The death of Jack Germond this week continues to thin the ranks of a generation of great political reporters who have left us recently, including Haynes Johnson, Helen Thomas, Herb Kaplow and John Palmer, to name a few.
But I was pleased to read in his obituary that the 85-year-old columnist and TV pundit had finished the novel he had begun when I interviewed him at his home in West Virginia as he watched the 2008 elections, the first he hadn't covered in nearly a half-century
Ironically, when I saw his longtime fellow columnist Jules Witcover at Kaplow's recent funeral, I meant to ask how Jack was doing, but didn't. Now that we know he's gone and what a great loss it is for journalism, I thought it worthwhile to offer Huffington Post readers what I wrote about him at the time.
Charles Town, W. Va. - The legs are the first to go, as any political
reporter or fan of horse racing knows.
Jack Germond is both, and even though he turned 80 last January and is
watching the 2008 campaign from the sidelines, he hasn't lost any of the
legendary zest for covering politics that once led the Wall Street Journal
to call him "the closest thing we have to a kingmaker in American
Germond, who covered his first presidential campaign in 1960 for newspapers in Rochester and Albany, N.Y., and then for the Washington Star and the Gannet Newspapers Washington bureau, now monitors the campaign from his home near here overlooking the Shenandoah River. But he leaves little doubt he'd rather still be chasing after politicians from New Hampshire to New Mexico and in between.
"Yeah, I miss some it, especially the people I spent so much time with," he
said last week over lunch in a restaurant named after the man who built
the building it occupies in 1778 and later became the first governor of
Ohio. Reeling off the names of a half dozen fellow reporters and
competitors, he declares, "They were interesting people to have dinner and
drinks with, but most of them are gone now."
Germond is also writing a novel about a political reporter who is
investigating his own publisher. He's written 35,000 words but says he's
"not sure I'm going to finish it until I know how it comes out. I want to
see if I can do it but I don't want to write a bad book."
Germond's renowned appetite for good food and drink as well as his
encyclopedic knowledge of national politics are reflected in two
well-regarded memoirs he wrote - "Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years
of Covering Politics" (1999) and "Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics
Went Bad" (2004), not to mention four books about presidential campaigns
that he wrote in the 1980's and 90's with his former partner as a
syndicated columnist, Jules Witcover.
But it was Germond's appetite for cultivating well-placed sources and
calling the shots as he saw them while covering hundreds of politicians from
Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton that made him one of America's premier
political reporters in the last half of the 20th century.
Germond is no longer a kingmaker but he still calls the shots as he sees
them. The 2008 presidential campaign "is a very interesting story in one
respect," he says, even though he rates the tumultuous 1968 campaign as
the most interesting and important he covered. "We're going to find out
something about our country we need to know, which is just how racist are
No longer constrained by the rules of journalism to hide his political
preferences, Germond makes no bones about favoring Sen. Barack Obama
(D-Ill.) over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a choice that sits well with his
wife Alice, who is treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.
"My theory is that Obama should win handily on the basis of the context of
his campaign, his voter registration numbers, his amazing appeal to young
people, and the fact that he's run a brilliant campaign. He's done a
hell of a job and raised a lot of money. But we all know that a certain
number of voters won't vote for a black candidate. We don't know how
many but if there are enough to stop Obama from being elected, it's a
Germond also doesn't hide his low opinion of McCain's running mate,
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose selection he calls "insulting and
ridiculous," adding, "She's nothing but vitriol, and it's not even
her own vitriol."
As if to ratify his opinion of Palin, our waitress tells Germond - after
asking him to speak to her son's local high school class - that she's
going to vote for Obama because of Palin. Describing herself as an
independent, she says, "I love McCain and I think he's a good man and
I'd vote for him if he had picked somebody else. But I can't understand
how in good conscience he could have picked her."
As for the nine presidents he's covered, Germond says, "George W. Bush
is probably the worst." He doesn't reveal his choice as the best, but
says former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) "would have made the best
president" and former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) was the best campaigner
he ever covered.
It was through Bumpers that he first met Bill and Hillary Clinton. "I went
down to Arkansas in 1978 to do a story about something else and they all
said you've got to go see this Clinton, who was attorney general then. I
ended up having a long conversation with him and Hillary. I was so impressed
with him that I wrote a column when I got back and we kept in touch."
Then in 1987, Germond went back to Arkansas and spent several days with
Bumpers, "to see if he still had his fastball and was going to run for
president." Bumpers and Clinton, who was then governor, were sharing a
plane, and Germond flew around the state with them but paid little attention
to Clinton. "It was clear he was miffed," Germond said.
Cinton never forgot the snub, and pointedly reminded Germond of it during an interview at the White House five years later, Germond recalls. "And
here's a guy who couldn't remember Monica."
Germond says he thought Clinton would be a good president because of his
political smarts and command of the issues. "But he turned out to be a
disaster in his second term," he says. As for Hillary, Germond considers
her "a very capable senator," but adds, "I wouldn't vote for her
[for president] because I think she's got this notion of entitlement."
Although Germond agrees that the so-called mainstream media in is going
through a difficult transition, he still counsels young people that
newspaper journalism "is still worth doing and doing well. Television
doesn't have the time to do comprehensive coverage of the issues and you
can't get it from bloggers or cable TV, where there's no judgment
He adds, "I look at it this way. I was a reporter for 50 years, getting
paid for something I would have paid them to do."
Before stopping at a local 7-Eleven to buy a copy of the Racing Form to
prepare for one of his frequent visits to the Charles Town Racetrack,
Germond is asked what he'd like to have carved on his tombstone. He's
uncharacteristically silent, then replies, "Life was a ball."