Jack Germond, longtime political columnist and pundit, dead at 85

This undated publicity image released by Random House shows journalist Jack W. Germond. Germond, 85, the portly, cantankerous columnist and pundit who covered 10 presidential elections and sparred with colleagues on TV's "The McLaughlin Group," died Wednesday morning, Aug. 14, 2013. He had recently finished his first novel, "A Small Story for Page Three," about a reporter investigating political intrigue, being published Friday. Germond wrote two memoirs, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics," and "Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad." David Burnett,AP Photo/Random House

This undated publicity image released by Random House shows journalist Jack W. Germond.
David Burnett,AP Photo/Random House

Jack W. Germond, the portly, cantankerous columnist and pundit who covered 10 presidential elections and sparred with colleagues on TV's "The McLaughlin Group," has died. He was 85.

Germond died Wednesday morning. He had recently finished his first novel, "A Small Story for Page Three," about a reporter investigating political intrigue, being published Friday.

"He went peacefully and quickly after just completing this novel, a tale he had pondered while writing columns, campaign books, a memoir and covering our politics and politicians," his wife, Alice Germond, said in a note to his colleagues. She said Germond "was fortunate to spend his life working at a job he would have done for free during some halcyon times in the newspaper business."

With Jules Witcover, Germond co-wrote five syndicated columns a week for nearly 25 years, most of that time spent at The (Baltimore) Sun. He was in many ways emblematic of his generation of Washington journalists: He was friendly with the politicians he covered, and he cultivated relationships with political insiders during late-night poker games and whiskey-fueled bull sessions.

"Before politics was fed into computers and moveable maps came out, Jack Germond had it all in his head," said Walter Mears, the former political writer for The Associated Press and a Germond friend and competitor.

"He was a walking encyclopedia on politics and politicians," Mears said. "He worked the telephones - before they were cellphones - and the opening usually was pretty much the same: What do you hear? His style of political reporting was an art form. Sadly, it is becoming a lost art."

Germond, Witcover and Mears were among the "Boys on the Bus" chronicled in Timothy Crouse's seminal account of reporters in the 1972 presidential election.

Later in his career, Germond became arguably the best known of the "Boys," thanks to his irascible appearances on "The McLaughlin Group," where he offered a liberal alternative to conservative host John McLaughlin and fellow panelist Robert D. Novak.

Their dustups were even parodied on "Saturday Night Live," with Chris Farley as Germond and Dana Carvey as a histrionic McLaughlin.

He quit the real show in 1996 after a series of disputes with McLaughlin, sending the host a terse fax that read: "Bye-bye."

He also appeared regularly on TV's "Inside Washington," and was a political analyst for NBC and CNN.

Germond and Witcover's column, "Politics Today," appeared in about 140 newspapers at its peak. The pair launched the column in 1977 for The Washington Star and moved to The Sun four years later when the Star folded.

The dual byline allowed both writers to spend time reporting, and when one was on the road, the other would draft the column and they would confer on it by phone.

Germond and Witcover also chronicled the dumbing down of presidential campaigns and the growing cynicism of the electorate in a series of books with such titles as "Wake Us When It's Over" and "Mad as Hell."

Germond wrote two memoirs, "Fat Man in a Middle Seat" (1999) and "Fat Man Fed Up" (2004). He retired from writing columns after the 2000 presidential election, disgusted with politics.

"I really found this campaign odious. I just couldn't get up for it," Germond told The Washington Post. "The quality of the candidates and the campaign, I just found the whole thing second-rate. I didn't know how to explain to my granddaughter that I was spending my dotage writing about Al Gore and George W. Bush."

In "Fat Man Fed Up," he wrote that "after 50 years of exposure to thousands of politicians, I am convinced that we get about what we deserve at all levels of government, up to and including the White House."

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