The Fat Man Sings
Jack Germond's engaging memoir
Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
Everyone who reads this marvelous memoir -- and it deserves to have many, many readers -- will have a favorite anecdote among the countless tales that Jack Germond piles up, so I might as well begin this review with mine.
Germond is best known, of course, for his stint as the house curmudgeon on The McLaughlin Group. But as a print reporter he's been covering politics for more than forty years, the last twenty or so with his partner Jules Witcover. Their reporting brought them in frequent contact with George Wallace, who somehow acquired the idea that Witcover is Jewish. Witcover is Roman Catholic, but never mind. Whenever Witcover would drop in on the governor for an interview, Wallace would try to jolly up the alien with some small talk. "I saw old Dave Silverman the other day," Wallace would inevitably begin. What a coincidence! Silverman was a Jewish shopkeeper in downtown Montgomery. "Wallace," Germond writes, "seemed to think all Jews know one another." Over the years, Witcover gave up trying to set Wallace straight, and would simply send his best wishes to old Dave.
And as long as we're on the subject of Wallace, let me pass along one more story (Fat Man in a Middle Seat is that kind of book). According to Germond, Wallace had only one interest aside from rousing the rabble, and this was, no surprise, women. One afternoon, Germond was passing the time in a hotel lobby with Wallace's press secretary when an elevator door opened and a blond country singer who warmed up crowds at Wallace campaign rallies bolted out. She marched over to us and plunked herself down with an emphatic flounce of skirts and legs. "That damned George Wallace," she announced. "He didn't even take his shoes off."
Wallace may have been a bad guy -- Germond certainly thinks he was -- but it's also true that they don't make them like him anymore, and as a consequence American politics is a much less entertaining spectacle than it once was. Nowadays national politicians, with one or two exceptions, all seem to have been pulped and pressed and rolled out from the same vat of mush, so that Al Trent Lamar John Gore Lott Alexander Kerry is indistinguishable from Chuck Don Tom Evan Hagel Nickles Harkin Bayh, or any other politician who might aspire to their lofty perch. Even in the subgenus Southern Demagogue, the best that contemporary politics can offer up is David Duke, a creepy little pretty boy so starved for respectability that he's submitted to cosmetic surgery and campaigns with a blow drier in his car. Governor Wallace, needless to say, was a Brylcreem man.
Jack Germond laments the change, not only in the quality of our pols but in the character of the journalists who cover them. Politicians get the reporters they deserve. Germond's generation of hacks, when covering a campaign, followed a rigorous schedule: a long day of reporting, a late afternoon and early evening spent filing the story, then a bloody, carnivorous dinner (napkin spread over the tie) followed by several hours in the hotel bar swapping lies and gossip with colleagues.
No longer. Germond says, generously and perhaps not accurately, that today's generation of political reporters is every bit as skilled as his own. "But their lifestyles are more disciplined. They tend to drink white wine or beer rather than Irish whiskey . . . and a lot of them eat salads from room service, believe it or not." Judging from my own, more limited experience, I do believe it, and the transformation has long been in train. The first time I covered the New Hampshire primary, in 1988, I headed for the legendary bar at the Wayfarer Hotel in Manchester, a neophyte hoping to knock back a few stiff ones with the big dogs after a tough day trailing (if I remember correctly) the electrifying candidacy of Paul Simon. Germond was in the bar, and one or two others, but every one else was in the hotel gym, queuing up for the StairMaster.