Jack Germond, 'Boy on the Bus' and Political Talking Head, Dies at 85

Germond represented both Washington's good old days and a rise of partisanship in political coverage.

Jack Germond, center, at a taping of "'60 Years of Meet the Press" from the Newseum on Nov. 14, 2007, in Washington D.C.

Jack Germond, shown here in 2007, came to represent the good old days of Washington political reporting in recent years.

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The death of political reporter Jack Germond at age 85 is being mourned among the Washington community, with Politico's Mike Allen giving the passing of "one of the last boys on the bus" (referring to the seminal 1973 book about campaign trail reporting) top billing on Wednesday's "Playbook" morning newsletter.

[AP: Cantankerous Columnist Germond Dead at 85 ]

"Jack Germond reflected an era when great political writers traveled [the]U.S., reporting, instead of rehashing polls and DC [conventional] wisdom," Tweeted David Axelrod, former White House adviser.

In her email announcing his death, Germond's wife nodded to his membership in a past era of journalism. "He was fortunate to spend his life working at a job he would have done for free during some halcyon times in the newspaper business," she wrote.

This 2004 New York Times Magazine cover – about the rise of political blogging on the campaign trail – perhaps best represents Germond as an avatar of Washington's good old days, with he and R.W. Apple Jr. looking befuddled over the shoulder of "Wonkette" blogger Ana Marie Cox typing at her laptop.

But before Germond – who covered 10 presidential elections, many of them as a syndicated columnist – became a symbol of what political journalism was before the Internet, he was a participant in an another transition, with his 15 years appearing on the political talk show "The McLaughlin Group." Germond was a panelist on the show, hosted by John McLaughlin, at its start in 1981. "The McLaughlin Group" became known for its quick. jumpy discussions about politics and current events that would often escalate into full-throated debates. Germond voiced the liberal point of view to counter McLaughlin's and other panelists' conservative perspectives.

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"The McLaughlin Group" – which still runs today – is grouped with the rise of "Crossfire" (which will see its own resurrection next month) and other political punditry shows that have been reviled by some for provoking partisanship and polarization in political coverage. The New York Times once described it as a "five barking, squawking, ideologically split pundits who argue national and foreign affairs in a go-to-hell fashion that would have made Walter Lippmann, the patrician columnist of an earlier, gentler age, weep at the loss of any last shred of political gentility."

 

Germond quit the show in 1996 – notoriously faxing McLaughlin "bye bye," a riff on how the host would typically end the broadcast. Germond said his reasons for leaving stemmed from a personal beef with McLaughlin, who he said was "not very considerate."

"It wasn't a comment on the content of the program," Germond said about his exit. "I did it for 15 years so I couldn't have been so disapproving of the content."

However, Germond did become critical of the show itself. "I think there's an awful lot of trash on television. I contribute to it, to some degree, by being on McLaughlin," he said on an 1996 episode of Frontline titled "Why America Hates the Press."

"People ask me, "Why do you do that terrible show?" And I say, "Because it put my daughter through college and medical school." I don't make any bones about it. I wouldn't do it for nothing."

He continued to appear on TV, on NBC's "Meet the Press" and other political talk shows, and continued writing, contributing to The Daily Beast and other outlets. He also had finished a political novel shortly before his death.

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For all Germond did and didn't represent in the evolution of political journalism, he certainly didn't attempt to inflate his own role.

"You don't become a reporter to change the world. You become a reporter because you get paid to satisfy your curiosity about things," he said on Frontline. "If I were a better horse player, I'd become a handicapper full-time, but I'm not."

And being a reporter – and particularly a "McLaughlin Group" panelist – did get Germond something being a horse player wouldn't have. He and the show were spoofed on "Saturday Night Live" – a high form of flattery in Washington.