WASHINGTON – 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.
“I could produce a story as fast as I could type,” Mears once acknowledged — and he was a fast typist. He became the AP’s Washington bureau chief and the wire service’s executive editor and vice president, but he always returned to the keyboard, and to covering politics.
Mears died Thursday at his apartment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, eight days after being diagnosed with multiple forms of cancer, 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 night by a minister, with whom he discussed Alf Landon, the losing Republican presidential candidate in 1936, a year after his birth.
Mears’ ability to find the essence of a story while it was still going on and to get it to the wire — and to newspapers and broadcasters around the world — became legend among peers. In 1972, Timothy Crouse featured Mears in “The Boys on the Bus,” a book chronicling the efforts and antics of reporters covering that year’s presidential campaign.
Crouse recounted how, immediately after a political debate, a reporter from The Boston Globe called out to the man from AP: “Walter, what’s our lead? What’s the lead, Walter?” The question became a catchphrase among political reporters to describe the search for the most newsworthy aspect of an event — the lead. “Made me moderately famous,” Mears cracked in 2005.
It was a natural question. Mears had to bang out stories about campaign debates while they were still underway. Newspaper editors would see his lead 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.
Early in his Washington career, he was assigned to write updates on the 1962 congressional elections. His bureau chief asked a senior colleague to size up how Mears worked under pressure and report back. “Mears writes faster than most people think,” the evaluator wrote, then, tongue in cheek, “and sometimes faster than he thinks.”
“Walter’s impact at the AP, and in the journalism industry as a whole, is hard to overstate,” said Julie Pace, AP executive editor and senior vice president. “He was a champion for a free and fair press, a dogged reporter, an elegant chronicler of history and an inspiration to countless journalists, including myself.”
Kathleen Carroll, a former AP executive editor, said he taught generations of journalists “how to watch and listen and ask and explain.”
“Walter was also a wonderful human being,” 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 pacesetter. “I came away with a slogan not of my making, but one that stuck for the rest of my career,” he recalled in his 2003 memoir, “Deadlines Past.” Over four decades, Mears covered 11 presidential campaigns, from Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 to Bush-Gore in 2000, as well as the political conventions, the campaigns, debates, the elections and, finally, the pomp and promise of the inaugurations.
In tribute, Jules Witcover, who covered politics for The Sun in Baltimore, said Mears combined speed and accuracy with an eye for the telling detail.
“His uncanny ability to cut to the heart of any story and relate it in spare, lively prose showed the way for a generation of wire service disciples, and he did so with a zest for the nomad’s life on the campaign trail,” Witcover said.
At other times in his career, Mears served AP as Washington bureau chief and as the wire service’s primary news executive, the executive editor in the New York headquarters. But he missed writing and went back to it.
He left once, to be Washington bureau chief for The Detroit News, but returned to AP nine months later. “I couldn’t take the pace,” he said. “It was too slow.”
In 1977 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the election in which Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated a sitting president, Gerald R. Ford, who had inherited his office through the resignation in disgrace of Richard M. Nixon.
It was the Pulitzer, not the Crouse catchphrase, for which Mears thought he would be remembered. Asked to address a later crop of Pulitzer winners, he told them they would never have to wonder what would be the first words of their obituaries: They would be, he said, “Pulitzer-prize winning.”
Winning his Pulitzer, Mears said, was “the sweetest moment in a career that is like no other line of work.”
In his lead paragraphs, Mears captured the essence of events, not just the words but the music.
—When the 1968 Democrats, in a convention held in the midst of antiwar rioting on the streets of Chicago, finally chose their nominee, he wrote: “Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the politics of joy, won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight under armed guard.”
—When, earlier that year, a gunman slew John Kennedy’s brother: “Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds early today, prey like his president brother to the savagery of an assassin.”
—And, in 1976, when former peanut farmer Carter took the presidency from its accidental occupant: “In the end, the improbable Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”
Said Terry Hunt, former AP White House correspondent and deputy bureau chief in Washington: “You can’t talk about Walter without using the word legendary. He was a brilliant writer, astonishingly fast, colorful and compelling.”
Agreed David Espo, former special correspondent and assistant Washington bureau chief, “No one ever wrote faster or with more clarity, nor worked harder and made it look easier than Walter did.” And: “He took care to mentor those less talented than he, in other words, all of us.”
Mears was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, and grew up in Lexington, the son of an executive of a chemical company. He graduated, Phi Beta Kappa, from Middlebury College in Vermont in 1956 and within a week joined the AP in Boston.
In those days, news was written on typewriters and transmitted on teletypes. “They were slow and they clattered,” Mears once wrote, “but the din was music to me.”
His first assignment was far from the din. He single-handedly covered the Vermont Legislature. “It was fun covering a citizen legislature with a representative from every hamlet in the state” — 276 of them, he recalled years later, including one elected by his townspeople to keep the fellow from being eligible for welfare.
Mears covered John F. Kennedy in 1960 whenever Kennedy campaigned in New England and covered Barry Goldwater’s hapless race against Lyndon Johnson four years later. He was back at it every presidential year, even after he retired in 2001.
On election night, 2008, he wrote an analysis of Barack Obama’s victory, and the challenge 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 deliver in far better economic circumstances.”
No cheerleading from Mears there. He didn’t believe in reporters expressing political opinions and he kept his own to himself. Although he got to know the candidates he covered, sometimes shared after-hour drinks and played golf with them, he always addressed them by their titles.
He considered a distance between newsperson and newsmaker to be appropriate. He once explained: “I can’t really say I ever felt close to any of them, maybe because I always felt that there’s a line there, there’s sort of a reserve that I think needs to be maintained because you’re not covering a friend. You’re covering somebody who’s trying to convince the American people to give him the most important job they’ve got at their command.”
After retiring, Mears taught journalism for a time at the University of North Carolina and made his home there, 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 directed that a portion of his ashes be distributed with Frances’ remains and the rest 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 assistant chief of the Washington AP bureau for news before his retirement as writing coach in 2011.
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