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Remembering Jack Germond, Stalwart of American Political Journalism

August 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
From Johnson vs. Goldwater in 1964 to Bush vs. Gore in 2000, Jack Germond covered every race. The political reporter, columnist and author, immortalized in the book "Boys on the Bus," has died at 85. Judy Woodruff talks to Dan Balz of The Washington Post about Germond's legacy on the modern political campaign press corps.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: remembering veteran political journalist Jack Germond.

JACK GERMOND: The only thing worse than covering this campaign would not to be covering it. I would hate to be stuck back in Washington not covering it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From the 1964 campaign with Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, to the 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, Jack Germond didn’t miss a single one.

He got his start reporting on national politics for Gannett newspapers in 1961, rising to become Washington bureau chief. In 1974, he joined The Washington Star, launching a column with Jules Witcover. The two moved to The Baltimore Sun after The Star folded.

The pair also wrote four books about presidential elections. Germond was among the journalists portrayed in Timothy Crouse’s “Boys on the Bus,” written about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign. Crouse described Germond as ‘a little cannonball of a man, with a fresh, leprechaunish face, a fringe of white hair around his bald head, and a pugnacious, hands-on-hip manner of talking.’

Many Americans would become familiar with Germond’s cantankerous style from his television appearances, including The McLaughlin Group, where he was a regular panelist.

In 2000, Germond sat down with former NewsHour correspondent Terry Smith to discuss how covering political campaigns had changed over the years.

JACK GERMOND: We had very good access to the candidates, and they’d have dinner with you. They would have a couple of drinks with you. They weren’t afraid you were going to blow them up for one cheap story. They — it was an entirely different attitude.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Germond said that dynamic also reflected a different approach on the part of journalists.

JACK GERMOND: When you get on a bus now with a candidate, and there’s 10 reporters and they’re talking on the cell phone to some pale desk person back in the office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jack Germond died Wednesday at his home in West Virginia. He was 85 years old.

On the campaign bus with Jack Germond for several years was Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post.

Dan, thank you for being with us.

 You know, I was with you and Jack covering some of those campaigns, but fill out the picture a little bit more for us. Who was Jack Germond?

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Well, Jack — Judy, you know, in essence, Jack was one of the greats of the greatest generation of political reporters that we saw.

I mean, it was an illustrious crew that he was part of, and Jack was an original. I mean, he was an old-fashioned newspaper reporter. He was a shoe-leather reporter. Jack always wanted to be where the action was. And, you know, he got to know politicians. He was skeptical of politicians. He would beat them around in his columns, but he also understood what drove them.

And they trusted him, and he liked and admired many of them, but he pulled no punches as he did it. I mean, he was just a role model for all of us in how you go about covering big-time politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was a different era in covering politics. What made it different, and how did Jack work his magic? How did he do his kind of reporting?

DAN BALZ: Well, Jack was a master of the inside game, and it was at a time when you could get inside in a more significant way than now.

I mean, Jack and others operated at a time when politicians were not kept as cocooned as they are today from political reporters. He could go out to dinner with them. And, as he said, he knew that — or they knew that he wasn’t going to blow them out of the water with one cheap story. It was a way for him to get a greater understanding of what made these people tick, and that’s an invaluable thing that often is lost today.

There is such great distance between politicians and reporters. And, again, I don’t mean it in the cozy sense. Jack wasn’t cozy with people. But Jack found a way to get to know them, to be able to tell his readers in a more significant way what they were all about.

And the other thing he did, Judy, which, you know, again has become a little bit more of a lost art, Jack was always out there where the action was. He knew politicians and political operatives in every state. He understood the internal politics of states. He always felt that you had to be on the ground to understand what was going on in American politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was larger than life in many ways, and you were saying to us today he had an appetite. There — he was a unique personality.

DAN BALZ: He was.

And it was one of the things that I think endeared him to so many people. I mean, he liked good food. He liked good drink. He loved good conversation. And he was a terrific storyteller. And, you know, he would go work throughout the day and file his stories. And people would repair to a restaurant or a bar late at night, and he would regale people with stories about politicians he had covered in the past.

And I know, as a young reporter, he was extremely kind to me. There was no particular reason he needed to do that, but he was always very welcoming to me and taught me a lot about how you go about this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing. You were telling us earlier today about the Germond rule. What was that?

(LAUGHTER)

DAN BALZ: The Germond rule was, at dinner, no matter what the bill was and no matter how much or how little you had eaten, you split the bill evenly. That was one Germond rule.

And another one he told me as I was about to make my way into the far northern reaches of New Hampshire to chase a candidate whose name I can’t recall at this point, he said, my rule always in New Hampshire is, never go north with a candidate who is below 20 percent in the polls.

(LAUGHTER)

DAN BALZ: And it is something I have always remembered in my travels since in New Hampshire.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the one and only Dan Balz with The Washington Post, thank you.

DAN BALZ: Thank you, Judy.