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Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics

By Jack W. Germond
Random House. 284 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University and is the author of "What Are Journalists For?"

Sunday, December 19, 1999

Jack Germond is an exemplar of the plain style in American journalism. It has two elements. One is the writer's unadorned prose: Convey the facts in brisk manner, stay close to the vernacular, don't show off.

The other element is a "plain" way of thinking about journalism. Early in Germond's memoir, Fat Man in a Middle Seat, he spots the "beautiful simplicity" of the news business: "find out what happened and put it in the paper." This unpretentious attitude makes journalism easy to describe, difficult to do. Find good sources. Ask the right questions. Sift for accuracy. Discount for agendas. Know your beat. Trust your gut. And don't get too close to the story.

The style's virtues are obvious, which is to say they are American. The love of the known fact, a mistrust of ideologies and appearances, the tell-it-to-me-straight attitude of Harry Truman or, in another strain, Joe Friday. Hemingway is in there, and E.B. White. So is much of our discontent with hype, packaging, spin and puffed-up expertise. Germond's title speaks of intellectual modesty as well as his portly, lovable appearance. But at the typewriter, the fat man sings. Known characters (Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan in particular) are sketched in a few deft strokes. Stories with a familiar ring are retold from a clever reportorial angle. Thirty-five years in American politics seem coherent, explicable as Germond replays their highlights, adding straight talk on what was happening inside events.

Germond began his national career in the capital bureau for Gannett in 1961. He moved to the Washington Star in 1974, became a syndicated columnist and national editor and went on to the Baltimore Sun when the Star folded. He began to appear on "Meet the Press" in 1972, the "Today Show" in 1980 and "The McLaughlin Group" from its inception in 1981. He writes revealingly about the difference between television panelists who remained beat reporters and those who became TV figures, using "their on-the-air skills to sound authoritative."

This is a reporter's account of a reporter's career, and so it is not without romance. Some of that involves drinking, usually scotch. Germond is always opening a bottle or heading for a bar, and many of his best tales have liquor in the background. It would be silly to chide him about this, because it is inseparable from his judgment of character, and Fat Man is, among other things, a study in political character.

Germond mistrusts anyone who cannot have a drink and relax. Politics and reporting are fun (and meaningful), but not if you take them too personally. "What the hell" is a favored expression because it sums up this generous attitude toward the political world. It also makes social intercourse easier. He is as capable of outrage as anyone, but who cannot hear Germond saying "How the hell do I know?" in response to one of John McLaughlin's inane demands for instant wisdom. That's the plain style as a typical virtue in the culture of talking heads.

Germond is a liberal, of course (vintage: civil rights era), and was cast as that in McLaughlin's follies. A better clue, however, is his pride in being called a blue-collar journalist by a better-coifed colleague. One can get cynical about this, since Germond is a Beltway celebrity who cashed in with lecture fees and all the rest. He did "McLaughlin" for the money, he says, then quit when the embarrassment became too much. He shows high candor here.

Loving politics for its failures as much as its moments, appreciating the flawed characters who pass through, giving the seasoned pols and savvy pros their due, respecting the press hands who don't sell out or show off, lifting humor from the cynicism in the game, enjoying a drink at the hotel bar -- this is Germond showing affection for an arena that is now habitually degraded by others. Fat Man in a Middle Seat is in that sense a love story about a political journalist's life, plainly and wonderfully told.

Jack Anderson is a different kind of reporter and man, and his reflections track with another side of American politics -- what historian Richard Hofstadter once called the "paranoid style." This is a dark tale of power and corruption among enemies of the people and assorted cheats. The journalism that corresponds to it is investigative and, in a way, redemptive. Anderson truly believes that publicity cleanses, that a free press can triumph over power's design. If Germond is the embodiment of certain virtues among the in crowd of Washington journalists, Anderson is a dissenter and outcast. He would be the last to enjoy drinks and a few laughs with colleagues or politicians. A Mormon (with nine children) who doesn't imbibe, he claims to shun the social circuit, preferring a document drop or stakeout to cocktail buzz.

Anderson's column, "Washington Merry-Go-Round," which he inherited from Drew Pearson in 1969, gave him a presence in more than 500 newspapers. He added a Parade magazine slot, a radio show, "Good Morning America" appearances, and a TV program called "Truth" (public figures hooked up to a lie detector). He built an amazing career on his skills and sources, and emerges from his memoir as a more complicated figure than the title "investigative reporter" suggests.

Anderson's operation -- which he dubbed Muckrakers, Incorporated -- has been a team venture. The book opens with a long list of associates he acknowledges, many of whom moved on to big careers in journalism. Brit Hume of Fox and Howard Kurtz of the Post are the best known, but there are more than 50 cited. "Jack Anderson" is actually a name for this syndicate of truth hounds, libel lawyers and overworked office staff.

Peace, War, and Politics is about all the great stories he and his gang uncovered, from the McCarthy era, when Drew Pearson authored the column, through Nixon's crimes, to the end of the Cold War. It is history told through the scandals that attended it, one of which (Nixon's secret tilt toward Pakistan over India) earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. But "journalist" does not quite describe a man who offers to testify at government hearings, challenges Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt to a televised debate, intimidates Sen. Robert Byrd into opposing L. Patrick Gray as director of the FBI (after the bureau had one of his reporters arrested) and draws TV and radio crews to his office, awaiting revelations.

Anderson would probably despise the description, but his story is about the reporter as political figure -- not a shadow government but a shadower of the government, specializing in "the butchery of sacred cows." His career is a long thrill ride through the underworld of power, and it has much to say on the origins on our scandal culture. It began, he shows, with scandals, many and deep, some trivial but most not. Though he could have become a cynic about people in power and the system they abuse, something deeper kept him from that fate. It might be the Constitution, which he rightly sees as his protector and muse. Anderson was hated, feared, followed and investigated, but he kept publishing -- and prosecuting in print. And he never lost a libel case.

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© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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