Jack Germond, Veteran Political Reporter, Dead At 85
Jack Germond, a veteran political reporter who became something of a later day star on television, has died at the age of 85:
Jack W. Germond, a syndicated columnist and droll TV commentator who became an authority on national politics and championed “horse race journalism” that predicts election winners and losers, died Aug. 14 at his home in Charles Town, W.Va. He was 85.
The cause of death was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, said Mr. Germond’s wife, Alice Travis Germond, a former secretary of the Democratic National Committee. She told friends in an e-mail that Mr. Germond had just completed writing a novel at their home overlooking the Shenandoah River.
As Washington bureau chief of one of the leading newspaper chains in the country, Gannett, and later as a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, he was a dominant figure in political journalism. He spent nearly 25 years sharing a byline in newspapers and books with journalist Jules Witcover.
Mr. Germond built a solid reputation for his aggressive pursuit of news, his skill as a storyteller, the high-level sources he cultivated in Washington and state capitals over 50 years and a vivid understanding of how the U.S. political system functioned for better and, often, for worse.
While reveling in the persona of an ink-stained wretch — down to the poker playing and whiskey drinking — Mr. Germond was among the first of his breed to make the transition to television. He cut an unlikely TV figure, with a pugnacious manner, bald head and generous stomach, but his knowledge was unquestioned.
The combination of his books, columns and appearances on such TV programs as “Today,” “Meet the Press” and “The McLaughlin Group” made him a top interpreter of American politics.
In a profession not known for the humility of its practitioners, Mr. Germond was often said to stand out for his self-deprecating wit.
He appeared on “Today” while covering the 1972 presidential election, and host Tom Brokaw asked him about a small bandage near his earlobe.
“A beautiful young stewardess lost her head and bit me,” Mr. Germond said.
“And immediately fell dead,” Brokaw replied.
Mr. Germond, who admired a good comeback, said he preferred Brokaw’s quip to his own. He also poked fun at his girth in his memoir, “Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics” (1999), and its follow-up, “Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad” (2004).
In “Fat Man in a Middle Seat,” he wrote of a career spent as a “leading advocate and practitioner of what the political scientists disparage as horse race journalism, which means putting the emphasis on the winners and losers rather than the Issues.”
“I would agree that voters need to be told where candidates stand, or pretend to stand, on their concerns,” he continued. “But a reporter who doesn’t quickly tell the readers what they most want to know — the score — won’t last long on the beat. Better he should teach political science.”
Mr. Germond initially made his mark in journalism as a political reporter in New York state for Gannett, covering the rise of Gov. Nelson A. Rockefeller (R) in the late 1950s. Mr. Germond became a national political writer in the 1960s and reported on presidential candidates, including Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), Vice President Hubert Humphrey (D) and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), with whom he said he “got pretty stiff” on Scotch during a plane ride after a campaign stop.
It was an example, he said, of an era in which a reporter could get fairly close to a politician without each fearing the other’s motives. “We started talking about the kids we’d seen in the ghetto that day,” Mr. Germond later told The Washington Post, referring to Kennedy. “He wasn’t trying to plant a story. He was really interested in the subject and really affected by what he’d seen.”
Gannett promoted Mr. Germond to its Washington bureau chief in 1969 at the start of the Nixon White House. He got the job despite what he called reservations by company executives about not only his admittedly liberal political leanings but also his physical appearance.
He described himself as a “a fat, bald guy who looked unkempt even in a freshly pressed suit and a Brooks Brothers shirt, who played poker and the horses rather than golf, who didn’t give dinner parties except for friends, and who sometimes drank too much” — hardly ideal as Gannett’s representative among the political elite.
Mr. Germond later worked for the Washington Star until it folded in 1981 and then for the Baltimore Sun until he retired in 2001. From 1977 to 2001, he teamed with Witcover, formerly of The Washington Post, to write a syndicated column that emphasized reporting and analysis over ideology.
Their column, “Politics Today,” appeared in about 140 newspapers. In addition, they wrote a series of well-received, anecdote-driven books that critiqued the presidential campaigns they covered, including “Blue Smoke and Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election of 1980” (1981), “Wake Us When It’s Over: Presidential Politics of 1984” (1985), “Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency, 1988” (1989) and “Mad as Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box, 1992” (1993).
In his later years, Germond became known as the acerbic member of The McLaughlin Group, where he was a regular panelists for some 15 years before leaving the show.