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Bob Levey
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Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001; Noon EDT

"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon EDT. Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.

Today, Bob’s guest is Jack Germond, a longtime political columnist and commentator who has covered every national election since 1960.

Jack Germond
Jack Germond

Germond has been working in journalism for 40 years, spending 20 years with the Gannett Newspapers, eight years with the Washington Star and, since the Star folded in 1981, the Washington bureau of the Baltimore Sun.

Together with his partner Jules Witcover, Germond was the co-author of the column Politics Today, which was syndicated five days a week by Tribune Media Service. Germond and Witcover also partnered for several books on politics, including “Blue Smoke & Mirrors: How Reagan Won and Why Carter Lost the Election of 1980,” “Whose Broad Stripes and Bright Stars? The Trivial Pursuit of the Presidency in 1988” and “Mad as Hell: Revolt at the Ballot Box 1992.” Germond’s most recent book is his 1999 memoir, “Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics.”

Germond has appeared regularly on The McLaughlin Group for 15 years and serves as a panelist on Inside Washington. A native of Boston, Germond is a graduate of the University of Missouri with degrees in history and journalism. He currently lives in West Virginia.

The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Jack, and thanks for joining us today. Let's begin with a good, hard look at President Bush. Is he up to the task of leading America through this nightmare, given that he didn't win the popular vote and isn't as eloquent as some?

Jack Germond: I don't think the question of the popular vote matters. But there are still many reservations about Bush -- whether he has the intellectual heft to handle the presidency. He hasn't yet shown much ability to lead rhetorically but the final verdict will be based on his actions.

Alexandria, Va.: This one is right up Jack's alley. What do you think we should do with the likes of Falwell and Robertson after the infamous TV broadcast of a few days ago? (In my estimation, they ought to be the first missiles we fire at the Taliban.)

Jack Germond: Falwell's remarks were embarrassing. The man is not only venal but a fool. And his apologists' complaint that he was taken out of context is laughable. What is the proper context for the outlandish things he said.

Bob Levey: Many people are comparing President Bush to President Truman -- another occupant of the White House who wasn't very battle-tested or very experienced. Fair comparison, do you think?

Jack Germond: I think we have miles to go before Bush can be compared to Truman. The only question to confront Bush so far has been one to which there could be only a single answer -- that is, the threat to retaliate against the terrorists.

Bob Levey: How would Al Gore have handled the past week differently if he had been president?

Jack Germond: My guess is that Gore would have responded in essentially the same way as Bush because the situation demanded such a response. He probably would have been different in tone. I can't imagine him doing the "dead or alive" number, for example.

Bob Levey: It's pretty clear that some form of racial profiling at America's airports is going to be necessary for a very long time. Can George W. Bush institute this policy without running large political risks?

Jack Germond: The racial profiling clearly will be more common and more obvious. The danger is the one that always arises with law enforcement -- that is, that the enforcers will be too ready to use their new authority.

Arlington, Va.: I have noticed the conspicuous absence of any reference to China, especially on maps of Afghanistan shown in the media. China shares a small border with Afghanistan. China is probably very concerned with the U.S. conducting a war so close to their border, and may not be supportive, to say the least. I think that if more people realized this fact, they wouldn't be so gung ho about going in there with guns blazing.

Jack Germond: The Chinese are not so unsophisticated that they will read any threat to themselves in whatever action we take in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not favorites in China.

Bob Levey: For about 40 years, you were the guy who got out of the campaign bus and listened to what average Americans were saying about politics and politicians. What do you think you'd hear if you sat down for coffee in some cafe in mainstream America this afternoon? Total support of Bush? Fear? A mixture?

Jack Germond: I think what we are hearing now is the usual patriotic rush to stand with a president, any president, in a time of peril to the nation. And Americans are obviously more unsettled than in any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 about the direct threat to their lives. Their comfort level with Bush will depend entirely on the success of his response. The one sure thing, Bob, is that Americans are watching closely.

Bob Levey: You covered Colin Powell's flirtation with the job of president, so you know him fairly well. How will he lean during the current crisis? Toward a mostly-military resolution? Toward caution? Toward diplomacy?

Jack Germond: I don't claim to know Powell well, but those who do know him best consider him extremely cautious about the use of force. The operative question is how much influence he has on the policy in the end, compared to that of, for example, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Vienna, Va.: Jack, why did you leave the Mclaughlin show a couple of years ago? Because of the way he dominates the conversations and doesn't let anyone else get a word in?

That said, I am a regular watcher both of that show and your current one -- "Inside Washington." While you sometimes make some good points, don't be too quick to disagree so much with Charles Krauthammer. He is a brilliant man and often (but not always) has some of the best insight of anyone on the show. He presents facts that are difficult to argue with.

As far as Falwell and Robertson are concerned, I agree that it's difficult to say that we are suffering divine wrath for legalizing homosexuality and abortion, but they are correct in saying that we have in fact legitimized what in the Christian faith is considered as sin. Many of the problems we face today are not a result of having listened to those two, but the result of having NOT listened to them. That said, keep up. the good work. I enjoy watching your show on Saturday evenings.

Jack Germond: I quit McLaughlin almost five years ago but not because of what happened on the air. Instead, I found it impossible to deal with John off the air without getting angry every week, which is not my style. So I now enjoy working with Gordon Peterson, a man without visible ego, and my fellow panelists. I even enjoy Charles a great deal, but I think he is often dead wrong. His blind support for the administration is the most obvious example.

London, Ontario: Will the Pakistani government survive its support of the U.S.?

Jack Germond: A close call. I am inclined to doubt it but don't claim the expertise to know.

Bob Levey: The food-fight TV shows like the one on which you appeared for years are always great entertainment. But I honestly believe that at times like this, they help to sharpen the debate and to reassure viewers. You agree?

Jack Germond: The value of those shows, to the degree there is any at all, lies in the way they can define the parameters of issues. The frequent debate on the Middle East on Inside Washington is an example. It is not always as one-sided as Charles seems to believe.

Oakton, Va.: Why are you so critical of President Bush's "dead or alive" remarks? How else are we going to get Ben Laden? There is no third category. He is going to either be handed over to this country alive (a very slim chance), be killed in battle or in a bombing, kill himself jihad-style if he is cornered, or flee to another country and be hunted down there. Bush is serious. We are going to chase him literally to the ends of the earth. He will not be able to escape even on Antarctica's ice cap in the dead of winter. I think Bush's remark was right on target.

Jack Germond: I wasn't critical of it. I simply said I doubted Gore would have said it.

Arlington, Va.: Jack and Bob:

My fear with the current administration is one that I haven't heard expressed much yet. Namely, most of the key advisors (Powell, Cheney, Rice, et al.) are cold warriors with a cold warrior's mentality. The administration also ignored the careful report of Terrorism directed by Hart and I think Rudman, and stated instead that it would let the political hack/crony of Bush at FEMA look at the problem anew (whitewashing if I've ever seen it).

Your thoughts?

Jack Germond: The concern about cold warriors seems to me to be overblown. I would rather have a few gray heads than another Elliot Abrams.

Bob Levey: If you ask me, the greatest warrior of the 20th Century was a fellow from Abilene named Dwight David Eisenhower. What would Ike have said and done over the past week?

Jack Germond: My guess is that Eisenhower would have sounded very much like Bush in substance, although not necessarily in rhetorical tone.

Bob Levey: So far, has President Bush consulted with Capitol Hill as much as he should have?

Jack Germond: Those dainty egos in Congress are never satisfied on this score, but you cannot conduct a war policy by committee, so I don't fault Bush.

Bob Levey: Please analyze the role that Dick Cheney is playing inside the councils of power. Powell is the battle-tested commander. Rumsfeld is wise in the ways of Washington. Cheney is more political than either. Is that good or bad -- and have politics entered into this mess yet?

Jack Germond: Cheney's special strength is his ability to fit issues into the political context. He knows that any policy requires popular support if it is going to involve any pain. And, although no White House wants to admit it, there is a political element in every move every day.

Plano, Tex,: Bush has responded to this crisis better than I had feared. He last few speeches were almost adequate for untroubled times, and he has tried to stem the evil spread of hate in America. However, he has used the word Crusade in relation to the Middle East which is a horribly stupid word choice. The White House should stop that at once, and try and prevent anyone else from using such inflammatory language.

Jack Germond: Nobody ever said George Bush was articulate, but I agree he has done better than expected even if sometimes slipping.

Bob Levey: If Bill Clinton had been president over the past week, he would have..........

a) acted in much the same way as George W. Bush.
b) spent much more time at the World Trade Center than Bush, and gone there sooner.
c) fired a gun at someone somewhere, just to show America's rage and determination.
d) none of the above.
e) all of the above.

Jack Germond: I think Clinton would have returned to the White House sooner on Tuesday but otherwise behaved much as Bush has done. He was better at it than most presidents.

Brattleboro, Vt.: Bush seems to be taking his speeches from comic book super heroes.

His performance at yesterday's news conference was embarrassing. He sputtered and looked like his brain was about to pop, then spit out garbled messages of posters, coalitions, and, the really scary moment of brain freeze... "uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh."

Are they going to let him out again to speak? Is this why he always reads from cards, teleprompters and poses for photo ops?

If this is commander in chief, I think we've lost already.

Jack Germond: I agree that Bush's reliance on cue cards can be unnerving but I don't think he will be judged in the end on his "performance" so much as on the substance of his policy.

Arlington, Va.: It's interesting that you mention Bush's tone. I thought the dead or alive thing yesterday was very unseemly. He seems like a kid trying to figure out how much bravado he can get away with. I think the president should of course be trying to prepare us for what comes next, but he should also be trying to calm tensions, not inflame them with more "kick their asses" rhetoric. Is Uncle Dick running the show at the White House and Bush is just trying to sound like he's in charge by getting all loud?

Jack Germond: That tough talk seems to be a preppy characteristic. Remember Bush senior.

Bob Levey: What role, if any, has President George Herbert Walker Bush played over the past week?

Jack Germond: Apparently the elder Bush has been in the White House much of the time, which I find unsettling. But wherever he is, we know the president talks to him several times a day. It's part of the package.

Alexandria, Va.: Thanks for the discussion today.

It's nice to see the flag waving and I think that it's an important way for folks to deal with the attacks. Is it too early to start considering energy conservation and alternative energy sources as another way for America "protect and defend" its interests? The Middle East is key to the U.S. only for oil. My fear is that the administration will use the attacks as a reason for opening up Alaska's ANWR to drilling. Thanks. Catherine

Jack Germond: A well-founded fear.

Bob Levey: Say what you will about words being nothing more than words, America still looks for inspiration at a time like this. "A day that will live in infamy" was excellent. Why haven't this president's speech writers come up with something equally excellent?

Jack Germond: Good question. They cannot be relying on Bush's natural eloquence.

San Francisco, Calif.: Two questions:

1. What do you think the chances are for any diplomatic breakthroughs in Israel?

2. What are our realistic military options in this situation, given that the Russians have proved that a ground war in Afghanistan if fruitless, and given that Bin Laden can probably remain in hiding indefinitely?

Jack Germond: I am totally pessimistic about peace in the Middle East, and almost as pessimistic about our chances of success in dealing with the Taliban.

Bethesda, Md.: If you feel like naming names...

What pols you've covered have had the greatest disconnect between in-person likeability and public face? I'm curious about extremes--kind and gentle in person but a tough guy in public, and vice versa.

Jack Germond: Al Gore is a good example -- he could be charming in private, but always seemed to want the presidency too much -- to the point that he allows himself to be bent out of shape as a public performer.

Bob Levey: Jack, you're joining us today from your home in West Virginia, which is a lot closer to heaven than Washington is ever going to be. Serious question: Would your perspective on the last week be any different if you were joining us today from an overheated press room someplace inside the District of Columbia?

Jack Germond: I've been into Washington two or three times in the last week, and what has surprised me is that the response to the whole situation is about the same here in West Virginia as it is in Washington. I expected that it would be much more relaxed out here and it is not.

Silver Spring, Md.: We have to remember, we didn't elect (?) an orator. We didn't elect a dashing Robin Hood. We didn't elect a smooth-talking con man like Clinton. We elected a president -- a man with a war to fight now. And so far in this role he has been superb. If he is not the world's best speaker, so what?

Jack Germond: I agree that we didn't elect an orator but it is easier to lead if you can communicate effectively. And the jury on that is still out.

Bob Levey: Very sorry for the slowdown. Computer problems (of course). We should be OK for the rest of the hour.

Chicago, Ill.: First, I have to say that I loved "Fat Man in a Middle Seat", thanks for a great book. Second, how do you think Bush will fare if/when his team (Powell, Cheney, Rumsfeld, etc.) offers conflicting advice? This is where I'm concerned his lack of experience or intellectual weight will be the most damaging. Do you have any thoughts on this based on past presidencies?

Jack Germond: It's impossible to know how a president will respond in a situation like this. that's why we should pay less attention to conventional issues and more attention to the personal qualities of candidates. Bush was, by any conventional measure, a lightweight, but that doesn't mean he lacks the personal strength needed now.

Washington, D.C.: Do you think the U.S. will tighten immigration allowances in the U.S. after the attacks?

Jack Germond: I don't know what you mean by immigration allowances but I do expect tougher screening, if that is what you mean.

San Diego, Calif.: I'm writing from a very liberal, pacifist-minded college campus that is simply on fire to go to war these days -- despite the fact that it seems clear that we don't totally know who is responsible for all this, where they are, or how to get them. I am scared that our government will head into some sort of big conflict, potentially killing loads of innocents and civilians, just because we feel like we need to do something massive and decisive. With so many Americans calling for war nownownow, this seems all the more likely. What do you think?

Jack Germond: You have cogently summarized the principal danger facing us today. Our best hope is that cool heads -- in the administration and in Congress -- will prevent the kind of mindless excesses you and I both fear.

Cathlamet, Wash.: Mr. Germond, you mentioned Bush's dead or alive number. Do you think that was a foolish statement? Do you think that statement may provoke bin Laden's crazed followers into another attack?

Do you think Bush really thought that statement through before speaking?

Thank you.

Jack Germond: I don't think he thought it through but neither do I believe it will matter in the long run. Bin Laden's fanatics don't need rhetoric to provoke them.

Bob Levey: Any sign that Laura Bush is weighing in on the events of last Tuesday, the way previous first ladies would have?

Jack Germond: Not that I have heard or seen evidence to suggest.

Bob Levey: I'm very worried about the patience of our countrymen. If this "first war of the 21st century" drags on for months or years, will President Bush's popularity begin to sag, even if there's no further terrorism in the U.S.?

Jack Germond: In late 1979 Jimmy Carter enjoyed similar public support for his handling of the hostage crisis in Iran. The curve of support gradually declined and the curve of criticism gradually rose until they crossed the first week in April of 1980. That was the time when his political rivals, Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both felt free to begin their own criticism of his policy.

Washington, D.C.: Wouldn't we have a better chance of success against the Taliban if we helped support and work with the rebels who are already fighting them? They know the ground. They know the people and the culture. They know the Taliban, and where they tend to hide. We have arms and supplies and money they badly need. Isn't it an obvious idea to ally with them?

Jack Germond: The remaining anti-Taliban forces are concentrated on the north and have lost much of their strength, and most recently their leader. In other words, they may not be much help.

Bob Levey: Given that several possible 2004 Presidential candidates make a living on Capitol Hill, will things stay as quiet up there as they have been so far?

Jack Germond: This is not the time for presidential politics -- or at least not anything that is obvious.

Bob Levey: This morning, I heard it on a radio talk show for the first time: An American who said he's getting frustrated because "we haven't done anything yet."

There have to be thousands like him. How soon does this create pressure on Bush?

Jack Germond: I have begun to hear the same thing. But the administration seems determined to resist the temptation to whack them once with a cruise missile, then move on.

Alexandria, Va.: Would terrorists of any stripe ever have dared pull this sort of thing on a strong president like Lyndon Johnson?

Jack Germond: I think the personality and character of the American president is totally irrelevant to these fanatics. If you are so conditioned that you believe the route to heaven is suicide, you don't worry about who's on the other side.

Bob Levey: Many thanks to the very wise and very wonderful Jack Germond. For more on the terrorist episode and its aftermath, be sure to join me on Friday, at 1 p.m. Eastern time, for "Levey Live: Speaking Freely."

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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