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Veteran political correspondent addresses QU
Changes in politics over the last 40 years do not impress veteran political correspondent Walter R. Mears.
Mears, winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for his writings on the 1976 presidential campaign, is now retired, but he said that during his four decades at the Associated Press he tried to report the way he saw the process and how it changed.
“I do not think all of the changes have been for the better although they have packaged it as ‘reformed,'” he said. “In my experience, reform is what politicians do to each other. It also is the step immediately preceding unintended by-products.”
Mears also feels that financial handlings of politicians are far from perfect.
“Campaign finance reform has not done anything to prevent people from being tapped constantly by politicians with their hands out,” Mears said. “All those awful special interests are coughing up an awful lot of cash.”
During his speech in Quinnipiac’s Mancheski Executive Seminar room last Wednesday, Mears estimated that President Bush will raise close to $200 million to spend this year before the Republican convention even nominates him.
Mears added that Democratic contenders already have raised record sums.
“Dean ran through the better part of $41 million dollars in the process of losing the first two contests,” he said. “He’s got worse budgeting than Mike Tyson I think.”
Finances aside, Mears says that the availability of politicians has changed greatly over the years.
“In a way, politicians are more accessible to people, to voters, now than they were a generation ago when I started because of television and technology and because the presidential primaries came on the road so much,” Mears said. “But a very important one is candidates are more remote than when I first covered them in 1960, and even before that.”
Mears compared today’s typical political persona to Super Bowl commercials.
“They’re packaged and promoted and sold like super bowl commercials. So far with a little more taste; but who knows.”
Mears continued with the change in decision making and public images.
The problem, he explained, is that increased coverage leaves the candidates little room for error.
“They are surrounded by handlers and consultants who want to protect them from reporters so that they won’t make any mistakes,” he said.
Mears says that the 1960 campaign had a “human dimension that is gone now.”
“A candidate could chat with reporters without knowing that every word would be printed; at least JFK could do that,” he said.
According to Mears, today’s presidential security has changed greatly from decades ago when presidents just brought their own security men in.
Recalling, in his early years, an instance involving a woman throwing a glass of whiskey in President Kennedy’s face as he drove by in an open convertible, Mears said security was whatever the candidates made it.
“As he wiped his face off, he picked up the glass and he reached out of the convertible and he said, ‘Here’s your glass mam,’ and he gave it back,” Mears said.
As for this year’s campaign, Mears said he expects Senator John Kerry will be representing the Democratic Party.
“The question of the day of course is who the Democrats run against President Bush, and the answer of the day, the week, and probably the season, is Senator John Kerry 12 for 14 in the first primary contest of 2004,” Mears said.
Despite Kerry’s early success Mears said that’s only the beginning for the senator from Massachusetts.
“You have to keep in mind that’s only a fragment of the primary schedule with bigger Tuesdays to come, notably on March 2 when the Democrats will choose 1,151 delegates to their convention here and in nine other states including California and New York,” Mears said.
Mears pointed out that six weeks ago, Kerry was far behind in the poles and so short of money that he had to mortgage his town house on Beacon Hill in Boston to finance the campaign.
“What goes up can come down,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, but I’ve learned covering.”
Mears also stressed that although the Democrats seem to be leading, the Republicans are yet to emerge.
“President Bush is just getting started and I would advise you to be very weary of the polls that suggest that he’s in trouble right now,” he said.
“The Democrats have dominated the stage so far but Bush will get his operation cranked up soon and he is going to be a formidable, and I think heavily favored candidate for re-election.”
With all his insights to the behind the scenes of politics, Mears still remains fair and balanced in his reporting.
Journalism Professor Paul Janensch, in his introduction to Mears’s speech, recalled some of Mears’ achievements.
“His stories were revealing, but straight as an arrow,” Janensch said. “As a news service reporter he could not take sides or serve up his own opinion, he gave us just the facts.
Some people said he could write faster than most people could think.
“He was also accurate, and fair, and clear; just what I taught my journalism students to be.”