Editor’s note: Curtis Wilkie, the inaugural senior fellow of the Overby Center, developed a national reputation as an outstanding political reporter covering presidential campaigns. He became a national figure when he was featured in Timothy Crouse’s classic book about the 1972 presidential campaign, “Boys on the Bus.” Walter Mears, legendary reporter for The Associated Press, also was featured in “Boys on the Bus” as the leader of the pack.
By Curtis Wilkie
Walter Mears was one of the last of a tribe of political reporters who dominated news coverage during the second half of the 20th century and never let their own rowdy lifestyles interfere with their professionalism.
Mears was 87 when he died last week in Chapel Hill, N.C., where he had taught at the University of North Carolina following his retirement in 2000 after covering eleven presidential campaigns for the Associated Press.
He was already a fixture in the political world when I first met him during George McGovern’s doomed challenge of Richard Nixon in 1972. He was later immortalized upon the publication of Tim Crouse’s “The Boys on the Bus,” a colorful account of life in the ‘72 presidential press corps that is still required reading in J-Schools.
Crouse wrote that many in the traveling band of reporters turned to Mears for advice on deadline because of his speed and skill as a wire service writer, creating a daily mantra, “What’s the lead Walter?”
Mears was universally respected and the author of many great lead paragraphs. But the line was a routine joke. His colleagues knew that their editors back home often relied on the wisdom of the AP rather than their own staff members on assignment.
Fifty years ago, the political press corps was essentially made up of men, thrown together for months on the road and relying on booze, practical jokes and irreverence to relieve the stress.
“Mears” — as I called him, never “Walter” – was a running mate of veterans slightly older than I who were giants of the profession: Jules Witcover, Jack Germond, Jim Naughton, Bill Greider, Marty Nolan and John Chancellor (one of the rare television stars admitted to their club.)
In 1976 I was allowed to penetrate their gang, largely on the basis of my affiliation with the Boston Globe and my love of the Red Sox. There was a strong Massachusetts orientation to these guys; Mears had grown up near Boston. They all enjoyed a good time. And while they took their work seriously, they never seemed to take themselves seriously.
Not even Mears, who nursed a terrible family tragedy. His first wife and two children perished in a house fire in 1962. I never heard him mention it, though it was common knowledge. Instead, he was one of the lively spirits on the bus, volunteering caustic comment and participating in mischief.
He may have had a role in the caper to sneak a sheep into the room of Tom Defrank, a Texas A & M grad, on a trip to College Station with President Ford. I wasn’t on that trip, but that was the kind of stunt that Mears & Co.was capable of pulling off.
Mears, Witcover and Naughton, along with my Globe confederates Nolan, Tom Oliphant and Bob Healy, were also adapt at composing witty lyrics to well-known tunes. One of their better-known compositions was created during the candidacy of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, “The Ruthless Cannonball.” In my presence they crooned “Lust in my Heart” to the tune of “Heart of my Heart” after Jimmy Carter admitted in a Playboy interview to having this weakness.
Candidates were often the target of these verses, and most of them appeared amused by the attention. In those days, all but Nixon at least tolerated reporters accompanying them, Sometimes grudgingly. Yet Bob Dole, Mo Udall, Fritz Mondale and John McCain, all possessed their own sense of humor and usually enjoyed the repartee.
Those times are gone now. The press corps has many more women, and the men prefer tonic water, dress in blue blazers and tan slacks, and would rather appear as talking heads on TV shows than take part in a night out on the own.
RIP Walter Mears and a dying era of political journalism.