Jack W. Germond, political columnist, dies at 85

Jack W. Germond, the irascible, portly columnist and commentator who was a fixture on the American political scene for nearly 50 years, including nearly 20 of them in The Baltimore Sun's Washington bureau, died Wednesday morning of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at his home in Charles Town, W.Va. He was 85.

"Jack was a truly dedicated reporter and had an old-fashioned relationship with politicians. He liked them, but that did not prevent him from being critical when they did bad things and behaved badly. That was a trademark of Jack's," said Jules Witcover, his longtime writing partner.


"Jack enjoyed his life and work. He personified that," said Ernest B. "Pat" Furgurson, former chief of The Sun's Washington bureau. "He had a positive personality, but when he was bitching about something, and in that mood, he'd suddenly say, 'Isn't this a great job?' "

The only child of an engineer and a homemaker, Jack Worthen Germond was born in Boston and was raised there and in Baton Rouge, La. He served in the Army from 1946 to 1947.


After graduating in 1951 from the University of Missouri, where he earned degrees in journalism and history, Mr. Germond became sports editor of the Jefferson City Post-Tribune. Later that year, he became a columnist for the Evening News in Monroe, Mich.

From 1953 to 1973, he was a reporter for the Rochester Times-Union and was Washington bureau chief for Gannett Co. newspapers from 1969 to 1973.

He left Gannett in 1974 when he joined the Washington Star as political editor and was named assistant managing editor in 1977. While at the paper, Mr. Germond and Mr. Witcover began writing their column, "Politics Today," in 1977.

He remained in those positions until the paper folded in 1981, when he and Mr. Witcover were hired by The Evening Sun.

"They were strong anchors for the paper's political coverage and for years made it a better paper," said Ernest F. Imhoff, a retired Evening Sun and Baltimore Sun editor.

"And during national political campaigns, they went way beyond the column and wrote long stories about them," said Mr. Imhoff. "People trusted the Fat Man because he knew so much about politics and they liked him. He certainly raised the stature of the paper."

When The Evening Sun ended publication in 1995, the columnists moved over to its sister paper, where they continued co-writing five syndicated columns a week.

In addition to writing the column, Mr. Germond crisscrossed the country covering 10 presidential campaigns, beginning in 1964 with the race between Lyndon B. Johnson and Barry Goldwater and ending in 2000 with his retirement after the conclusion of that year's presidential race.

"I particularly got sick of these two candidates this year," he told Bob Edwards, host of NPR's "Morning Edition." "You're 72 years old and you're covering George W. Bush and Al Gore, and you say, 'How do I explain that to my grandkids?' I mean, that's terrible."

Mr. Germond's looming presence and towering reputation on the campaign trail were captured in Timothy Crouse's 1973 book, "The Boys on the Bus: Riding with the Campaign Press Corps."

Mr. Germond was known for mentoring younger reporters.

"I started covering politics in the 1980 presidential campaign for Newsday, and Jack was the sage when it came to politics. He was the guy you went to when you were a junior reporter," said Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today.


"As a political reporter, Jack had perfect pitch. He instinctively grasped the significance of campaign developments as they unfolded, a rare talent which helped make him a great campaign handicapper. Readers benefited from his insight, as did his colleagues at The Sun and other publications," said Paul West, former Sun White House correspondent.

"His extensive contacts with politicians themselves, developed over many years, informed that judgment. He constantly worked his sources around the country," said Mr. West, who added that Mr. Germond judged his fellow reporters by how frequently their phones rang.

"And he hated the way modern campaign management all but eliminated interaction between candidates and reporters," he said. "He was quick-witted, self-deprecating and beneath a gruff, world-weary exterior, warmhearted."

"Journalism was a great way to make a living," Mr. Germond told People magazine in 2001. "Nowadays, reporters drink white wine and eat salads. They go to their rooms, transcribe their notes and go to the gym. We never did that."

Until the old-style campaign coverage was altered because of the rise of cable TV, Twitter and other social media, Mr. Germond heartily enjoyed the rigors and fun that came with the campaign trail.

"Jack was a journalist of the old-school — a poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, evil young man," Robert D. Novak, the conservative pundit who frequently clashed with Mr. Germond on "The McLaughlin Group," said in the People interview.

Their celebrated clashes found their way to "Saturday Night Live," with Chris Farley as Mr. Germond and Dana Carvey portraying Mr. McLaughlin, the show's host.

He also became a regular on "Meet the Press" and "Inside Washington" and was a political analyst for NBC and CNN.

When his stories had been filed, Mr. Germond looked forward to eating, drinking and perhaps a late-night card game.

"When fellow reporters were out with Jack, we always evoked 'the Germond rule,' where the check was split evenly among the diners," said Mr. Witcover. "It was best to keep up with Jack and eat and drink as much as he did or come out on the short end when the bill arrived."

Though he retired in 2000, he continued to occasionally freelance for The Sun, appear on TV and give speeches.

He wrote several books with Mr. Witcover and two memoirs, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat" and "Fat Man Fed Up." He had recently completed his first novel, "A Small Story for Page Three."

He enjoyed going to the racetrack several times a week.

At Mr. Germond's request, there will be no services.

"Jack will be cremated and his ashes strewn in the Shenandoah River. He began and ended his days looking at that river, and that is where he'll spend eternity," said his wife of 18 years, the former Alice Travis Ruby, who recently stepped down as secretary of the Democratic National Committee.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Dr. Jessica Germond Moreland of Iowa City, Iowa; two stepchildren, David Travis and Abigail Travis, both of Los Angeles; and six grandchildren. Another daughter, Mandy Germond, died in 1977 at age 14 of leukemia. A first marriage to Barbara Wippler ended in divorce.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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