge that lay before him.
“Obama is the future,” he wrote, “and it begins now, in troubled times, for a president-elect with a costly agenda of promises that would be difficult to fulfill in far better economic circumstances.”
No cheerleading by Mears there. He didn’t believe in reporters expressing political opinions and kept his own to himself. Although he got to know the contestants he covered, sometimes shared after-work drinks and played golf with them, he always addressed them by their titles.
He thought it appropriate to keep a distance between the newscaster and the newsmaker. He once explained, “I can’t really say I’ve ever felt close to any of them, maybe because I’ve always felt there’s a line, there’s a kind of reserve that I feel needs to be maintained because you don’t cover any friend. You’re covering for someone trying to convince the American people to give him the most important job they have at their disposal.”
After retiring, Mears taught journalism at the University of North Carolina for a time, settling in Chapel Hill.
His wife Frances died in January 2019. His first wife and their two children were killed in a house fire in 1962. Mears ordered that some of his ashes be distributed with Frances’ remains and the remainder in Massachusetts with those of his first wife and two children lost in the fire.
Mike Feinsilber is a longtime UPI and AP writer and editor who served as deputy chief of the AP’s Washington bureau of news before retiring as a writing coach in 2011. He contributed to this story’s newsletter.
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