Walter R. Mears, Pulitzer-winning AP journalist, dies at 87

The cause was cancer, said his daughters, Susan Mears and Stephanie Stich.

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

“It was intense, high-pressure reporting and writing that fortunately turned out to be my particular talent,” Mr. Mears wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Deadlines Past.” “Under 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 young man with pale, piercing green eyes who smoked cigarillos” who had “climbed the ranks the hard way, quickly telling the stories and making clear the done every time”. .”

In 1972, he was already considered a scholar of rapid writing and a political oracle. Other reporters, unsure how to approach a story, came up to him saying, “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?”

Mr. Mears had a knack for finding a new regional wrinkle or 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 talking, they started writing.

“The whole room was bursting with clanking typewriters,” Crouse wrote, “but Mears stood out as the resident dervish. His cigar slowed him down, so he threw it away. “didn’t have time to take off his blue jacket. After the first three minutes, he turned to the phone at his elbow and called the AP office in LA”

Almost the only people in the country who didn’t see Mr. Mears’ work regularly were people in big cities, whose newspapers were big enough to send their own reporters on the road.

His toughest assignment was in 1968, he told NBC reporter Tim Russert in 2003. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided against seeking re-election in the face of a populist campaign by Senator Eugene McCarthy ( D-Minn.) roots effort by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (DN.Y.). On the Republican side, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon was seeking political rehabilitation.

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

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

In 1972’s “The Boys on the Bus,” Mears covered failed Democratic candidates such as Humphrey, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (Maine) and segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace before the nomination failed. be claimed by Senator George S. McGovern. (SOUTH DAKOTA). McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon, who later resigned from the presidency following the Watergate scandal.

While following Nixon’s campaign, Mr. Mears later wrote in his memoirs: “I have never met so many people who then ended up in jail.”

Writing at a breakneck pace, Mr. Mears produced tons of texts which, thanks to a kind of literary alchemy, were not only factual but also sometimes touched by 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 one sentence: “In the end, the unlikely Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”

When he started covering presidential politics in 1960, Mr Mears said politicians were easy to approach and even invited reporters for a drink. This irreverent and cantankerous style was captured in “The Boys on the Bus”, but there was still widespread respect for the office of the presidency, among reporters and the public.

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

But the rise of cable television, political consultants, and the ubiquitous presence of microphones “devalued everything,” making candidates more reserved 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 on January 11, 1935 in Lynn, Mass. Her father was an executive in a chemical company and her mother was a housewife.

“Journalism was my only ambition, from my earliest knowledge of people working for a living,” Mr Mears said in a 1983 interview for the landmark book Contemporary Authors. “When other kids talked about being firefighters or ball players, I talked about being a journalist.”

He started 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 political reporter in Washington in 1961. The following year his first wife, the former Sally Danton, and their two young children, Walter Jr. and Pamela, died in the fire of a family home. house in Mount Vernon. Mr. Mears was injured while trying to rescue them.

He then threw himself into his job, working 18-hour days, eventually becoming AP’s political editor. He was briefly Washington bureau chief for the Detroit News, only to return to the news desk after a few months because “I couldn’t keep up. It was too slow.”

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

Throughout his career, Mr. Mears has loved concession speeches — confession speeches — from 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’ marriages to Joyce Lund and Carroll Ann Rambo ended in divorce. His fourth wife, journalist Fran Richardson, died in 2019. Survivors include two daughters from his second marriage, Susan Mears of Boulder, Colorado, and Stephanie Stich of Austin; a brother; and five grandchildren.

In 1983, Mr. Mears published a book, “The News Business”, co-authored with former 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 had missed the excitement of the campaign trail, the rush of timely reporting.

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


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