Fat Man Fed Up

Read Time:
2m 50sec


How American Politics Went Bad.
By Jack Germond. Random House.
224 pp. $24.95

Jack Germond was always on my list of people I’d like to drink with through a long evening. I’m a political junkie, and he has been immersed in American politics for some 50 years, as a terrific reporter and columnist for the Gannett syndicate, The Washington Star, and The Baltimore Sun, and as a sometime (but not so successful) television talking head on The McLaughlin Group and elsewhere. I wanted to hear him tell war stories. Now, I can cross him off my list. He has written a barroom rant that does the job.

Sort of.

There are lots of stories, although most of the ones starring politicians appeared in The New York Times when they happened, and many of the rest feature Germond as subject—and hero.

But Fat Man Fed Up is more confession than memoir. We see the emergence of a political soul once buried under the pretense of journalistic objectivity: a liberal Democrat with a fondness for cerebral and verbal candidates such as Morris Udall and Bill Bradley, politicians who find it hard to connect with voters but who make terrific drinking buddies. Germond roots for those who stand up for truth and justice but get done in by the dirty deeds of consultants and money—as when John McCain’s voting record on breast cancer was distorted during the 2000 Republican primaries, all to the benefit of George W. Bush, whom Germond describes as “an embarrassment” combining “ignorance and arrogance.”

And therein lies one of the lessons of Germond’s diatribe. Reporters have opinions, strong ones. From drinking with candidates or schmoozing with them in unguarded moments, they think they know who should be elected. But the knowledge drives them crazy, because they’re supposed to be objective.

Something else drives Germond crazy, too. The game of politics has changed enormously since his salad days in the 1960s and ’70s. Today, he says, it’s about apathetic and gullible voters, sleazy consultants, incompetent journalists, and, of course, the dominance of money, which he calls the “easy answer” that explains much of what’s so wrong. But I’m old enough to remember Germond’s good old days a bit differently. When I ran for Congress 32 years ago, I spent most of my time dialing for dollars, and I struggled with the same kinds of conflicts and potential obligations that candidates face nowadays.

No, what made the good old days so good for Germond is that he was a player, influential, close to the decision makers, on a first-name basis with the few hundred people who controlled the political process. What’s not to like? For half of those 50 years, you had to talk with Germond (and The Washington Post’s David Broder, The New York Times’ Johnny Apple, The Boston Globe’s Bob Healy, and a few others) if you wanted to go national. Germond was important. But today, television and the Internet have shrunk the clout of print reporters.

People didn’t get their political news from The Daily Show when Jack was king. Now that he’s off the throne, the mask has come off as well.

—Marty Linsky

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