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Opposites Attract

Germond and Witcover, Still the Best on the Bus

No Way to Pick a President: How Money & Hired Guns Have Debased American Elections

Author:Jules Witcover
Publisher:Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By Van Smith | Posted 1/19/2000

When I first read The Boys on the Bus, Timothy Crouse's out-of-print classic about the press corps during the 1972 presidential campaign, neither the stuffy pinnacles of journalism (The Washington Post's David Broder, The New York Times' R.W. Apple) nor the idiot-savant sideshow acts (Hunter S. Thompson) held much appeal for me. It was the steadfast, lesser-known players, laboring unpretentiously to make sense of the chaos, who seemed to me a worthy class of scribes. Two in particular among these -- Jules Witcover and Jack Germond -- stood out in the crowd.

In 1972, Witcover worked for The Los Angeles Times and Germond for the Gannett chain. Today, the two co-author a column for The Sun and have been working together in political journalism for years. As a result they've developed something of a joint persona in the public eye, but they also work independently -- most recently on separate books detailing their campaign-trail experiences, Witcover's No Way to Pick a President and Germond's Fat Man in a Middle Seat.

That Witcover would write a solemn public-policy critique and Germond an irreverent, insightful memoir demonstrates that, despite their lengthy partnership, each man has retained his own identity -- Witcover as the sincere professor, Germond as the sharp-tongued bon vivant. The Boys on the Bus made this distinction plainly back in 1973, when the two reporters were just friends and colleagues rather than collaborators.

Crouse rated Witcover one of "The Heavies" in 1972 -- one the most influential figures in national political reporting. Witcover didn't quite look the part: "He was a tall but unprepossessing man of 45, with a weak chin, blank eyes, and thinning hair. He had the pale, hounded look of a small liquor-store owner whose shop has just been held up for the seventh time in a year." But Witcover was "a very straight, conventional journalist, deadly serious about his craft," Crouse wrote. "He had given a great deal of thought to his own role as a political journalist, and he was extraordinarily sensitive to the role that the whole press corps played, to its problems and failings."

Witcover suffered from genuine feeling, passion, even outrage, which in his writing he quietly rooted in a solid bed of facts to produce incisive analysis. Rather than leave his personal values at the door in order to prop up the illusion of objectivity, Witcover brought a moral framework -- and thus a hint of activism -- to his job. Ongoing flaws in our political system weighed heavily on him.

Germond was anything but earnest or world-weary. He was a cussin', hard-drinkin' journalist who held no stock in ideology, a Hollywood prototype of the old-school reporter. Crouse described Germond as "a little cannonball of a man, 44 years old, with a fresh, leprechaunish face, a fringe of white hair around his bald head, and a pugnacious, hands-on-hip manner of talking. He was not simply drawn to journalism as a profession; like Hildy Johnson in [The] Front Page, he was addicted to it as a way of life." Germond, Crouse noted, was "a political agnostic, leaning toward liberalism," but he "made a point of being equally cynical about all the candidates."

There's something reassuring about reporters who live through 40 years in journalism and retain their essential character. Witcover and Germond's new books throw this into high relief. In No Way, Witcover doesn't just hint at activism, he issues a well-argued manifesto calling for multifaceted electoral reform. In Fat Man, Germond tells the entertaining story of a life spent covering politics, peppering the text with references to drinking, eating, and gambling.

Witcover backs up his beef with presidential politics with history lessons and well-sourced reportage. His argument boils down to this: Public apathy over campaign-finance law and the electoral process has allowed a growing class of professional pigs to wallow in ever-thickening political slush, a phenomenon that in turn fuels greater apathy. He presents numerous reform proposals along the way, but concludes the book on a pessimistic note: "As long as the American people shrug their shoulders and don't clamor for some better way, we will be doomed to keep on without significant change -- and getting what our collective apathy reaps."

Witcover devotes a chapter of No Way to media criticism. He reviles the "gotcha"-style journalism of recent years, when any gaffe or whiff of past indiscretion by candidates can become headline news. He worries that the modern campaign press corps -- duped by flacks into herding into press planes without access to candidates and listening to repetitive stump speeches while cordoned off from the voters -- is out of touch with presidential hopefuls. Most vehemently, though, he condemns the practice of revolving-door journalism, in which political hired guns and media commentators play musical chairs. He pines for the days when "newspapermen were supposed to report as if they were flies on the wall -- seeing but unseen, or at least unheard."

Germond, perhaps for financial reasons indicated in Fat Man, is not shy about being seen and heard. He's apparently made a good living in the media business, first as Gannett's Washington bureau chief, then as editor of the now-defunct Washington Star, and for the past several years as a television pundit (most famously on The McLaughlin Group) and a regular on the speakers' circuit. Germond has a lot to say and is blessed with a great voice as a writer and speaker; if he can make a buck off of his ideas and observations, more power to him.

Interestingly, Germond takes a swipe at the type of reportorial activism that drives his Sun partner to browbeat readers over public-policy issues. "I have always argued that newspapers should not have any civic purpose beyond telling readers what is happening," Germond asserts in Fat Man. "If the political system is rotting away, as seems to be the case, it is our job to report it but not make the repairs. . . . Stuffy as it sounds, it has always seemed to me that reporters have a certain purity of purpose that would be undermined if we found some cause to espouse."

It's not surprising, then, that Germond admits to covering politics as a game. "I've also been a leading advocate and practitioner of what the political scientists disparage as horse race journalism, which means putting the emphasis on winners and losers rather than the Issues," he writes, in his usual no-nonsense manner. "[A] reporter who doesn't quickly tell the readers what they most want to know -- the score -- won't last long on the beat. Better he should teach political science."

The fundamental differences in Witcover's and Germond's approaches to journalism beg the question: How can they even work together? The answer is that Witcover's solemn idealism and Germond's jovial rationalism balance one another nicely. The inherent conflict between them is one of the things that makes their column interesting.

An anecdote from The Boys on the Bus illustrates nicely the ruling tendencies in Witcover's and Germond's respective characters. Two reporters, in settling a political wager, agree to let actual payment hinge on the winner of a footrace: tall Witcover vs. stout Germond. Witcover names a stand-in who fails to show at the appointed time and place, so Germond wins by default. Thus is the debtor dishonorably discharged from his obligation.

Note that Witcover refuses to play along, presumably on principle, while Germond good-naturedly participates in the game, letting the chips fall where they may. These reactions define the men as well as their new books.

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