Jack Germond and His Pals: They Loved Doing It

By Jack Limpert

While at The Washingtonian, I worked a lot over the years with Jack Germond on political stories and yesterday, after Jack died at his home in West Virginia, the magazine’s website posted 10 Germond stories—some by Jack alone and some with Jules Witcover, his longtime collaborator.

In the intro to the collection of pieces, I tried to convey a little of what Jack was like as a political reporter. I met him in 1968—he was the top political reporter for the Gannett Newspapers, I was a Congressional Fellow in the office of Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey.

(Congressional Fellows, a mix of journalists and political scientists, are brought to Washington for a year to work in Congress and they then are supposed to return to their regular jobs wiser about how things get done on Capitol Hill. Almost all of the political scientists go back to their teaching jobs, while many of the journalists stay in Washington, confirming the theory that many journalists apply for fellowships in hopes of finding a better job. I  was in that camp—I was working as a newspaper editor in San Jose, California, wanted out of there, and Washington, D.C., sounded like a great place to go, which it was.)

Congressional Fellows come to DC and, after an orientation, find a Senate or House office to work in and gain Capitol Hill experience. I went to the Senate office of Vice President Humphrey and connected with Norman Sherman, the VP’s press secretary. He put me to work doing routine press stuff—my main job the first months of 1968 was sending telegrams to groups that had invited the Vice President to speak but he wasn’t going to do it. The telegrams were designed to be read at the group’s meeting—the Vice President wanted to say how much he admired and respected the group and its aims and he wanted to be there with them but…

All that changed on March 31, when President Johnson said he would not seek re-election, making Vice President Humphrey the frontrunner for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Suddenly we were in a presidential campaign. The Humphrey press operation was split three ways: The Vice President had one plane, mostly for staff, and Norman was on that plane. The writing press was on a second plane, and that’s where I was, taking care of the needs of the 25 to 75 wire service, newspaper, and magazine reporters who were with us on campaign trips. A third plane was for the broadcast press—it was  called “the zoo plane” because it was thought the radio-TV  types were not as serious about politics as the print journalists. Much of my job was housekeeping—making sure the reporters knew where we were going, making sure their luggage arrived at their hotel room, seeing that they got speech texts and anything else they needed, including a wake-up call in the morning.

My job was not to speak for the Vice President—that was Norman’s role—but being a journalist, I tried to be as helpful as possible, getting reporters as much information and guidance as I could. Most of the reporters, including Jack, were friendly—I was there to help and maybe give them a hint or a hot tip—so at night they often let me hang out with them at dinner.

As I wrote yesterday for The Washingtonian, Jack was one of the leader’s of the pack, deciding where he and the other top reporters would have dinner. And, yes, the dinners operated under the Germond rule—the check was split evenly so you might as well get your money’s worth by eating and drinking as much as Jack and the others.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe how little of the wit and gossip exchanged at those dinners ever made it into print. Back then there was “real news”—what the print guys saw as what political reporting should be. That news didn’t include the gossip and rumors that now almost instantly go onto the web. Jack Germond and Bob Novak, Walter Mears, Jim McCartney, Don Oberdorfer, David Broder, Warren Weaver and the other top reporters had lots of opinions but that was for dinner talk, not their stories. All that began to change in the 1970s as journalists, and some publications, became more willing to report on what was happening behind the political curtain.

And it’s also hard to believe how much influence that small group of top reporters had over other journalists and how the public saw politicians and candidates. The feeling back  in early 1968 was that the Germond-Novak-Weaver-etc. group had decided that Michigan Governor George Romney, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, wasn’t up to running the country and, without being obvious or public about it, and with what they saw as the nation’s best interests in mind, the top reporters, the serious ones, the good ones, should make sure the public got that message. And the Romney campaign went nowhere.

Maybe the biggest change is that covering political campaigns back then often seemed to be a labor of love and some laughter. You had to get up at four the next morning to hit three cities, but dinner the night before with Jack Germond and his pals was the memory that lasted. They loved being reporters, they loved talking about politics, they didn’t want to be rich or famous, they wanted the best for the country. And if Jack was around, everyone enjoyed it more.

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