It’s easy to spot Jack Germond; most know him as the heavy, liberal columnist whose blunt insights were a regular feature on the lively television program, The McLaughlin Group.
The show, hosted by boisterous former Jesuit John McLaughlin, features a panel of journalists, including the unlikely Germond--until recently. He writes about the split in his memoir, Fat Man in a Middle Seat, which chronicles his career.
Germond’s image as the irascible pundit is part of his appeal. The reporter, who writes a syndicated column with Jules Witcover, writes about former President Ronald Reagan and the late Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, neither of whom he liked, with characteristic candor. Germond’s account of 1968 Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Robert
Kennedy’s assassination at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles is revealing not so much for his reverence of Kennedy—Germond’s an unabashed liberal—as for his refusal to propel the Kennedy myth.
As he talks about his career, McLaughlin, the 2000 presidential race, and the media’s credibility at coffee shop in Glendale, California, it’s clear that, if he’s grown weary of politics, Jack Germond is pleased to have at least been armed with a notebook and a pen.
Is political change on the horizon with the 2000 presidential race?
It depends on who wins. If Democratic presidential candidate Bill] Bradley or [Republican presidential candidate and Arizona Sen. John] McCain gets elected, yeah, we’ll see a change. I saw [former CNN commentator Pat] Buchanan the other day. He’s the most cynical—taking that money to go to the Reform Party. The only reason he’s doing it is to get $13 million in federal campaign dollars. He’s dangerous but he has no chance of winning. I like Pat and I’ve always liked him but I think he’s scary. He’s never had any chance. This country’s not dumb.
Predict the 2000 presidential race: Who will win the White House?
Is today’s media part of the establishment?
Some people are too cozy but some people aren’t. Most reporters are told that to get stuff in Washington they have to go to the right dinner parties—that’s total crap. The news depends on who you call and who calls back.
What quality makes you unique as a journalist?
Detachment. Even the best stories require detachment. I was here in Los Angeles the night Bobby Kennedy was killed. They had this train to Washington as they were shipping the body back to New York and all the reporters who were covering the campaign wanted to follow the train and see it to the end. I didn’t think that was my function. Some of these Kennedy watchers thought they were part of the Kennedy experience. They weren’t. They weren’t there to be a part of it. They were there to observe and to write about it, report it, photograph it. There’s this sort of cult in Washington—I’ve seen it all these years—of people who think of themselves part of the Bob Kennedy campaign. It was the most exciting campaign I’ve ever covered, but it was just a campaign.
Detachment has sustained me in a long career because I really don’t care who wins. I care if a Nazi is elected president or something but within the limits of the people we nominate in the system, I don’t care who’s president or senator—I certainly don’t care about senators, they’re trivial—what’s important in my life is my daughter and my friends and I’m able to satisfy my intellectual curiosity about things and get paid to do it. I get paid to write—I still get a kick out of seeing my name in the paper after all these years. I look at my byline, I read my column and I’m not shy about saying that. And I know this country and politics like the back of my hand. I know people everywhere. It’s a wonderful way to make a living. I wouldn’t do anything else—the truth is I can’t do anything else—but I wouldn’t want to anyway.
Why is objectivity necessary for a good reporter to possess?
Because the reporter is supposed to analyze what’s happening, not what he’d like to see happen. Occasionally, I’ve made a mistake. I’ve let wishful thinking intrude on what I report. I wrote a piece for the New Republic in 1969 on the Los Angeles mayoral campaign between [incumbent] Sam Yorty and Tom Bradley, that Los Angeles was ready to get rid of Sam Yorty. I was hoping he would get beaten, I guess, and it colored my reporting. [Yorty won]. I learned a valuable lesson in that:
Don’t leave the city ten days before the election. I just found Yorty so offensive. I learned that offensive guys win elections—they do it all the time. Look at [North Carolina Sen.] Jesse Helms.
Some journalists claim objectivity is impossible. Is the trend toward subjective news analysis dangerous?
It is. It’s very hard to achieve objectivity. It’s not hard if you’re covering a fire but it is if you’re covering the interplay between two different people. But objectivity is possible and it is essential.
What’s the best story you never wrote?
[The fight for civil rights in] Selma [ Alabama]. Because it’s a gap [in my career]. I didn’t cover enough civil rights. I would like to have been in Selma.
Why did you stop appearing on The McLaughlin Group?
[McLaughlin] became impossible to deal with off the air. It was a very small part of my life and I found I was getting angry every week and I don’t get angry about anything else so I just quit. I’m now appearing on Tim Russert’s [NBC program] Meet the Press, a show that I was not allowed to go on when I was on The McLaughlin Group. I had to do some television to maintain my income. But I didn’t have to do it with [McLaughlin] and I should have [quit] five years earlier. He made it so difficult to do. It was insufferable. And I’ve said all this to his face. It’s one of those decisions I never look back upon.
Have you heard from McLaughlin since you wrote the book?
No. I’ve seen John a couple of times at functions in Washington. But, in spite of his public personality on the air, John is the least confrontational guy I’ve ever met. He’s afraid to face anything. When [CNN commentator Robert and former McLaughlin panelist] Novak wanted to talk with him, when [Novak] was quitting the show, [McLaughlin] wouldn’t even see him or talk to him. That’s what pisses me off. When he was angry with me, he’d never say so, he’d always send one of his kids—one of his producers—to talk with me. He’s just a very odd guy. [Being on the show] put my daughter through college and medical school and allowed me to be a reporter.
Are there any journalistic opportunities you missed?
I’ve been offered a lot of jobs in politics. I just didn’t want to do that. None of this was difficult for me because I didn’t want to do anything else. Once I learned that I couldn’t play center field for the [ New York] Yankees, it was all over. I was committed and it wasn’t hard for me. I like the [ Baltimore] Sun. It’s a good newspaper. It’s news. It’s straight ahead reporting: Find out what happens and put it in the paper. They do that and that’s what I like about them. They’re good people to work for. Because we’re not on full-time staff, [Jules Witcover and I] are in charge of our own schedules and that’s what you want in this business. I’m in control of my own life. If it’s Thursday and I’ve finished the column and there’s nothing going on, I go to the racetrack. No harm in that.
This 1999 interview was published in the Arizona Republic.