Democracy Dies in Darkness

Obituaries

Adam Clymer, veteran New York Times political reporter and editor, dies at 81

September 10, 2018 at 11:12 PM

New York Times journalists Adam Clymer and Steven Rattner interviewing Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in his office in 1979. (George Tames/New York Times)

Adam Clymer, who covered national politics for the New York Times and other newspapers in a career that took him from the “Boys on the Bus” era of campaign-trail reportage to the hot center of the 2000 presidential race, died Sept. 10 at his home in Washington. He was 81.

He had pancreatic cancer, said his friend Rick Berke, a former Times colleague and the executive editor of the health news website Stat.

A crusty veteran of the Washington press corps, Mr. Clymer wrote books on President Ronald Reagan and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and spent decades covering the White House and the halls of Congress, where he often called lawmakers by their first names — “a reflection of how things used to be more cozy with reporters and politicians,” Berke speculated, “or, more likely, the fact that he had covered them for so long.”

The son of a onetime newspaper reporter and a children’s book author, Mr. Clymer established his journalistic bona fides at the Baltimore Sun, where he reported on the fall of Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev from Red Square, covered President Richard M. Nixon’s resignation from the White House lawn and helmed the paper’s South Asia bureau from New Delhi.

For his first of eight presidential campaigns, in 1972, he traveled aboard the campaign bus of Democratic candidate George McGovern — an assignment that made him a featured player in “The Boys on the Bus,” journalist Timothy Crouse’s seminal chronicle of that year’s boisterous, often cutthroat campaign trail.

Mr. Clymer in 1992. (Naum Kazhdan/New York Times)

Mr. Clymer worked briefly at the New York Daily News before joining the New York Times in 1977, returning to the hometown paper that had once hired him to collect high school basketball scores in his youth. Rising to become Washington editor and chief Washington correspondent, he alternated between reporting and editing jobs while developing a deep interest in polling.

He served as the paper’s polling editor beginning in 1983, collaborating with CBS News on projects that surveyed Americans’ shifting views on subjects ranging from sports to religion, and later worked as political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, a public-opinion project conducted at the University of Pennsylvania.

But Capitol Hill remained his main preoccupation, in part for the wide array of characters it offered — and the access they provided interested reporters. Congress, Mr. Clymer told the Hill newspaper, was “the most accessible beat in town.” Among his favorite subjects there was Kennedy, whom he profiled in the 1999 book “Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography.”

Mr. Clymer was widely respected among journalists and many of the politicians he covered, described as a tough reporter who pulled no punches. But he maintained a low profile until September 2000, when a hot microphone caught then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) pinning him with an expletive at a presidential campaign rally.

Mr. Clymer, who had recently written about the shoddy state of health care in Texas, was a “major league asshole,” Bush said. The future president’s running mate, Richard B. Cheney, agreed: “Oh yeah, he is, big time.”

The “vulgarity heard ’round the world,” as CNN dubbed it, triggered a cascade of international news coverage. Mr. Clymer said he received — and turned down — interview requests from stations in Austria and Australia, as well as from talk show host David Letterman. Bush, who never entirely apologized for the remark, said he regretted “that a private comment . . . made it to the public airwaves.”

For Mr. Clymer, the comments seemed less a personal attack than a badge of honor. Long experienced in criticism from government officials, he had been beaten and expelled as a “hooligan” from Moscow while covering the Vietnam War and “slugged” by a sheriff’s deputy in Selma, Ala., while covering the civil rights movement. Although he had never been included on Nixon’s “enemies list,” he said he complained to a deputy press secretary about the omission.

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Photo Gallery: Remembering those who have died in 2018.

“You know,” he told CNN, in a rare interview after the Bush comments, “if they all love you, you might as well just be driving a Good Humor truck.”

An only child, Adam Clymer was born in New York City on April 27, 1937. His father, Kinsey Clymer, was a journalist turned social worker; his mother, the former Eleanor Lowenton, wrote children’s books including “Hamburgers — and Ice Cream for Dessert” (1975). She said it was inspired by Mr. Clymer’s childhood eating habits, which included a brief insistence that he dine on nothing but hamburgers, mashed potatoes, peas and ice cream.

Mr. Clymer attended the private Walden School in Manhattan and graduated in 1958 from Harvard College, where he was president of the Crimson newspaper. He did graduate work at the University of Cape Town in South Africa before starting his journalism career in 1960 at the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk.

He married Ann Wood Fessenden in 1961. Their only child, who styled her name Jane emily Clymer, was killed in 1985, when she was struck by a drunk driver at 18.

Mr. Clymer and his wife waged a legal battle to collect damages from restaurants that had served alcoholic drinks to the driver, arguing that the restaurants shared culpability for their daughter’s death. The Vermont Supreme Court agreed and also allowed them to sue for the loss of companionship of their daughter.

Money from the lawsuits was used to create a scholarship at the University of Vermont, where Jane emily had been a junior. When Ann Clymer died in 2013, at 75, the Boston Globe reported that the scholarship had helped about 50 women attend the university.

“There are moments of relief, moments when we are distracted from our loss,” Mr. Clymer wrote in a Times essay about his daughter. “But it is always there, and Jane emily is not.”

Mr. Clymer received reporting honors including the Dirksen Award from the National Press Foundation and the Carey McWilliams Award from the American Political Science Association.

He retired from the Times in 2003, after covering the first years of the Bush administration, to devote himself to polling, fishing and writing. In addition to his Kennedy biography, he joined Times colleagues in writing an early book on Reagan’s political rise, analyzed the 1977 Panama Canal treaties in “Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch” (2008) and completed a novel, “Escape From 9/11,” about a Washington political reporter.

Toward the end of his career at the Times, Mr. Clymer also developed a talent for crafting sensitive, artfully written obituaries of the politicians he had once covered. His most recent stories — obituaries written in advance for Margaret Heckler, “a moderate Republican who championed women’s rights,” and Paul Laxalt, a former senator and “first friend” to Reagan — filled an entire page of the Times’ Aug. 8 edition.

Mr. Clymer leaves no immediate survivors. But a Times obituary writer, Daniel E. Slotnik, confirmed that his byline will continue to appear in the paper well into the future.

Read more Washington Post obituaries

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Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post's obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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