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From AJR,   November 1999  issue

An Elegy to Old-time Political Reporting   

Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics

By Jack Germond
Random House
304 pages; $25.95


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

Jack Germond has long been the Hubert Humphrey of political reporters: a happy scribbler good-timing his way through campaign after campaign with joie de journalism and pride in old-time street-level news hawking.

That spirit is in full run in his puckishly titled new memoir. "Fat Man" delivers the bawdy backstage stories, irreverent asides and occasional haymakers that have been Germond's signature with Gannett, the Washington Star, the Baltimore Sun and various TV gab shows.

Bashfulness is definitely not his style. What does he think of George Bush? "The most vacuous man to occupy the Oval Office in my time in Washington." Bill Clinton? "The most selfish and egocentric politician I have ever seen in decades of close association with so many leaders who are egocentric and selfish."

Yet generally he likes politics and politicians and is unrepentantly candid about why.

Sure, he writes, the "joy of covering politics" is "the joy of knowing America and of telling the readers how things work." More often, though, "the desire to serve the reader well is secondary to the desire to cover 'a good story' and beat the competition.... [M]any times the attraction of a story is that the politicians involved are interesting and fun to cover."

Germond learned early that the best way to cover Washington politicians is to get out of town, to follow them home, hitch onto their campaign caravans, and chat them up over breakfast or late-night drinks at the Holiday Inn. The book is filled with scenes, mostly involving eating and drinking, in which Germond nabs private time with politicians, disarms them with companionability, and gains vital glimpses into what they're really like.

He listens to country music with Robert Kennedy at an Indianapolis airport hotel, eats fried catfish with Jimmy and Miss Lillian Carter at the Georgia governor's mansion, takes tea with Sen. Claiborne Pell on a ritzy Newport, Rhode Island, terrace. And he wrings an explosion from presidential nominee George McGovern during a 1972 Cedar Rapids fire station stop when he asks if voters have an accurate picture of the underdog Democrat:

" 'Accurate?' McGovern protested, pounding the firehouse dining table, his face reddening. 'I'm running against Richard Nixon and people think I'm the dishonest one!' "

Germond sponges up important insights from these moments, some of them unsettling. He describes tactfully trying to intervene at an "eerie" Gridiron Club dinner at which President Reagan appeared not to recognize his own agriculture secretary. "We had to wonder how the country made it through eight years with someone in the White House as vague and detached as Reagan always seemed to be," he concludes.

Still, he is quite charitable and respectful to Reagan and even manages to find a soft spot for one of the most divisive characters in 20th-century politics: George Wallace. Germond recounts an almost pathetic scene in which an insecure Wallace, defensive about press articles making fun of his fondness for ketchup, discovers Germond using the stuff in a cafeteria. The Alabama governor hooted, "You like ketchup, too--that means you can't write about it."

Notes Germond: "As much as I resisted it, I found myself feeling some sympathy for him. He had been a hateful politician.... But it was hard to hate him. He was so needy, so dependent on the approval of others."

This is a laudable humanitarian sentiment, perhaps, but it does illustrate important questions about the reporting tradition Germond represents. His generation of reporters liked politicians, prized chumming around with them, and warmed up to some of the worst ones. They accepted the system, abided by its rules, and sometimes had trouble standing far enough beyond the process to see, and report, its imperfections.

By contrast, they seem to have been supplanted by a new crop of writers with almost the opposite attitude: disdain for both the participants and the process. This has changed the nature and the tone of coverage, but it is unclear whether it's for the better.

Germond recognizes the changes. Flowing underneath "Fat Man's" tall tales and political yarns is something more sobering--almost an elegy to this near-extinct form of journalism that took civic life seriously and took for granted that the electorate did, too. Today's reporters "tend to drink white wine...carry cell phones...eat salads from room service," he scoffs. And politics has become "too often a mindless contest between competing media consultants and fund-raisers."

Germond personifies still another major change: the cultural currents that sucked print reporters into television. He debuted on "Meet the Press" in 1972, teamed with David Broder on the "Today" show in the 1980s, and served as key combatant on "The McLaughlin Group" until having a nasty falling-out with the moderator and moving to "Inside Washington."

Appearing on television, he soon found, was a "credential as an important player you apparently could not earn simply by doing what I considered far more serious work, reporting and writing for a newspaper."

Or, as he more pithily puts it, "you could write your fingers off for 25 years..and never get the kind of hearing you could get from shooting off your mouth on television for a half hour."

It boosted the ego and paid good money, but was it journalism?

Germond doesn't stop to ruminate on these larger issues, but his book does offer the starting point for a good seminar. What should a good political reporter really do? If he doesn't answer this question, he at least offers one roundhouse insight that all reporters ought to post on their terminals: "Neither events nor individuals are ever quite as easy to describe as they may seem. And the press never seems to get it quite right."