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Los Angeles Times Interveiw

Jack Germond

A Reporter of the Old School Grades the New Political Class

January 16, 2000|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is national editor of The Times

For four decades, Jack W. Germond has crisscrossed America, taking the measure of its politicians and the temperature of its voters. While much of the electorate may be fed up with politics, this crusty political columnist still has a passion for the process and the players. As the 2000 presidential campaign nears its first crucial tests, in Iowa next week and New Hampshire the week after, Germond is bouncing between those states, studying this latest crop of presidential wannabes.

Germond is 71 now and will turn 72 two days before the New Hampshire primary. Having covered every presidential campaign since 1960, he proudly considers himself a political reporter from the old school. But, he asserts, "The generation of political reporters behind me is very good, every bit as good as we were." Then adding, "Not better. But as good."

He does see a couple of differences, though. For one thing, they "don't drink as much as we do and they don't play poker. The woman have had a civilizing effect." For another, many political reporters today want to be editors. "When my generation got to be political reporters, we had the job we wanted to have for the rest of our lives," he says. "We had the best job we could have."

Forty years of observations from that job are chronicled in Germond's recent autobiography, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," a reference to all the times he flew standby on rainy Friday nights to cover one politician or another.

Germond, with Jules Witcover, still writes a highly respected five-day-a-week column of political analysis for the Baltimore Sun. But he is more widely known from television, where his quick-witted, no-nonsense style was on display for 15 years on "The McLaughlin Group." He resigned from the show in 1996, having grown tired of the off-camera antics of the moderator, John McLaughlin. ("He was always irked when I [would say] that it was 'just television' and that my 'serious job' was writing a newspaper column," Germond writes in his book.) But he is still on television, appearing regularly on "Inside Politics" and occasionally on "Meet the Press" and "Hardball."

Germond lives in Washington and West Virginia. His wife, Alice, is executive vice president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League. Their daughter, a physician, is on the faculty and staff at the University of Iowa Medical Center in Iowa City.

When not covering politics, Germond can be found, at least once a week, playing the ponies at the racetrack. It's his way of escaping. Thoroughbreds, he says with a chuckle, "are nicer animals than politicians."

Question: One has the impression that people today are less interested in politics than at any time in the more than 40 years you've been covering it.

Answer: Yeah, I think they are more turned off by the politicians than they've ever been. And the reason for that is quite clear: In 1992, you had a sort of suspension of disbelief or triumph of hope over experience, . . . I don't know what you'd call it. But all of a sudden the voters said: "We're really worried about the economy, and we think you can change it through the political system." So they voted out George Bush and put in Bill Clinton. . . . What they saw after they did this was the same gridlock between Congress and the White House. . . .

The megastory about this year's campaign, if there is one, is whether or not the candidates who are perceived as independent of politics, not tainted by "politics as usual"--McCain and Bradley--prosper. So far, they are.

Q: Are the candidates willing to tell people what they don't want to hear? Are they leading or following?

A: I think the reason McCain and Bradley are the story at this point is because they are willing to take some chances and do some things.

Maybe, in McCain's case, there is no option. But the fact that he is defying the establishment as blatantly as he is carries with it risk. It might be the only strategy available to him, but let's leave that aside.

He is very blunt; . . . when he makes mistakes he says so. And he's very available to the press. He sits on the bus every day and says whatever is on his mind.

Bradley is interesting because he is trying to lead in areas in which his position is counterintuitive and counter to polls.

Q: In what way?

A: The best example is the race question. It's been an unspoken article of faith among Democrats in the last 10-12 years that you make your appeal to black Americans as invisible to other Americans as possible.

Clinton arranged his schedule in 1992 so his events with blacks came after the evening news or were early in the day, so they would be trumped later in the day by something more visual. It was a very deliberate strategy, and it worked.

Now Bradley comes out, and he has five main areas in which he offers leadership. And one of them is race. . . .

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