Walter R. Mears, who was one of the country’s most influential political reporters while covering 11 presidential elections for the Associated Press, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1977 and earning a place in history as a central figure in Timothy Crouse’s classic book about the 1972 campaign, “The Boys on the Bus,” died March 3 at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He was 87.
The cause was cancer, said his daughters, Susan Mears and Stephanie Stich.
Mr. Mears spent most of his career at the AP, which sent his dispatches to thousands of newspapers, making him perhaps the country’s most widely read political journalist, if not necessarily the best known. He covered every presidential election from 1960 through 2000, assessing the candidates and framing the issues of the day with seasoned authority and the reflexes of a sprinter.
“It is intense, high-pressure reporting and writing that, fortunately, turned out to be my special talent,” Mr. Mears wrote in a 2003 memoir, “Deadlines Past.” “In the right circumstances, I could produce a story as fast as I could type.”
In “The Boys on the Bus,” Crouse described Mr. Mears as “a youngish man with sharp pale green eyes who smoked cigarillos” who had “worked his way up the hard way, by getting stories in fast and his facts straight every time.”
By 1972, he was already regarded as something of a speed-writing savant and political oracle. Other reporters, uncertain of how to approach a story, went to him saying: “Walter, Walter, what’s our lead?”
Mr. Mears had a knack for finding a new wrinkle or a fresh regional angle that would keep his political reports from being rote recitations of a speech he had heard dozens of times. As soon as a candidate started speaking, he started writing.
“The entire room was erupting with clattering typewriters,” Crouse wrote, “but Mears stood out as the resident dervish. His cigar slowed him down, so he threw it away. It was hot, but he had no time to take off his blue jacket. After the first three minutes, he turned to the phone at his elbow and called the AP bureau in L.A.”
Almost the only people in the country who did not regularly see Mr. Mears’s work were residents of major cities, whose newspapers were large enough to send their own reporters on the road.
His most challenging assignment came in 1968, he told NBC journalist Tim Russert in 2003. President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek reelection in the face of a populist campaign by Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D-Minn.) and a late grass-roots effort by Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.). On the Republican side, onetime vice president Richard M. Nixon was seeking political rehabilitation.
That year, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was slain in April, followed two months later by the assassination of Kennedy, shortly after he won the California primary. Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who had not participated in a single primary, was nominated during a Democratic National Convention in Chicago marred by protests and riots.
“Hubert H. Humphrey, apostle of the politics of joy,” Mr. Mears wrote, “won the Democratic presidential nomination tonight under armed guard.”
In “The Boys on the Bus” year of 1972, Mr. Mears covered such failed Democratic candidates as Humphrey, Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (Maine) and Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace before the nomination was claimed by Sen. George S. McGovern (S.D.). McGovern lost in a landslide to Nixon, who later resigned the presidency in the wake of the Watergate scandal.
While following Nixon’s campaign, Mr. Mears later wrote in his memoir: “I never met so many people who later wound up in prison.”
Writing at a breakneck pace, Mr. Mears produced reams of copy that, through some kind of literary alchemy, was not only factual but also sometimes touched with notes of poetic grace. He won his Pulitzer for his coverage of the 1976 race between Republican Gerald Ford and Democrat Jimmy Carter, summing up the outcome in a sentence: “In the end, the improbable Democrat beat the unelected Republican.”
When he began covering presidential politics in 1960, Mr. Mears said politicians were easy to approach and would even invite reporters for drinks. That irreverent, cantankerous style was captured in “The Boys on the Bus,” but there was still a widely held respect for the office of the presidency, among reporters and the public alike.
“When I covered Goldwater and Bobby Kennedy and Nixon,” Mr. Mears told USA Today in 2000, “when they went out to campaign, you would still see parents holding up children to see the next president of the United States.”
But the rise of cable television, political consultants and the ubiquitous presence of microphones “cheapened everything,” making candidates more guarded and voters more cynical.
“Information has been devalued in favor of opinion,” Mr. Mears said, “and the line between the two has blurred.”
Walter Robert Mears was born Jan. 11, 1935, in Lynn, Mass. His father was an executive with a chemical company, and his mother was a homemaker.
“Journalism was my only ambition, from my earliest knowledge that people work for a living,” Mr. Mears said in a 1983 interview for the reference work Contemporary Authors. “When other kids talked about being firemen or ballplayers, I talked about being a reporter.”
He began working for the AP while still a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. He graduated in 1956 and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.
He was based in New England before becoming a Washington-based political reporter in 1961. The next year, his first wife, the former Sally Danton, and their two young children, Walter Jr. and Pamela, died in a house fire at the family home in Mount Vernon. Mr. Mears was injured while trying to rescue them.
He then threw himself into his job, working 18 hours a day, eventually becoming AP’s chief political writer. He was briefly the Washington bureau chief of the Detroit News, only to return to the wire service after a few months, because “I couldn’t take the pace. It was too slow.”
After five years as AP’s executive editor in New York, Mr. Mears returned to Washington in 1989 as political columnist. He retired after the 2000 presidential election, in which the Supreme Court effectively ruled that Republican George W. Bush prevailed over Democrat Al Gore.
Throughout his career, Mr. Mears was fond of the concession speeches — confession speeches — of losing candidates. One of his favorites came in 1976, when Arizona congressman Morris Udall lost several Democratic primaries: “The people have spoken, the bastards.”
Mr. Mears’s marriages to Joyce Lund and Carroll Ann Rambo ended in divorce. His fourth wife, journalist Fran Richardson, died in 2019. Survivors include two daughters from his second marriage, Susan Mears of Boulder, Colo., and Stephanie Stich of Austin; a brother; and five grandchildren.
In 1983, Mr. Mears published a book, “The News Business,” co-written with onetime NBC News anchor John Chancellor. He moved to Chapel Hill in 2005 and taught journalism at the University of North Carolina and Duke University.
Reflecting on his career in a 2003 interview with NBC’s Russert, Mr. Mears confessed that he missed the excitement of the campaign trail, the rush of reporting on deadline.
“I’m waiting for somebody to call and say, ‘Get on the bus,’ ” he said. “I’ll go in a minute.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described 1968 Democratic presidential nominee Hubert H. Humphrey as a U.S. senator. He was vice president at the time.