Obituaries

Adam Clymer, political reporter, editor, and pollster, dies at 81

Adam Clymer in 1992.
Naum Kazhdan/New York Times/File
Adam Clymer in 1992.

NEW YORK — Adam Clymer, who covered congressional intrigue, eight presidential campaigns, and the downfall of both Nikita S. Khrushchev and Richard M. Nixon as a reporter and editor for The New York Times and other newspapers, died early Monday at his home in Washington. He was 81.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, which was diagnosed in March, said Dr. Michael A. Newman, who treated him. Mr. Clymer also had Parkinson’s disease and Myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular condition.

Mr. Clymer received unsought attention in 2000, when, during a presidential campaign rally, he became the target of a vulgarism by George W. Bush that was captured on a live microphone. It was not the first time he had been attacked.

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Reporting from Russia for The Baltimore Sun during the Vietnam War, he was beaten at an anti-American demonstration, accused of assaulting a police officer, and expelled from the Soviet Union as a “hooligan.”

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He had earlier covered Khrushchev’s ouster as the Soviet leader in 1964 and been a Washington reporter for The Sun before being named the paper’s South Asia correspondent, based in New Delhi.

Returning to Baltimore, he covered his first presidential race, in 1972, and earned multiple entries in Timothy Crouse’s now classic book “The Boys on the Bus,” a sometimes rollicking behind-the-scenes account of reporters on the campaign trail.

After a brief stint at The Daily News in New York, Mr. Clymer joined the Times in 1977 to cover Congress. He held a number of reporting and editing posts for the newspaper over the years, including Washington correspondent, chief congressional correspondent, Washington editor, weekend editor, polling editor, and political editor — the newspaper’s first.

As a Washington and political reporter, Mr. Clymer, a tall figure with an often crusty manner, covered the Watergate scandal and the fall of Nixon for the Sun. For the Times, he wrote about Ronald Reagan’s presidential candidacy in 1980, observing that after Reagan had been repackaged to broaden his appeal beyond his hard-right base, his race against President Jimmy Carter was “his to lose.”

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In 1994, covering Congress, Mr. Clymer revealed Newt Gingrich’s ultimately successful strategy to gain a Republican majority in the House in the midterm elections and then ascend to the speaker’s chair.

And in 2000, returning to the campaign trail, he was thrust into the headlines himself while covering a Labor Day rally for the Republican presidential ticket in Naperville, Ill.

Spotting Mr. Clymer, Bush pointed him out to his running mate, Dick Cheney, and unwittingly said into a live microphone, “There’s Adam Clymer, major-league asshole from The New York Times.”

To which Cheney replied, “Oh yeah, he is, big time.”

The Times did not publish the vulgarity, but it was widely reported. Bush never apologized. His campaign spokesman said Bush had been upset by “very unfair” coverage by Mr. Clymer.

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Hardly embarrassed, Mr. Clymer was gleeful that he had stirred things up. Interviewed afterward on CNN, he said that some of his articles had offended Democratic politicians, too.

“You know,” he said, “if they all love you, you might as well just be driving a Good Humor truck.”

Adam Clymer was born in New York on April 27, 1937, the son of Kinsey and Eleanor (Lowenton) Clymer. His mother wrote children’s books, including “The Trolley Car Family” and “The Tiny Little House.” His father, a former reporter for The Baltimore Evening Sun and The Brooklyn Eagle, worked for the New York City welfare department.

Mr. Clymer attended the private, progressive Walden School in Manhattan and Harvard, where he was the president of The Crimson, the student newspaper. As a student he covered college games as a part-time correspondent for the Times before graduating magna cum laude in 1958.

After years of reporting for The Times, Mr. Clymer was named polling editor in 1983. In that post, either in conjunction with CBS News or in independent Times projects, Mr. Clymer broadened the scope of opinion surveys beyond politics. One poll questioned Roman Catholic priests on marriage; another asked baseball players to name the umpires they most admired.

His favorite, published on Christmas Eve 1985, found that 87 percent of children ages 3-10 said they believed in Santa Claus.

He also helped popularize the practice of fleshing out surveys by calling respondents back to expand on their answers.

“Adam was one of the first journalists to identify and use poll numbers to explain the dynamics of the gender gap in American presidential politics, beginning with Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980,” said Janet Elder, a former Times polling editor and later a deputy executive editor. “He was instrumental in the use of exit polls to understand why voters voted the way they did.” (Elder died in 2017.)

After his retirement in 2003, Mr. Clymer was political director of the National Annenberg Election Survey, which measures public attitudes on policy and candidates, and taught journalism at George Washington University.

He also continued to write for the Times, producing obituaries in advance on political figures he had covered, including Democratic House speaker Jim Wright, Senate lion Robert C. Byrd, and Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman, housing secretary, and vice presidential nominee.

Mr. Clymer was the author of “Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography” (1999) and “Drawing the Line at the Big Ditch: The Panama Canal Treaties and the Rise of the Right” (2008).

Mr. Clymer’s wife, Ann Wood (Fessenden) Clymer, who taught piano and worked for a time at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, died in 2013 at 75. He leaves no immediate survivors.

His and his wife’s only child, Jane emily Clymer (as she rendered her name), was killed by a drunk driver in 1985 when she was a student at the University of Vermont.

Her death led the Clymers to wage a long legal campaign seeking punitive damages from the restaurants that had served alcohol to the driver, asserting in a lawsuit that they shared responsibility for the death.

In 1991 the Vermont Supreme Court, setting a precedent, ruled that the Clymers could collect punitive damages from the restaurants and that they could sue the driver for the loss of companionship of a child.

The Clymers and the restaurants reached a settlement for $250,000 in 1992. The driver’s insurance company settled with the Clymers for $120,000. They used the money to create a scholarship in their daughter’s name that has helped dozens of women attend the University of Vermont.

Writing about the ordeal in The New York Times Magazine in 1986, Mr. Clymer recalled his emotional courtroom appeal to the judge to reject the plea bargain under which the driver would have received 18 months of nights and weekends in prison. His daughter, Mr. Clymer said, “would not be looking for revenge on the killer, but for an action by the authorities that would make it clear that Vermont takes drunk driving seriously, because she would hope that such a message would deter other drunk drivers, save other lives.”

The driver was sentenced to 30 months in prison.