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From AJR,   October/November 2003  issue

Lots of Facts, But Not Much More   

Deadlines Past Forty Years of Presidential Campaigning: A Reporterís Story
By Walter Mears
Andrews McMeel
360 pages; $24.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Walter Mears, the hall-of-fame Associated Press political writer, introduces his new memoir by reminding us, "I am a wire service man, a calling that requires writing news instantly, keeping the copy terse, and keeping yourself out of it."

Consider yourself warned.

With 46 years of journalism, 11 presidential campaigns and a Pulitzer Prize behind him, Mears doesn't and probably can't stray far from his roots as he turns to book writing. So "Deadlines Past" reads somewhat like a solid, extended wire dispatch.

To its credit, it is lean, clean and fact-filled. Mears was famous for his dead-on news sense, pointed leads and crisp copy, and the book shares those attributes.

But it lacks some of the depth, vigor and personality of a first-rate memoir. Mears isn't particularly introspective and offers little new or surprising. While he ventures occasional opinions or insider vignettes, they seem a strain, an almost unnatural act of literary abandon for a consummate wire service pro.

Mears joined the AP in 1955, a year before graduating from college. "The job matched my earliest and only ambition," he writes, and for almost five decades he covered Congress, the White House and national politics. He reported on presidential campaigns from 1960 to 2000, winning a Pulitzer for covering the 1976 Carter-Ford race.

Timothy Crouse's 1973 book, "The Boys on the Bus," semi-immortalized Mears, with its chaotic scenes of reporters yelling, "Walter, Walter, what's our lead?"

But if you're looking for Crouse-like backstage capers or for the kind of revelatory insights about politicians in Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes," "Deadlines Past" isn't your source. Focusing narrowly on presidential politics, its 11 chapters begin with the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race and end with Bush-Gore. Each chapter is an efficient, businesslike recapitulation. Color and out-of-school tales yield to earnest historical chronology. That's what Mears does, and he does it well.

Of the occasional opinions and critical insights, the most interesting may concern the noncoverage of John F. Kennedy's supposed infidelities. Mears disputes what has become conventional wisdom: Reporters simply looked the other way.

"The easy explanation today," he writes, "is that the reporters of those times followed an unwritten code of silence about such intimate personal matters. There is something to that, but it also misses a point. There is a gap between gossip and suspicion and reportable fact....

"[I]n all those nights in 1960, I never heard any talk about the Kennedy liaisons.... Even in that simpler era, I do not think any reporter who had a reportable hint that Marilyn Monroe was the president's mistress would have failed to write about it. To put the superstar of American politics in bed with the superstar of Hollywood would have been more than a bombshell. It would have been nuclear."

Years of practice make Mears a master of pith. He captures in two sentences an essential difference between Kennedy and Richard Nixon: "JFK often strolled the aisle [of his campaign plane], chatting with reporters, commenting on the day's campaigning.... I traveled with the Nixon campaign for two weeks in 1960 and never exchanged a word with him."

Despite Ronald Reagan's habit of relying on "flawed facts" and dubious anecdotes, he "succeeded in putting the national debate about government and politics on his terms.... He didn't have to be consistent, he just had to be Reagan." Bill Clinton was "a political actor to rival Reagan with a sack of tricks Nixon would have admired." The much-courted Colin Powell "had no chance of winning" in 1996 because "put a black candidate into real contention for the White House and racial politics would have risen again."

But Mears' backstage anecdotes are disappointing for someone with his enviable access. Most are tame.

Sadly, Mears doesn't seriously ponder the many changes he has witnessed in journalism. He opens the door, by criticizing the "imitation news, shouted opinions, and plain rumor" that infiltrate today's media, but he leaves the topic after a few paragraphs.

As for his lead-writing magic, he comments, "I followed a simple rule. My lead was the most interesting thing I learned or heard that day."

Perhaps the most intriguing issue "Deadlines Past" raises, albeit indirectly, is whether reporters have any responsibility to push beyond cold facts and guide readers toward deeper understanding. Mears takes the traditional, respected position that "as a reporter, I kept my views out of my copy." But he acknowledges that he had concerns at the time about such divisive topics as the Vietnam War and Nixon's behavior.

After Watergate, for instance, "we campaign reporters wrote what [George] McGovern said about it all: that Nixon was the most corrupt president in American history.... We then reported the White House denials, a balancing act that was and is the habit of American political journalism. The balance struck an average between valid accusations and dishonest denials, but charge and response is the flawed ritual of political reporting...."

If the ritual of he-said, she-said reporting is indeed flawed, then what would repair it? To turn reporters into commentators, as broadcast and cable are tending toward, risks undermining credibility. But is there some way to tap the instincts and insights that come from their extraordinary access?

If Mears knows, he isn't telling. Such detachment is, of course, simultaneously an asset and a deficiency of everything from daily reporting to the memoirs of a legend. My hope is that this book is just a throat-clearing, and that next time around a less-inhibited Mears will spill what he really saw and felt.