Jack Germond, syndicated columnist and TV commentator, dies 85

Covering politics for more than five decades, Jack Germond was a dominant figure in American journalism. Dan Balz talks with Jackie Kucinich and Chris Cillizza about his time on the trail with him. (The Washington Post)
August 14, 2013

Jack W. Germond, a syndicated columnist and droll TV commentator who became an authority on national politics and championed “horse race journalism” that handicaps 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 his first novel, “A Small Story for Page 3,” about a reporter enmeshed in political intrigue.

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.”

Scotch with RFK

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 old Baltimore Evening Sun and 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).

‘The Boys on the Bus’

Jack Worthen Germond was born on Jan. 30, 1928, in Newton, Mass. His father was an engineer and moved the family around regularly during the Depression, with Jack attending 11 grade schools before graduating from high school in Baton Rouge. He was co-editor of the school yearbook and played semipro baseball before serving in the Army in 1946-47.

He graduated from the University of Missouri in 1951 and became a sports reporter in Jefferson City, Mo. He transitioned to political writing when he took a job covering city hall for the Evening News in Monroe, Mich., and in 1953, he joined the Gannett chain in New York.

In 1951, he married Barbara Wippler, and the marriage ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Mandy, died at 14 of leukemia.

Survivors include his second wife, the former Alice Travis, whom he married in 1995; a daughter from his first marriage, Dr. Jessica Moreland of Iowa City; two stepchildren, David Travis and Abigail Travis, both of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren.

Mr. Germond was profiled in journalist Timothy Crouse’s 1973 book,“The Boys on the Bus,” a look at political writers covering the 1972 presidential race. The book focused in large part on Mr. Germond’s frustration at being scooped by the bigger papers when he worked for Gannett in New York state and Washington.

To even the playing field, Mr. Germond and Witcover, then of the Newhouse newspaper chain, formed a club jokingly called Political Writers for a Democratic Society to meet politicians informally over drinks and dinner. Membership was limited to those he and Witcover considered worthy political writers, those who were of such high professional standards they managed to find kernels of news while covering “an obscure Western governors’ conference in an off political year,” Crouse wrote.

The book and Mr. Germond’s work as Gannett’s Washington bureau chief helped elevate his national profile, and he soon began to appear on television. He was a liberal voice pitted against conservative guests, such as Robert Novak and Pat Buchanan, on “The McLaughlin Group,” a news debate show in which panelists sparred on divisive social issues.

Unlike many guests on the show, he tried to swat away questions he did not feel expert in answering. When asked once about a currency crisis in Europe, he replied, “Indifferent.”

In later years, Mr. Germond grew grimly critical of the changes he saw in politics and journalism. He bemoaned the way a younger generation of reporters appeared hostile toward politicians and the way campaigns had become, in his view, “totally contrived, mechanized.”

In short, he was glad to retire.

Reflecting on his career, Mr. Germond wrote in “Fat Man in a Middle Seat”: “It turns out that I have not made the world safe for democracy. But I have always argued that newspapers should not have any civic purpose beyond telling readers what is happening. If the political system is rotting away, as seems to be the case, it is our job to report it but not to make the repairs — except perhaps on the editorial pages, where they seem to think all things are possible.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”