By Bill Trott
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jack Germond, the gruff and rumpled “fat man” of American political journalism best known for his coverage of presidential campaigns, died on Wednesday at the age of 85.
He died “peacefully and quickly” early in the morning at his home in West Virginia after recently finishing a novel, his wife, Alice, said in an email sent to friends and journalists.
As a reporter and columnist for Gannett Newspapers, the Washington Star and the Baltimore Sun and a commentator on television shows like “The McLaughlin Group,” Germond was on the top rung of political journalists.
“He had a bold journalistic ethic, and that matters. He was fortunate to spend his life working at a job he would have done for free during some halcyon times in the newspaper business,” his wife wrote.
Germond was among a group of young reporters who decided to take a more behind-the-scenes look at politics in the wake of the 1960 presidential race, spurred in part by Theodore White’s book, “Making of the President, 1960.”
The Boston-born Germond, who covered the campaign in 1960, and his colleagues were eager to get to know the candidates but also worked to find out what was going on behind the marbled edifices of the nation’s capital.
“The joy of covering politics … is the joy of knowing America and of telling the readers how things work, to the extent you can find out,” Germond wrote in his autobiography, “Fat Man in a Middle Seat.”
A balding, rotund man with a gravelly voice and a taste for Scotch and the racetrack, Germond was seen by his colleagues as the epitome of a hard-nosed journalist.
He covered politics first for Gannett in Rochester and Albany, New York, and then in Washington beginning in 1961. He later served as Gannett’s Washington bureau chief for four years before leaving for the Washington Star in 1973.
There, beginning in 1977, he teamed up with Jules Witcover, a former Washington Post reporter, to form one of the most respected writing duos in American journalism.
When the Star folded in 1981, they went to the Baltimore Sun where they continued their column until Germond retired at the end of 2000. Germond and Alice, his second wife, moved to West Virginia, and he still wrote occasionally for the dailybeast.com and other outlets.
Germond and Witcover also wrote a series of books together, including one on each presidential race from 1980 through 1992.
Germond died having just finished writing a political novel that he had been pondering for years, his wife said.
TOO MUCH TV SHOUTING
Germond appeared for 15 years on “The McLaughlin Group” television show as the most liberal member of a team that presented different views of Washington issues. He quit when he decided the show had become too much of a shouting match and not enough of an exchange of ideas.
He also worked as an analyst on CNN and a panelist on Washington Week in Review.
Germond called himself a “leading advocate and practitioner of what the political scientists disparage as racehorse journalism, which means putting the emphasis on winners and losers rather than the issues.”
By the 2000 presidential campaign, he had become disenchanted with what he saw as the programmed and poll-driven nature of the races. “Politics have gotten nastier as well as duller,” Germond said.
While his writings and commentary were staples of Washington journalism, Germond said his looks and mannerisms sometimes worked against him.
He said he once did not get a job because the executives saw “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. I was … a cultural misfit.”
But his peers saw him as a man who knew his stuff and gave good advice.
“He’s got unbelievable judgment about people and politics,” Paul West, the Sun’s Washington bureau chief, said at the time of Germond’s retirement. “He’s been a father-confessor to generations of reporters.”
(Writing by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Steve Holland; Editing by Vicki Allen)
[Jack Germond on the McLaughlin Group’s 1994 election coverage (screenshot via YouTube)]