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Deadlines Past with Walter Mears

October 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: The book is Deadlines Past: Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporter’s Story. The author is Walter Mears, the Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the Associated Press, who covered national politics from 1960 until his retirement in 2001.

His 40-plus year career spanned nine presidencies and untold thousands of miles covering the men who would and would not be president.

Wally Mears, welcome.

WALTER MEARS: Thank you.

TERENCE SMITH: Nine presidents, 11 campaigns, long days, long nights, and yet you make it read like and sound like a joyous experience for you.

WALTER MEARS: It was indeed. I can’t think of a more rewarding or enjoyable way to have made a living than what I was able to do for those years.

TERENCE SMITH: It gave you a great perch, did it not, on American history in those 40 years?

WALTER MEARS: I was… never failed to be conscious of the fact that I was in a very privileged position, able to tell my fellow citizens what I heard and saw, and could report to them about the people who would or would not lead them.

TERENCE SMITH: Did you have in all of this either a favorite candidate or a favorite campaign, one that was vintage for you?

WALTER MEARS: “Favorite” is a hard word to use on 1968, but it was by far the most fascinating campaign that I covered.

It was a campaign of the revival of Richard Nixon, the fall of Lyndon Johnson, the Gene McCarthy insurgency that helped knock Johnson out of the race, Robert F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey, great names all. It was just a fascinating time.

TERENCE SMITH: And if fact you describe how you actually went and told Eugene McCarthy while he was at an appearance that Lyndon Johnson had dropped out.

WALTER MEARS: Barged right up onto the stage in mid-speech. He looked at me like I was crazy, and I told him what had happened, and it fascinating. He kind of froze for an instant, and then he flinched a little bit as though he’d lost his target. He chased the car and he caught it. (Laughs) It was a fascinating moment.

TERENCE SMITH: It was certainly an extraordinary year. When you look back on it, I get the suggestion that you might think Richard Nixon was perhaps the best politician, in the political sense of the word, of them all. Is that fair?

WALTER MEARS: I think he was certainly one of the best. I mean, you can’t short Bill Clinton for being a master politician. But there was…. there were a great many parallels between the two men back from setbacks, both impeachment presidents.

But Nixon was indeed an incredible politician, and the amazing thing to me was that he was so ill at ease. He was always — what’s the word — he was uncomfortable being there. And yet that’s what he did for a living, for his whole life.


TERENCE SMITH: This book encompasses what we could call the television era in politics. As you look back over it, how has television changed presidential politics?

WALTER MEARS: Totally transformed it. I remember earlier the first national story I covered with John Kennedy was a speech he gave in New York to the Overseas Press Club.

And I remember the huge movie cameras in the back of the room that the TV network sent, and the feud between the print reporters and the television reporters, which the print reporters always won. Television was going to go back and develop the film and maybe get on the air eight or ten hours later.

And I watched over the years as the television stand gradually moved to the front. And now, as a print guy, you are lucky to look between the tripods and see the candidates, because it’s right up in the prominent position. And of course it became the method of political communication that it is now.

TERENCE SMITH: You also describe how it robbed, essentially took away private moments between the candidates and the reporters who covered them?

WALTER MEARS: Certainly that, and radio. I mean, the technology overall, the boom microphone that hangs over everybody’s shoulder now as soon as he goes into public, the end of the era when there was a glide path into a presidential campaign.

Now you see these people declaring their candidacy, and they’re in it with both feet right then, and every word is recorded. And, in a way, I suppose that’s an advance in my mind.

It’s also a terrible loss because I don’t think we know the people as well as we knew them when they could have times when they were off stage and could be unguarded and could just say, “here’s who I am and here’s what I think about things” — not on policy matters — but just what kind of people are these.

TERENCE SMITH: Now we know the public person versus the private person.

WALTER MEARS: It strikes me, when I began I used to see fathers holding little kids up on their shoulders saying, “that man might be president of the United States.” You don’t see that anymore, because they see them in their living room every day, they see them nonstop for months and months and months.

TERENCE SMITH: Another big change, another big factor in these 40 years was the impact of money on presidential campaigning.

WALTER MEARS: Certainly, and very closely tied to the rise of television because the price of politics went up steadily with the demands of television and television advertising.

Money was always something of a factor because it was never inexpensive to run for president. It’s just geometrically more costly now.

You remember the wonderful John Kennedy story about his father telling him not to spend one cent more than necessary because he certainly wasn’t going to buy a landslide.

TERENCE SMITH: (Laughs) You also describe the development of what we now call “the bubble” around presidents and presidential candidates created by the Secret Service protection, and that was not always the case.

WALTER MEARS: No, it wasn’t. And until June of 1968, candidates provided their own security. They would… the campaign would hire somebody and that would be the security detail. And they would work with the local police, and so forth, but the Secret Service was not a factor until after the election, actually.

TERENCE SMITH: And in June of 1968?

WALTER MEARS: June of 1968, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson had… there was legislation pending that would have made Secret Service protection available to the candidates. Johnson simply did it by executive order.

TERENCE SMITH: Sent the Secret Service out?

WALTER MEARS: Sent the Secret Service out. They didn’t have enough agents, and they had people from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Mo Udall, Morris Udall, the Democratic candidate from Arizona in 1976 always said that he liked having the Fish and Wildlife guys with him; they were his kind of people.

TERENCE SMITH: You also talk about changes in the press corps and the reporting that you saw from the days in which you were one of the “boys on the bus” to the crowd that follows the campaign now.

WALTER MEARS: It really doesn’t belong in quotes. Those were boys on the bus. And there were one or two women who were reporting presidential politics, but essentially, it was a male fraternity with a very much fraternity house atmosphere. And obviously that’s changed markedly.

There’s been an explosion in the size of the media corps that surrounds presidential candidates, in part, again, because of the technology, because you get reporters and you get crews and pretty soon you’ve got sixty or seventy people surrounding a fourth-tier candidate who is going nowhere.

TERENCE SMITH: So, it’s a mob traveling along with them. Finally, I wonder about this. There’s another presidential campaign, Walter Mears, getting underway. Any stirrings in you to go out and do it one more time?

WALTER MEARS: Well, if anybody knows my phone number, they are welcome to call it. I would love to get a hand in. I kind of miss it.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. The book is Deadlines Past, the author is Walter Mears. Wally, thank you so much.

WALTER MEARS: Wally, thank you for having me.