By Albert Eisele - 11/02/08 09:11 AM EST
CHARLES TOWN, W. VA. – The legs are the first to go, as any political reporter or fan of horse racing knows.
Jack Germond is both, and even though he turned 80 last January and is watching the 2008 campaign from the sidelines, he hasn’t lost any of the legendary zest for covering politics that once led the Wall Street Journal to call him “the closest thing we have to a kingmaker in American politics.”
But he leaves little doubt he’d rather still be chasing after politicians from New Hampshire to New Mexico and in between.
“Yeah, I miss some of it, especially the people I spent so much time with,” he said last week over lunch in a restaurant named after the man who built the building it occupies in 1778 and later became the first governor of Ohio. Reeling off the names of a half dozen fellow reporters and competitors, he declares, “They were interesting people to have dinner and drinks with, but most of them are gone now.”
Germond is also writing a novel about a political reporter who is investigating his own publisher. He’s written 35,000 words but says he's "not sure I'm going to finish it until I know how it comes out. I want to see if I can do it but I don't want to write a bad book."
Germond’s renowned appetite for good food and drink as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of national politics are reflected in two well-regarded memoirs he wrote – “Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics” (1999) and “Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad” (2004), not to mention four books about presidential campaigns that he wrote in the 1980’s and 90’s with his former partner as a syndicated columnist, Jules Witcover.
But it was Germond’s appetite for cultivating well-placed sources and calling the shots as he saw them while covering hundreds of politicians from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton that made him one of America’s premier political reporters in the last half of the 20th century.
Germond is no longer a kingmaker but he still calls the shots as he sees them. The 2008 presidential campaign “is a very interesting story in one respect,” he says, even though he rates the tumultuous 1968 campaign as the most interesting and important he covered.
“We’re going to find out something about our country we need to know, which is just how racist are we?”
No longer constrained by the rules of journalism to hide his political preferences, Germond makes no bones about favoring Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a choice that sits well with his wife Alice, who is treasurer of the Democratic National Committee.
“My theory is that Obama should win handily on the basis of the context of his campaign, his voter registration numbers, his amazing appeal to young people, and the fact that he’s run a brilliant campaign. He’s done a hell of a job and raised a lot of money. But we all know that a certain number of voters won’t vote for a black candidate. We don’t know how many but if there are enough to stop Obama from being elected, it’s a national shame.”
Germond also doesn’t hide his low opinion of McCain’s running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, whose selection he calls “insulting and ridiculous,” adding, “She’s nothing but vitriol, and it’s not even her own vitriol.”
As if to ratify his opinion of Palin, our waitress tells Germond – after asking him to speak to her son’s local high school class – that she’s going to vote for Obama because of Palin. Describing herself as an independent, she says, “I love McCain and I think he’s a good man and I’d vote for him if he had picked somebody else. But I can’t understand how in good conscience he could have picked her.”
As for the nine presidents he’s covered, Germond says, “George W. Bush is probably the worst.” He doesn’t reveal his choice as the best, but says former Sen. Howard Baker (R-Tenn.) “would have made the best president” and former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D-Ark.) was the best campaigner he ever covered.
It was through Bumpers that he first met Bill and Hillary Clinton. “I went down to Arkansas in 1978 to do a story about something else and they all said you’ve got to go see this Clinton, who was attorney general then. I ended up having a long conversation with him and Hillary. I was so impressed with him that I wrote a column when I got back and we kept in touch.”
Then in 1987, Germond went back to Arkansas and spent several days with Bumpers, “to see if he still had his fastball and was going to run for president.” Bumpers and Clinton, who was then governor, were sharing a plane, and Germond flew around the state with them but paid little attention to Clinton. “It was clear he was miffed,” Germond said.
Cinton never forgot the snub, and pointedly reminded Germond of it during an interview at the White House five years later, Germond recalls. “And here’s a guy who couldn’t remember Monica.”
Germond says he thought Clinton would be a good president because of his political smarts and command of the issues. “But he turned out to be a disaster in his second term,” he says. As for Hillary, Germond considers her “a very capable senator,” but adds, “I wouldn’t vote for her [for president] because I think she’s got this notion of entitlement.”
Although Germond agrees that the so-called mainstream media is going through a difficult transition, he still counsels young people that newspaper journalism “is still worth doing and doing well.
Television doesn’t have the time to do comprehensive coverage of the issues and you can’t get it from bloggers or cable TV, where there’s no judgment process applied.”
He adds, “I look at it this way. I was a reporter for 50 years, getting paid for something I would have paid them to do.”
Before stopping at a local 7-Eleven to buy a copy of the Racing Form to prepare for one of his frequent visits to the Charles Town Racetrack, Germond is asked what he’d like to have carved on his tombstone. He’s uncharacteristically silent, then replies, “Life was a ball.”