Jack Germond -- still fat, but fed up

July 25, 2004|By Paul Taylor | Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad, by Jack W. Germond. Random House. 211 pages. $24.95.

Jack Germond has been covering politics for a half a century and is among a handful of reporters for whom the adjective legendary is no stretch. He's a wonderful storyteller. He's got a great pair of ears, each with its own deadly bull detector. Best of all -- as anyone can attest who's read his columns in the Baltimore Sun or watched him crack wise on television -- he knows that the most productive way to watch the game of politics is with a naughty twinkle.

But in this, his second memoir, the fat man has lost his sense of fun. He's "fed up and dismayed" because "American politics has gone sour." Who's the culprit? Well, everyone. The public is ignorant and apathetic. The politicians are poll-driven and craven. The reporters are lazy and obsessed with trivial games of "gotcha." The political culture worships the false gods of money, television, celebrity and simple-minded, moralistic certitudes. Political campaigns -- the great love of Germond's professional life -- have become "useless exercises."

And the problems are so "deeply rooted" that they can't be fixed.

What to make of so sweeping a broadside? Perhaps to start by noting that Germond isn't the first semi-retiree to look over his shoulder with a shudder and worry that the world has gone to hell. It's possible that the biggest culprit here is his vantage point.

But that's not to dismiss Germond's argument: There's a grain of truth to every count in the indictment. Trouble is, he overstates the case and underestimates the American political culture's capacity for regeneration.

At the risk of sounding like a shill for a system everybody loves to hate, let me offer a heretical thought: We're smack in the middle of a terrific presidential campaign. The stakes are huge; the public is paying attention (some passionately so); the turnout is sure to go up this November. Yet I know -- most people are as fed up as Germond with the ads, the money, the blather and the candidates. But despite that, we're going to get big answers to big questions on Nov. 2 -- and that's a pretty good test of any political system.

It's also a backward way of pointing out that the problems Germond writes about peaked in the fat and happy 1990s, when our country was on an extended holiday from history and our politics were particularly small-bore and nasty. The zeitgeist changed Sept. 11, 2001. The political system, warts and all, has been on the rebound ever since.

Since Germond is among the most admirable figures ever to grace the campaign trail (and since he and I have a nodding acquaintance), let me close on a redemptive note. The thesis of this book may be overcooked, but its anecdotes are as delicious as ever. They span half a century of political adventures and misadventures, high and low. Many will be familiar, but in his care they all seem to improve with age.

For example, remember when Wilbur Mills, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, had to be fished out of the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., in the middle of the night with a stripper named Fanne Fox? Mills told the press that Mrs. Mills wasn't along for the evening because she was home nursing a broken foot. That explanation, Germond writes, produced a classic good-news / bad-news political joke.

Mills staffer to Mrs. Mills: "The good news is your husband was out drinking with a stripper and drove his car into the Tidal Basin and a camera crew caught it all on film for the late news on Channel Seven."

Mrs. Mills: "That's the good news? My heavens, what's the bad news?"

Staffer: "I have to break your foot."

Paul Taylor, vice president of the Pew Research Center, is a former political reporter for The Washington Post and was president and founder of the Alliance for Better Campaigns. His book See How They Run was published by Knopf in 1990.

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