Home Book editor Pulitzer winner Walter Mears dies, AP’s ‘Boy on the Bus’

Pulitzer winner Walter Mears dies, AP’s ‘Boy on the Bus’

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They said he had been visited on his last night by a minister, with whom he had discussed Alf Landon, the losing Republican presidential candidate of 1936, a year after he was born.

Mears’ ability to find the essence of a story while it was still in progress and deliver it to the wire – and to newspapers and broadcasters around the world – has become a legend among his peers. In 1972, Timothy Crouse featured Mears in “The Boys on the Bus”, a book chronicling the efforts and antics of reporters covering the presidential campaign of that year.

Crouse recounted how, immediately after a political debate, a Boston Globe reporter called out to the AP man, “Walter, what’s our lead?” What’s the lead, Walter? The question has become a catchphrase among political journalists to describe the search for the most newsworthy aspect of an event – ​​the lead. “Made me moderately famous,” Mears said in 2005.

It was a natural question. Mears must have told stories about the campaign debates while they were still in progress. Newspaper editors would see his lead on the wire before their own reporters filed their stories. So it was defensive for the others on the press bus to wonder what Mears was leading with and ask him.

Early in his career in Washington, he was assigned to write updates on the 1962 congressional elections. His bureau chief asked a senior colleague to assess how Mears performed under pressure and report back. “Mears writes faster than most people think,” the reviewer then wrote, wryly, “and sometimes faster than he thinks.”

“Walter’s impact at the AP, and in the journalism industry as a whole, is hard to overestimate,” said Julie Pace, AP editor and vice president. “He was a champion of a free and fair press, a dogged journalist, an elegant chronicler of history, and an inspiration to countless journalists, including myself.”

Former AP editor Kathleen Carroll said he taught generations of reporters “how to watch and listen, 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 embarrassed to be known as a pioneer. “I came away with a slogan that wasn’t my creation, but stuck for the rest of my career,” he recalled in his 2003 memoir, “Deadlines Past.” For four decades, Mears has covered 11 presidential campaigns, from Kennedy-Nixon in 1960 to Bush-Gore in 2000, as well as political conventions, campaigns, debates, elections and, finally, the pomp and promise of inaugurations.

In tribute, Jules Witcover, who covered politics for The Sun in Baltimore, said Mears combined speed and precision with an eye for revealing details.

“His incredible ability to get to the heart of any story and tell it in sober, lively prose blazed the trail for a generation of news service disciples, and he did so with a zest for life. nomad on the campaign trail,” Witcover said. .

At other times in his career, Mears served AP as Washington bureau chief and as chief information officer of the news service, editor at New York headquarters. But he missed writing and he 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 keep up,” he said. “It was too slow.”

In 1977, he received 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 position through the disgraced resignation of Richard M. Nixon.

It was the Pulitzer, not the Crouse slogan, for which Mears thought he would be remembered. When asked to address a later group of Pulitzer winners, he told them they would never have to wonder what the opening words of their obituaries would be: they would be, he said. says, “Pulitzer Prize winners”.

Winning his Pulitzer, Mears said, was “the sweetest moment of a career unlike any other line of work.”

In his opening paragraphs, Mears captured the essence of the events, not just the words but the music.

— When the 1968 Democrats, at a convention held amid anti-war riots 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 killed John Kennedy’s brother: “Robert F. Kennedy died of gunshot wounds early today, plagued like his brother President by the savagery of an assassin .”

— And, in 1976, when former peanut farmer Carter took the presidency from its accidental occupant: “In the end, the unlikely Democrat beat the unelected Republican.

Said Terry Hunt, former AP White House correspondent and deputy Washington bureau chief, “You can’t talk about Walter without using the word legendary. He was a brilliant writer, surprisingly fast, colorful and convincing.

Mears was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, and raised in Lexington, the son of a chemical company executive. 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 teleprinters. “They were slow and they clacked,” Mears wrote, “but the din was music to me.”

His first mission was far from the din. He single-handedly covered the Vermont Legislative Assembly. “It was fun to cover a Citizens Legislature with a representative from every hamlet in the state” – 276 of them, he recalled years later, including one elected by its residents to prevent the individual from be eligible for social assistance.

Mears covered John F. Kennedy in 1960 whenever Kennedy campaigned in New England and covered Barry Goldwater’s ill-fated run against Lyndon Johnson four years later. He returned there every presidential year, even after his retirement in 2001.

On election night 2008, he wrote an analysis of Barack Obama’s victory and the challenge ahead.

“Obama is the future,” he wrote, “and it starts now, in troubled times, for a president-elect with an expensive agenda of promises that would be hard to keep under much better economic circumstances.” .

No Mears cheerleading there. He did not believe in journalists expressing political opinions and he kept his to himself. Although he got to know the candidates he covered, occasionally shared after-hours drinks and played golf with them, he always addressed them by their titles.

He considered a distance between reporter and reporter to be appropriate. He once explained: “I can’t really say that I ever felt close to any of them, maybe because I always felt there was a line there, there there’s a sort of caveat that I think needs to be maintained because you’re not covering for a friend you’re covering for someone trying to convince the American people to give them the most important job they have under them .

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.