How American Politics Went Bad

By Jack W. Germond

Random House. 224 pp. $24.95

American politics is in a strange and distressing state. Conventional wisdom has it, and polls tend to confirm, that the nation is bitterly, even nastily, divided right down the middle, a condition that presumably should lead to intense popular involvement in elections, yet barely 50 percent of eligible voters show up for presidential elections. Though participation by the many steadily declines, participation by the few grows ever more intense and influential as interest groups and commercial enterprises buy their way into power with huge over- and under-the-table financial contributions to politicians and parties. Though the need for astute political leadership is self-evident, many potential public servants are scared away by a prosecutorial press and hectoring congressional nomination hearings.

Small wonder that Jack W. Germond, who has reported and commented upon American politics for half a century, is trying to break himself of the habit. The self-described "fat man" who has never bothered to trim down for his television appearances (formerly and most lamentably on that ghastly Gong Show "The McLaughlin Group," now on "Inside Washington") has written a book that is not so much an angry outburst as its title suggests, as a wistful farewell to something he once loved but now looks upon with sorrow, as if it were a cherished child who has turned into a swinish adult.

Germond doesn't need to be introduced to Washington readers who follow politics with more than casual interest. Apart from his aforementioned television gigs, he has been a prominent political writer here for Gannett newspapers, the Washington Star (where he and I had a nodding acquaintance for a few minutes a quarter-century ago) and the Baltimore Sun. Often in collaboration with Jules Witcover, he has written innumerable columns about politics and several books. Now in his late seventies and in semi-retirement in West Virginia, he keeps his hand in the game from time to time and still enjoys a reputation matched only, perhaps, by David Broder of this newspaper.

Three decades ago Germond ambled into something approximating journalistic immortality in the pages of "The Boys on the Bus," Timothy Crouse's inside account of the political press during the 1972 presidential campaign. Germond was then Gannett's chief political writer: "He was sitting all alone at one of the long typewriter tables, waiting in vain for a poker game to materialize and slowly getting drunk. He was a little cannonball of a man, 44 years old, with a fresh, leprechaunish face, a fringe of white hair around his bald head, and a pugnacious, hands-on-hip manner of talking. He was not simply drawn to journalism as a profession; like Hildy Johnson in 'Front Page,' he was addicted to it as a way of life."

He still is, as he unabashedly makes plain on just about every page of "Fat Man Fed Up," but no one knows more than he that it isn't the same anymore. Politics isn't the same, and neither is journalism. As he says, reporters who used to gather over late-night martinis and steaks have been supplanted by health freaks who eat fish, drink wine (or fizzy water) and hang out at the gym. There are those who regard this as progress, but Germond does not (me, too). From where he sits, the camaraderie of the bus has been elbowed aside by self-interested competitiveness, and the old easiness between reporters and politicians has been replaced by mutual suspicion and hostility.

Doubtless today's younger political reporters would claim that the old-timers climbed into bed with the politicians and thus were beholden to them, but Germond would reply that neither friendships with politicians nor his own political views (he counts himself a liberal) got in the way of accurate, unbiased coverage. The record proves him right.

"I am not going to play the role of old fart arguing that everything was better in the old days," Germond insists, and he's right to take a pass on that. But a few decades ago "it was possible for a public official or politician to have a social conversation with a reporter without the fear of being victimized by a journalistic cheap shot." This "permitted us to get to know the politicians far better than is usually the case now. In turn, those insights improved our coverage, and in many ways not always obvious." For instance:

"That Ed Muskie could fly into towering rages. That Jimmy Carter was a lot more sophisticated and worldly than he sometimes seemed. That George Wallace was a remarkably insecure man and an extremely lonely one. That Richard Nixon had a prurient interest in other people's sex lives but tried to keep it hidden. That Hubert Humphrey's eyes would tear up with emotion when he described things he had done for Minnesota. That John Connally was a great wit and storyteller. . . . That both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole could have temper tantrums aimed at some lowly staff person."

Do many political reporters have such intimate insights today? Not likely. For one thing there simply are too many of them, with network and cable television piling onto the bus. For another, political coverage is now mostly a sometime thing, with the news media pouring in during campaigns but withdrawing during the long off-season, which means that reporters and politicians never have the chance to get to know one another in quiet, relaxed times. For another, the "focus on trivia" in the press alienates both politicians and the public. For yet another, the press's appetite for "Gotcha!" stories -- those "raising questions about a politician's personal history or views on sensitive issues or, worse yet, the dreaded 'flip-flop' " -- intensifies that alienation.

All of which is to say that in Germond's view much of what's wrong with politics today is directly traceable to the press, and of course he's right. The politicians come in for their share of the blame, and that's right, too: the obsession with money and the willingness (eagerness, too often) to sell out for it; the bullying of the religious right and, again, the readiness to sell out for its votes; the capitulation to television, with its emphasis on speed, brevity and oversimplification; the dominance of polls and consultants, which too often produces "a contrived, mechanistic campaign that tells us nothing about a candidate beyond his ability to understand and act on opinion-poll results."

Right on all counts, though it's all been said before. The dirty secret that Germond lets out of the closet is the culpability of the American electorate, which he dismisses as "the great uninformed" and, he could have added, happy to be that way. His scorn is self-evident: "Most Americans, unhappily, are too lazy or uninterested to question whether press accounts of [political] malfeasance present a balanced view." "There is no penalty for bad behavior in American politics. No one is paying attention." And:

"I doubt there is any easy way -- or, for that matter, any way at all -- to fix the things that are wrong with American politics today. They are too deeply rooted. They are too much a part of a pattern of mindless behavior in our culture. We worship all the wrong gods -- money, celebrity and television, most notably. We listen to the loudest voices. We pay obeisance to false standards imposed on us by those with an axe to grind. We are too lazy intellectually to go beyond the glib language of politics."

Every word of which, alas, is absolutely, conclusively true.