Germond and Witcover -- both between hard covers

On Books

October 17, 1999|By Michael Pakenham

It has become our practice that books by Sun staffers are presented in this space to avoid appearances of hypocritical objectivity. None have I looked forward to more than a pair by two of my most illustrious colleagues: Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover.

They are, of course, that team of Clydesdales whose co-authored column appears on our pages and on many others in the well-informed world. Based in our Washington bureau, they range around the nation and beyond, and have been paired since 1977, first at the old Washington Star.

Jack is 71 and was born in Boston but spent a childhood moving every couple of years --from New England to Mississippi and Louisiana. He has covered politics for 40 years and opined on television for 30, covering every presidential election since 1960. Jules, 72, a New Jersey native, predates him, having begun with the 1952 presidential campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson.

Jules has written 10 books on his own and four others with Jack. Now comes a separate volume from each: "Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics," by Jack W. Germond (Random House, 288 pages, $25); "No Way to Pick a President," by Jules Witcover (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 352 pages, $26).

I can't detach myself from either these books or the authors. I began as a reporter in the 1960s. In Washington for the Chicago Tribune, I first walked into the West Wing of the White House with a laminated press pass in the early summer of 1963 -- clammy-handed with awe for the place and the job while studiously affecting casual professionalism. If Germond and Witcover weren't both at that briefing, I first saw them somewhere about Washington soon after.

Since then, I have wandered far and wide -- at four other newspapers in a half-dozen cities at home and abroad. They have remained Washington-based.

Germond's book is, in essence, the story of his working life. Witcover expresses his heartfelt dismay with American political campaigning -- a deep examination and grim diagnosis of the process of choosing American presidents.

Witcover's book is irreplaceably valuable -- instructive and constructive. Germond's is irresistibly enchanting.

Witcover believes modern campaign regulation has done far more harm than good. He begins, in detail, with the James A. Garfield campaign of 1880 (no, neither Jules nor Jack covered that one) and moves to the present, with references back to the Republic's roots.

His narrative is clear and direct. For all its sophistication and anecdotal richness, it has the virtues of a primer. He lays out and analyses the intricacies of political campaigns in a flowingly readable way, but as comprehensively as a good textbook.

Witcover is realistic, and immensely entertaining, in recalling that presidential politics has been full of outrageous behavior from the days of Jefferson and Hamilton. He covers the rise of television and its heavy contribution to the decay of reportorial standards. He traces the appalling development of professional consultants and managers.

A long chapter called "Rolling the Dice" is a dishily quirky history of the vice presidency -- an office reviled and ridiculed but one that has yielded nine presidents.

Jack Germond's book, while bursting with political history and wisdom, is far, far more personal. If you like newspapering and the classic lore that made "Front Page" and, for that matter, "All the President's Men," you will revel in this book.

Germond weaves a tale of the political goings on in Washington and the nation that made the history of the past 40 years and more -- all sweetened by unflagging personal modesty. He is the sort of reporter of the old school whose self-effacing professionalism raises the question of why anybody needs a new school at all.

I was a reporter, an editorial writer, a columnist and an editor during most of the years he wrote his best stories. Nonetheless, I found it impossible to move swiftly or inattentively through a single page of this book, so lush it is with detail, with flashing insight.

He fought hard, and occasionally gave up convenience as well as income, to remain a reporter. "I didn't want to be the pale guy sitting in the office, shuffling budgets and expense accounts and envying the reporters on the street covering the good stories," he writes. "Not all stories are exciting or interesting, of course. And for every good one, you spend two or three rainy Friday nights at the airport in Atlanta trying to fly standby and ending up as the fat man in a middle seat. But the important thing was the freedom to make your own assignments and to get out of the office to report and write."

And he does so with gusto. I began reading by ticking off the stories that could stand on their own -- or deliciously ornament a dinner talk -- and gave up around 40. I resist the temptation to retell one or two here only because they all are clean and tight and intricate and any one would take half the space of this column.

Germond likes politicians. In truth, he loves them. A precious few are despicable: Richard Nixon, Jerry Springer, when he still was in politics, a handful of others, mostly forgettable. He dismisses George Bush as the "most vacuous" of presidents and Bill Clinton as "the most selfish and egocentric." But otherwise, his is a paternal affection, of a deep heart and clear mind.

It is the sort of love you might imagine in a man who chose to spend his life herding rhinoceroses -- a devotion that goes to the verge of obsession, but is wary -- very, very wary.

And what a joy to read about!

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