Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Passing of a 'Giant' Among Journalists

"Before politics was fed into computers and moveable maps came out, Jack Germond had it all in his head."

Walter Mears
Former Associated Press reporter

Journalist Jack Germond, who died last week, was, in the words of colleague Jules Witcover, "a giant" of American journalism.

Many years ago, I read — for the first time — "Marathon," the book Witcover and Germond co–authored on the 1976 presidential campaign. I have read it several times since, each time with greater admiration.

The task was something of a marathon itself. The campaign was legendary at the time because the eventual winner, Jimmy Carter, had been running for a couple of years and, in that time, had risen from virtual obscurity to the presidency.

But you couldn't really tell the story of that campaign without going into a certain amount of detail on the Watergate scandal and the resignation of the man who won the previous presidential election, Richard Nixon.

So, whereas historian Theodore White had the luxury of writing about a single year — and, perhaps, a portion of another — in his groundbreaking accounts of presidential elections from 1960 to 1972, Witcover and Germond had to write about virtually the entire four–year period between the 1972 and 1976 elections.

They also had to write about something that was new in presidential politics at that time. Carter rose to prominence in large part because, unlike previous presidential hopefuls who chose to enter some primaries but not others, Carter ran everywhere. Germond and Witcover chronicled that development meticulously.

Nixon probably was the last president to take the traditional route to the White House. His campaigns in 1968 and 1972 were the transition from old–style presidential politics, in which nominations were decided by delegates who were handpicked by party elites, to modern presidential politics, in which the popular vote in primary elections tends to determine how a state's delegation will vote at the national convention.

And Witcover and Germond were there to report on it — for their contemporaries and the generations to follow.

"Jack was a truly dedicated reporter and had an old–fashioned relationship with politicians," Witcover told the Baltimore Sun. "He liked them, but that did not prevent him from being critical when they did bad things and behaved badly."

Journalists like Germond achieved a new influence on American politics during the transition of which Germond wrote. He was, in the words of NPR's David Folkenflik, "one of the reporters who helped to determine presidential winners and losers."

Howard Kurtz echoed Witcover's sentiment.

"Germond ... was a throwback in more ways than one," Kurtz wrote for Fox News, "a poker–playing, racetrack–dwelling, Falstaffian figure who would close down the bar at New Hampshire's Wayfarer Inn, then be up at 7 the next morning interviewing county chairmen."

Ah, yes, the horse racing thing. That is another passion I shared with Germond. I don't know how Germond came by it.

I've always enjoyed horse racing, but I discovered a true passion for it when I worked as a copy editor for the Arkansas Gazette's sports department.

I don't know if Germond ever did any better than I did at the track. I hope he did.

I do know that he achieved things in journalism I probably will never achieve. And I'm all right with that.

Because there aren't many Jack Germonds — maybe one or two — in a lifetime.

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