Tara McKelvey

Fat Man Speaks Out

Jack W. Germond, 76, has covered politics for half a century for The Baltimore Sun and other publications and is, arguably, the country's most astute political reporter. These days he works in a Charles Town, West Virginia, home office with, as he says, "a huge triple window facing the Shenandoah River." In other ways, too, life seems good. He has lost weight (down to 220 pounds – luckily, still enough to live up to his billing); lives only 10 minutes from a racetrack; and has a new book, Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad. Here, he talks about liberal journalists, October surprises, and why telling Bob Shrum to push off is one of John Kerry's greatest accomplishments.

How did you come up with the title of your book?

In my memoir, Fat Man in a Middle Seat, I talk about how people think covering presidential campaigns is a glamorous way to make a living. In fact, it often involves being trapped on standby in the Atlanta airport on a rainy Friday night and ending up as the fat man in the middle seat on the ride home.

The subtitle of your new book is "How American Politics Went Bad." Can you tell me about that?

Yeah, I'll give you an example. We had this big argument in the press about whether John Kerry had thrown away medals or the ribbons or the pins or both. We know he was the leader of the anti-war movement 30 years ago. Since then, he's had 20 years of public policy. Why was that important? Nobody's going to vote because of the medals.

You say Americans get what they deserve.

It is my thesis that the dumbing down is the fault of the politicians – but not only. It's also the fault of voters because they don't pay attention. And of the press because we don't do a good job. I don't have clean hands. Ordinarily, a book like mine will have solutions. I don't have any. The other day, I was talking to a group of people at a Chicago library. Somebody asked me about the book's pessimistic tone. I said, "You know, if anyone is remotely suicidal, they shouldn't read it."

There are funny parts, and I enjoyed it. But, yes, it's kind of a downer.

It's supposed to be. The people we're electing are terrible.

In your book, your political writing is all about "judgment and detachment." Is it necessary to be detached?

I think it is. You have to understand other people's point of view and not be judgmental, and, yes, you have to have the judgment in a different sense. If you're a political writer in the big leagues, everyone's trying to con you. Politicians ask you for advice during a campaign. Ah, give me a break. We know what they're doing.

But it's seductive, isn't it?

It can be. But you can be friends and stay detached. I enjoy going to the racetrack with Bob Strauss. But I can set that aside when I'm writing about the Democratic Party.

Now you're open about being a liberal. But you weren't always.

I used to give the standard answer that editors like that – and that reporters give. That you're totally objective all the time. And it was such a load of crap I decided to stop doing it. You know, I'm a liberal. So what? I'm also a professional reporter. I'm able to detach myself from my biases and cover a story. Our conservative critics think there's some plot. The only plotting we're doing is to beat Dave Broder every day.

You write, "Being a political liberal seems to entail, among other things, limiting the harsh use of tactics." Should liberals be tougher?

The reason liberals don't work on radio talk shows is they don't have moral certitude. Rick Santorum gets up and talks about purging evil from the Senate when they pass a bill that limits "partial-birth" abortion. He has the kind of certitude you can't find in liberals. In my time, the worst things in campaigns have been done by hardcore conservatives. Look at the campaign against Max Cleland.

So liberals shouldn't –

You're saying liberals take a beating. I think that's true. In June 1988, I asked Michael Dukakis, "What are you going to do about this flag issue?" [As governor, he had "refused to order a daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms," writes Germond. "Republicans were depicting this as evidence of a lack of patriotism."] Michael said, "Oh, Jack, that's crazy. Nobody's going to believe it." But they did. Lies work.

What do you think about the Kerry campaign?

Kerry shouldn't have let that story about putting [John] McCain on the ticket run three or four days. And he shouldn't have floated that trial balloon about not accepting the nomination at the convention. That was manipulative. Otherwise, he's done a pretty good job. The best thing I've heard about Kerry is he quite frequently tells [campaign strategist] Bob Shrum to push off. Bob's a brilliant guy. But he can't always have his way. I don't think [George W.] Bush ever tells Karl Rove to push off.

I heard from a pollster that you're the best political writer in the country – and that you often predict things that come true.

I also make predictions that don't come true.

Can you make a prediction for me?

I think Kerry's going to win – with one caveat: If there's a terrorist attack in late October, Bush will get re-elected. If it happens in early October, people will say, "Wait a minute. Let's think about things."

If I pick a few more winners at the track, I will be. We admired Neihardt because he was comfortable in his own skin without being smug. I am close to that, I guess, but I'm not sure. It's one of those things – well, if you have that quality, you're the last to know. The reason I liked [Tennessee Senator] Howard Baker so much (and thought he'd be a good president) is he knew who he was. He also knew that when people didn't agree with them, they weren't his enemies, just his adversaries. Knowing the difference is an important quality. It's one this White House doesn't seem to understand. Certainly Dick Cheney doesn't.

You once said you wouldn't want to be an editor because you have to listen to reporters whining about the copy desk. So what did the copy desk do to your stories?

When I was at The Washington Star, I was assistant managing editor and the chief political reporter. We couldn't afford both. I'd come back from covering a campaign and reporters would say the copy desk had screwed up their stories. I'd show them one of my pieces and say, "For God's sake, I'm the goddamn boss and I can't get a good headline. What do you want?" It's true. Newsmen always bitch.

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