John W. Mashek, 77

John W. Mashek, 77; reporter covered presidential races

John W. Mashek reported for U.S. News & World Report and several other publications and was a panelist at two presidential debates.
John W. Mashek reported for U.S. News & World Report and several other publications and was a panelist at two presidential debates. (U.s. News & World Report)
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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 6, 2009

John W. Mashek, 77, a political reporter who covered presidential campaigns and conventions spanning four decades and was a panelist on televised presidential and vice presidential debates, died Nov. 3 at Montgomery General Hospital in Olney after collapsing at his granddaughter's soccer game. The cause of death was an apparent heart attack.

Mr. Mashek's twin passions since childhood were baseball and politics.

As a young pitcher for an American Legion team in Fargo, N.D., he faced future home-run champion Roger Maris during batting practice. The experience convinced Mr. Mashek that his future was not on the baseball diamond.

Mr. Mashek entered journalism in 1955 as a courthouse and political reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He moved to the newspaper's Washington bureau in 1960, covering a Texas congressional delegation that included Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn.

He joined the staff of U.S. News & World Report in 1964 and opened the magazine's Houston bureau, from which he reported on the space program, the civil rights movement, the oil and gas industry, and then-President Johnson's summer retreats to his ranch.

Over the next 20 years, he became one of the top political reporters for U.S. News and wrote of traveling the country as often as possible to gauge the attitudes of voters over what he considered the unreliability of polls and political consultants. He took over the White House beat in 1974 and was promoted in 1978 to national political editor.

Mr. Mashek, who retired in 1995, spent the last decade of his career covering the White House, Congress and national politics, briefly for the Atlanta Constitution and then for the Boston Globe.

He was a panelist for a televised vice presidential debate in 1984 and presidential debates in 1988 and 1992. In 1988, Mr. Mashek asked then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who had been suffering from heart problems, about the reservations of many in his party about the "qualifications and credentials" of gaffe-prone Sen. Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) as his running mate: "What do you see in him that others do not?"

Bush replied, "I see a man who is young, and I am putting my confidence in a whole generation of people that are in their 30s and in their 40s."

In the 1992 race, Mr. Mashek was best remembered for asking independent candidate H. Ross Perot about his proposed gasoline price increase, to which the jug-eared candidate responded with self-deprecating wit, "If there's a fairer way, then I'm all ears."

John Walter Mashek, whose father was an insurance company official, was born Dec. 9, 1931, in Sioux Falls, S.D., and graduated from high school in Fargo. He was a 1953 journalism graduate of the University of Minnesota, then served in the Army before joining the Dallas newspaper.

Survivors include his wife of 54 years, Sara Stone Mashek of Washington; four sons, James Mashek of Biloxi, Miss., David Mashek of Pittsburgh, Thomas Mashek of Swarthmore, Pa., and William Mashek of Bethesda; a sister; and seven grandchildren.

In retirement, Mr. Mashek was a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics and was a scholar at the Vanderbilt University's First Amendment Center, where he critiqued press coverage of the 1996 presidential campaign. He taught part time at the Northwestern University journalism school's graduate program in Washington and wrote a blog for U.S. News called "A Capital View."

Mr. Mashek once described being onstage as a panelist in presidential debates as "the world's worst place from which to judge a winner. You find yourself concentrating so hard on the questions you and your colleagues are asking -- and the candidates' answers -- that weighing the pair's performance is the last thing on your mind."

Of course, you always get people angling for your opinion on who won. He liked to say, "You'll have to ask somebody who wasn't there."

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