With the death of Jack Germond at 85, the great triumvirate of political reporting is now gone. Germond, Robert Novak, and David Broder were the Clay, Calhoun, and Webster of political journalism with their columns and TV commentary, but mostly with their dogged reporting.
Germond knew that Washington was a trap for journalists. It’s the center of the political community but often the last to understand what is happening politically across the country. Trends might die in Washington, but more often than not they don’t begin there.
When I was a young reporter at the Washington Star, Germond was my boss. I was covering the Supreme Court until he transferred me to reporting on then-Vice President Ford in 1973. His hunch was Ford would soon replace President Nixon, already weakened by the Watergate scandal. A year later, Ford did, and I moved to the White House to cover him as president.
Germond taught me any number of things about political reporting and these stand out: there is no substitute for reporting; everyone has opinions, but few journalists do real reporting; and reporting should shape one’s opinions, not the other way around.
He found his own gold mines for reporting. One was Rockford, Illinois, a small city whose voters he believed reflected the feelings of average Americans. Over and over again, Germond returned to Rockford and what he discovered was a view of the world quite different from Washington’s.
Not that Germond wasn’t opinionated. He certainly was. He didn’t like the Bushes, Nixon, or Reagan. But he usually wrote about them fairly. However, he underrated George H.W. Bush, insisting the day he announced for president would be the high point of his campaign. As it turned out, Election Day in 1988 was.
Unlike many reporters, Germond actually liked many politicians and their herds of strategists and handlers. And not just as sources. Sure, they were flawed and not entirely trustworthy. But they were folks whose interests matched his own and he was happy to stay up late, night after night, drinking and talking with them.
Germond became famous as a TV panelist on the McLaughlin Group, a political chat show, in the 1980s and 1990s. He was gruff, frequently dismissed seemingly important stories as unworthy of serious discussion, and passionately disliked the show’s autocratic moderator, former Nixon aide John McLaughlin. As a result, Germond was the most popular panelist.
Like Novak and Broder, Germond was in a special category of political writers. If his byline was on a piece, you read it, regardless of the specific subject. And you were always rewarded.