By Jules Witcover
4:41 PM EDT, August 14, 2013
American journalism has lost a giant in the passing at 85 of Jack Germond, my longtime pal and partner in the joyful chronicling of the antics and outrages of political reformers and rogues alike over the last half-century.
Long before we teamed up to write a newspaper column at the old Washington Star and then at The Baltimore Sun, and eventually to write four books on presidential campaigns, Jack was in the vanguard of holding politicians' feet to the fire. He retained a skepticism about what they told him, but with respect for the best of them and a genuine affection for the many bad boys.
In our smart-aleck craft, it was often declared that the only way to look at a politician was down. But Jack privately considered politics a high calling that most of its practitioners tried their best to live up to. At the same time, he reveled in his frequent encounters with the likes of George Wallace of Alabama, Edwin Edwards of Louisiana and Willie Brown of California.
In 1967, when Gov. George Romney of Michigan was running for the Republican presidential nomination and couldn't make up his mind about the Vietnam War, Jack informed his colleagues that he had just had a special key installed on his portable typewriter that, when struck, printed: "Romney later explained." It could have served well 45 years later when George's son Mitt frequently foundered on his own predisposition to make gaffes.
For years as friendly rivals laboring for obscure newspaper chains, we shared interviews with the meek and the mighty on the campaign trail, and endless drinks and dinners across the country as "the boys on the bus" whose own antics were chronicled by a young Timothy Crouse.
Jack was the chief toastmaster of what was then a small band of year-round candidate-chasers who faithfully abided by "the Germond Rule." It held that the night's dinner bill was split evenly among us, regardless of consumption of food and booze. Because of Jack's prodigious intake of both, a corollary soon evolved known as "eating and drinking defensively." That is, if you didn't keep pace with Jack, you literally paid for it — or at least your newspaper did, via your expense account.
In those days, Jack was already well known in our pack as an inveterate horse player. Inevitably, he came to be called "Nicely Nicely" in our circle, as in the "Guys and Dolls" character, a Germond double, who sang, "I got the horse right here/ The name is Paul Revere."
When we teamed up in 1977 at the Star, we often played the good cop/bad cop routine, each of us able to blame the other guy when a column one of us wrote caused a politician to complain. But sometimes, too, one of us would take the bullet for the other when it unjustly came our way. That was the nature of playing duet pianos in the house of ill repute called political writing.
In 1988, when the senior George Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running mate, Jack and I rushed to interview a mutual Republican source, Joe Canzeri, who had been assigned to "handle" the rookie in national politics. Joe told us: "He was like a kid. Ask him to turn off a light, and by the time he gets to the switch, he's forgotten what he went for." Naturally, if unkindly, we wrote it.
After the election and our book on the campaign came out, Mr. Quayle, who had erred in that campaign debate by comparing himself to John Kennedy, graciously came to our book party and spoke. Referring to our acknowledged peer in campaign chronicles, he said: "I knew Teddy White. Teddy White was a friend of mine. And you guys are no Teddy Whites."
Mr. Quayle was certainly on the money there. But Jack by then had become just as acclaimed and widely recognized, playing nobody but his pugnacious self on television as the font of all irreverent but informed wisdom about the great American pastime of politics.
When asked how much longer he would continue to cover politics, Jack always replied: "Until they get it right." But he retired after the 2000 presidential campaign and moved near a racetrack in West Virginia. There he eventually penned a political novel, just finished, keeping his hand in, committed to the end to what always was a labor of love.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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