“I’d just as soon it hadn’t happened,” he said. “Politicians get mad at stories. It happens. It rarely happens in front of an open microphone. I didn’t resent Bush.”
Clymer said the worst aspect of the whole incident was the fact that he could not resume his campaign coverage because, the moment he got back on the plane, “that day the story would be about me.”
Although he only did one interview about Bush’s remarks — with CNN’s “Reliable Sources” — Clymer said his cell-phone batteries burned out a few times because of all the media inquiries and the “right wing blew out” his computer with hate mail.
Nevertheless, Clymer said his relationship with the administration for the next three years — before he retired in July 2003 — was no different from that of any other reporter. As an example of his cordial relationship with Bush, Clymer said the president sent him “a very nice condolence note” when his mother died in 2001.
Chatting about his career one Thursday in his office in the National Press Building — where he currently serves as political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, administered by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania — Clymer seemed to enjoy looking back on his five decades in journalism.
Papers are piled high on his desk, and his bookshelves are filled with political memoirs. He has copies of the Almanac of American Politics dating back to 1976. His walls are sparsely decorated. Clymer’s 2003 Carey McWilliams Award hangs behind his desk, and the cover of the June 27, 2003, edition of the Times hangs nearby. That paper came out three days before he retired and boasts two front-page stories that Clymer wrote, including one of his most beloved pieces — former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) obituary.
Although Clymer began his first full-time job at the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot in 1960, the Manhattan native’s newspaper career really began before he enrolled at Harvard University in 1954. He wrote for his high school newspaper and collected sports scores for The New York Times.
He developed a deep interest in the field at a young age because his father had been a newspaperman since long before Clymer was born. “He had great old war stories,” Clymer said of his father.
During college, Clymer spent one memorable summer as a “reporter, photographer, makeup man, various things” at the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. “If you measure compensation relative to your perceived needs, I’ve probably never been paid as well in my life,” he said of his salary of $20 a week plus room and board, use of a Jeep and a speedboat, and a college classmate who “lived there and knew all the girls in town.”
After graduating from Harvard, Clymer spent a year at the University of Cape Town in South Africa on a fellowship. He worked from 1960 to 1963 at the Norfolk paper, during which time he met and married his wife, Ann.
Clymer left Norfolk to take a job at the Baltimore Sun. After six months, the paper sent him to its Moscow bureau. Eleven months later, the Russians booted him back to America.
“I got beaten up in the course of an anti-American demonstration, and to cap it they decided to accuse me of having hit a Soviet cop, which I hadn’t done,” he said.
Back in the United States, Clymer covered the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court — and served a stint as a correspondent in India — before leaving for the New York Daily News in 1977. Three months later, Clymer started his 26-year career with The New York Times covering Congress.
One perk of working at the Times, Clymer said, is that “it’s easier to get phone calls returned.”
He recalled one story about Senate Republicans no longer holding the majority. “One Republican senator called me up and chased me all over town so he could get a quote in the story,” he said.
At the Times, Clymer’s duties ranged from reporting on politics and the national government to serving as senior editor for weekends for the entire paper to supervising news polling and the Times best-seller list to heading the Washington bureau.
Clymer said he enjoyed aspects of both reporting and writing. He particularly enjoyed covering Congress, he said, because “it’s the most accessible beat in town.” His interest in Congress spurred him to write a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1999.
As he told stories of interesting leads he chased over the years, he appeared to wax nostalgic about the glory days. Although technically retired, Clymer still gets his fix combing the Annenberg poll for interesting tidbits and serving as the spokesman.
“It’s been fun,” he said of his career. “It’s been interesting. Even when it wasn’t fun, it tended to be important.”