Running solo on capital beat

January 08, 2001|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Readers of this space may notice a name missing from the byline today.

My partner of 24 years, Jack Germond, has retired to the hills of West Virginia, conveniently within shouting distance of the Charles Town racetrack, leaving me to continue the column on my own.

We had a pretty good run of it under a double byline, which has several advantages. It enabled us to bounce column ideas off each other daily, to stop to think occasionally about what we were writing and, once in a while, to sneak off to meet other obligations or just play hooky when the mood struck.

More important, we were able to play "good cop, bad cop" with our news sources. Any time either of us wrote a column that angered a source, we could say it was written by the other guy.

This arrangement, however, did not always work out to mutual advantage.

When Jimmy Carter was president, one day I wrote a column that took a little dig at him in passing. As soon as the column hit the street, Jack got a phone call from Jody Powell, Mr. Carter's press secretary, inviting him to the White House for a drink that afternoon.

Jack reported to me that the president complained that the column was always taking potshots at him. He said he knew that Jack, a favorite of his, hadn't written the column in question; it had to be me. Whereupon Jack assured him that we both had written it. Or so he told me.

A few years later, when the senior George Bush launched his first presidential bid, Jack wrote a column quoting Republican leaders as saying Mr. Bush was "peaking" on his announcement day.

I was scheduled to accompany him on his first campaign swing, and when he saw the column he put me in a deep freeze, assuming I had written it. I kept my mouth shut and took my lumps. Or so I told Jack.

In all the years we toiled under the double byline, we never kept track of how many columns each of us wrote. Over the 24 years, I figure we did 6,912 of them, or 3,956 each. Except there was that time Jack went to Hawaii to make a speech, which means I wrote 3,957 and he wrote 3,955. But who's counting?

Mr. Germond doesn't like it known, because it doesn't square with his tough-guy image, but he's really a religious man. Like another well-known religious figure, Jack was also born in a stable -- at Pimlico. Or so it often seemed, to hear him go on about the ponies.

His own stable of political sources is legendary. When he wants to write about Democratic politics, he calls Bob Strauss. When he wants to write about Republican or third-party politics, he calls Bob Strauss.

Once, I called the great man myself and asked him if he really had told Mr. Germond such-and-so. He replied: "Who is this Germond?"

You might be surprised to learn that Jack used to play tennis. Once we challenged our friendly competitors, Rowland Evans, an excellent player, and Bob Novak, who doesn't know which end of the racket to hold, to a high-stakes match.

But we pulled out on learning that Bob intended to substitute his wife Geraldine, a pretty fair player. Jack could have held his own against her, but I was no match for Rowlie.

Outside the news business, Mr. Germond is best known as a television talking head, but within the print fraternity his claim to fame is "the Germond rule." At dinner, the check is always split equally among the diners, no matter how much you eat and drink. This naturally leads to the corollary of ordering "defensively." That is, consume as much as Jack does, or come out on the short end.

Whenever Jack used to be asked how much longer he intended to cover politics, he would say, "Until they get it right." So are we to conclude from his retirement that he thinks they got it right this time around, with the Florida fiasco and the Supreme Court doing a good imitation of Tammany Hall? You'll have to ask him, if you can find him in the hills of West Virginia or in the clubhouse at Charles Town.

Meanwhile, I'll be here still dishing out the political dirt, only now without a "bad cop" to take the heat for me when I offend, which you can be sure from time to time I will.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington Bureau. His latest book is "No Way to Pick a President" (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1999).

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