WASHINGTON — Jack W. Germond, the portly, cantankerous columnist and pundit who covered 10 presidential elections and sparred with colleagues on TV’s “The McLaughlin Group,” has died. He was 85.
Germond died Wednesday morning. He had recently finished his first novel, “A Small Story for Page Three,” about a reporter investigating political intrigue, being published Friday. The Baltimore Sun, where Germond worked for many years, reported that he died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at his home in Charles Town, W. Va.
“He went peacefully and quickly after just completing this novel, a tale he had pondered while writing columns, campaign books, a memoir and covering our politics and politicians,” his wife, Alice Germond, said in a note to his colleagues. She said Germond “was fortunate to spend his life working at a job he would have done for free during some halcyon times in the newspaper business.”
With Jules Witcover, Germond co-wrote five syndicated columns a week for nearly 25 years, most of that time spent at The (Baltimore) Evening Sun until it went out of business and then The (Baltimore) Sun. He was in many ways emblematic of his generation of Washington journalists: He was friendly with the politicians he covered, and he cultivated relationships with political insiders during late-night poker games and whiskey-fueled bull sessions.
“Before politics was fed into computers and moveable maps came out, Jack Germond had it all in his head,” said Walter Mears, the former political writer for The Associated Press and a Germond friend and competitor.
“He was a walking encyclopedia on politics and politicians,” Mears said. “He worked the telephones — before they were cellphones — and the opening usually was pretty much the same: What do you hear? His style of political reporting was an art form. Sadly, it is becoming a lost art.”
Germond, Witcover and Mears were among the “Boys on the Bus” chronicled in Timothy Crouse’s seminal account of reporters in the 1972 presidential election.
Later in his career, Germond became arguably the best known of the “Boys,” thanks to his irascible appearances on “The McLaughlin Group,” where he offered a liberal alternative to conservative host John McLaughlin and fellow panelist Robert D. Novak.
Their dustups were even parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” with Chris Farley as Germond and Dana Carvey as a histrionic McLaughlin.
He quit the real show in 1996 after a series of disputes with McLaughlin, sending the host a terse fax that read: “Bye-bye.”
He also appeared regularly on TV’s “Inside Washington,” and was a political analyst for NBC and CNN.
Germond and Witcover’s column, “Politics Today,” appeared in about 140 newspapers at its peak. The pair launched the column in 1977 for The Washington Star and moved to The Evening Sun four years later when the Star folded.
The dual byline allowed both writers to spend time reporting, and when one was on the road, the other would draft the column and they would confer on it by phone.
Germond and Witcover also chronicled the dumbing down of presidential campaigns and the growing cynicism of the electorate in a series of books with such titles as “Wake Us When It’s Over” and “Mad as Hell.”
Germond wrote two memoirs, “Fat Man in a Middle Seat” (1999) and “Fat Man Fed Up” (2004). He retired from writing columns after the 2000 presidential election, disgusted with politics.
“I really found this campaign odious. I just couldn’t get up for it,” Germond told The Washington Post. “The quality of the candidates and the campaign, I just found the whole thing second-rate. I didn’t know how to explain to my granddaughter that I was spending my dotage writing about Al Gore and George W. Bush.”
In “Fat Man Fed Up,” he wrote that “after 50 years of exposure to thousands of politicians, I am convinced that we get about what we deserve at all levels of government, up to and including the White House.”
‘Journalism was a great way to make a living’
Germond got his start covering national politics in 1961 for Gannett, where he had worked for several years. His first presidential campaign was the 1964 race between President Lyndon Johnson and Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. He left Gannett in 1974 to join the Star, first as political editor and later as assistant managing editor.
He and others in his generation typically generated leads during after-hours, off-the-record chats over drinks — sometimes with the candidates themselves. As campaigns became more scripted, the candidates more insulated and paranoid about gaffes, Germond bemoaned the lost opportunities to see beyond their public personas.
He was baffled by the younger generation of political reporters and their more subdued style.
“Journalism was a great way to make a living. It was fun,” Germond told People magazine in 2001. “Nowadays, reporters drink white wine and eat salads. They go to their rooms, transcribe their notes and go to the gym. We never did that.”
Germond was born in 1928, in Newton, Mass. His father was an engineer who worked in the housing business, and the family moved frequently.
“I went through 11 different schools in 12 years of public school,” Germond said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 2005. “It made me very detached. It hardens you up a little bit.”
He served in the Army from 1946-47, then earned journalism and history degrees from the University of Missouri in 1951. He also dabbled in semipro baseball. He worked for small newspapers in Missouri and Michigan before joining Gannett Co. in 1953.
Germond retired to Charles Town, W.Va., and a house that overlooks the Shenandoah River. Germond’s wife, Alice, has been active in the Democratic Party for more than four decades, serving for years as secretary of the Democratic National Committee.
A thoroughbred racing enthusiast, he was a regular at Charles Town Races and Slots.
“I come a couple days a week,” Germond told National Public Radio in a 2003 interview at the racetrack. “It is a totally cleansing experience.”