My print column this week is largely about retired Associated Press reporter Walter Mears who provided some great observations at a recent event I attended at Elon University. We need more reporters like Walter Mears — and the late Mike Wallace who passed away over Easter weekend. RIP Mr. Wallace.
As I approached my departure from college in 1981 — with an actual degree in four years no less — my friends liked to joke that I might be the only member of our senior class planning to appeal my own graduation.
Very funny — at least I thought so. My dad I’m not sure about. The best jokes always have a dash of truth. There was certainly a dash and then some in this one. Had my dad not been paying attention, I’d still be enrolled in one school or another bouncing from major to major.
Yes, I enjoyed life in college more than just about anything else I can think of at the moment. It was pretty much non-stop hilarity amid all that pesky reading, essay writing and exam taking. There was never a shortage of things to do. Anything I could possibly want was within walking distance and there’s always someone to talk to any hour of the day or night. This necessitated the other thing I loved about school, arranging a schedule that could facilitate sleeping to noon just about every single day.
And no matter how much I love my spouse or my job, it never gets that good again.
That’s why any chance I get to spend time at Elon University I grab it without a second thought. In so many ways it’s like traveling in time. The faces of students change, new buildings crop up and instructors come and go, but the vibe on campus always stays the same. Colleges remain great venues for everything from cultural performances to political or social debate.
Last Saturday, marked my latest visit to Elon. I was invited to participate in a regional event for the campus Society of Professional Journalists. Students from Maryland to the Carolinas took part in a day of seminars, breakout sessions, speeches and discussions about print, online and broadcast reporting. I was there to talk about the impact of social media on community newspapers.
I’m not sure what I had to offer the students that they didn’t know already. But it did give me an opportunity to watch a panel discussion on religion and politics in which members of the audience took part. It turned into a spirited talk about religion and the Constitution.
The highlight was a lunchtime address to the gathering from Walter Mears, a retired Associated Press reporter who now lives in Chapel Hill. Mears is a Pulitzer Prize winner who covered 11 presidential campaigns and hundreds of other things in his 45-year career. He’s a certifiable hero among journalists — to him an embarrassing designation that led him to observe after his introduction at Elon that he has asked his spouse to make sure upon his death that it be noted that here lies Walter Mears, “no longer a ‘living legend.’”
Still, he’s seen a lot, and shared a chunk of it last week. A reference or two went past many of the young journalists in attendance. After all, none were alive when Ronald Reagan tested a microphone by saying: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” And probably not a one knew of Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator who ran for president and invited the press to follow him when allegations of sexual infidelities arose. Hart then seemed shocked that a photo cropped up of him with a young girl who was not his wife sitting on his lap on a yacht by the name of “Monkey Business.”
Here are some other highlights from his speech:
– “Say what you will about JFK but he knew how to have an affair and keep it quiet. Kennedy didn’t get involved with talkative women as did Bill Clinton, Gary Hart and even John Edwards.”
– “I probably spent more time with Barry Goldwater than any presidential candidate — 13 months. We became friends. Goldwater was accused of shooting from the hip, but he wasn’t nearly that careful.”
– “I never met so many people who later went to prison than when I covered Richard Nixon in 1972.”
– “Ronald Reagan rallied our national spirit that had foundered under Carter.”
– “Bill Clinton was the best stump politician I ever saw in action. He was a political actor to rival Reagan. He had a bag of tricks Nixon would admire.”
When Mears discussed the current presidential campaign, his comments were pointed. He said the Republican nominating process had degenerated into a “sort of TV reality show.”
“It used to be a candidate lost and got out of the way,” he said. “Now it just takes one fat cat with a donation to keep a discredited candidate like Gingrich in the race.”
Historically speaking, “Barack Obama should be toast,” Mears said and called this the toughest re-election atmosphere since FDR in the Great Depression. “(Obama) has made a lot of mistakes. He’s done some things that have been smart but not enough of them. Things are piled up against him that should make it difficult to win a second term.”
Then he added, “It should be the Republicans’ race to lose … and they are.”
We need veteran reporters like Walter Mears now more than ever. I was especially pleased to hear him say, “Maybe I’m a grumpy, old-fashioned old man but the way we used to do it was better, just the straight news.”
Maybe I should appeal his retirement.