End of the Trail

updated 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/05/2001 AT 01:00 AM EST

Jack Germond always swore he would keep covering politics "until they get it right." But when the nationally syndicated columnist for the Baltimore Sun retired last month—after 50 years in the business—it wasn't because D.C.'s power brokers had finally cleaned up their act. "I'm sick of politicians," says Germond, 73, who started the column he cowrote with Jules Witcover in 1977. "Campaigns today are totally contrived, mechanized." And don't get him started on the players: "I thought Bush and Gore were extraordinarily bad, weak candidates. But that's partly me. You get tired of it—the same old story."

That story captivated him for almost half a century. The only child of an engineer and a homemaker, Germond was raised in Boston, Baton Rouge and points between. After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1951, he became sports editor for the Jefferson City Post-Tribune and later covered state politics for the Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union. In 1974, with three presidential campaigns under his belt, he snagged a columnist slot at the Washington Star. "He was a political junkie," says Witcover, 73, who teamed with Germond at the Star before it folded in 1981. "He had a real love for politics."

He was equally fond of the campaign-trail lifestyle. "Jack was a journalist of the old school—a poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, cigarette-smoking, evil young man," says his conservative pundit pal Robert Novak, a former sparring partner on TV's The McLaughlin Group, where the liberal Germond was a regular from 1982 to '96.

Married to copy editor Barbara Wippler in 1951, he had two children with her (Mandy, who died of leukemia at 14, and Jessica, 34, now a doctor). After they divorced in 1993, Germond wed political activist Alice Travis, now 57. Today they share a house overlooking the Shenandoah River in Charles Town, W.Va. With his column turned over to Witcover, Germond, whose memoir Fat Man in a Middle Seat was published in 1999, plans to frequent the racetrack, freelance for The Sun and keep up his weekly gig on the local talk show Inside Washington. He discussed his life in politics with PEOPLE contributor Robin Tunnicliff Reid.

Journalism was a great way to make a living. It was fun. Nowadays reporters drink white wine and eat salads. They go to their rooms, transcribe their notes and go to the gym. We never did that. On the campaign trail we used to file by 8 or 9 at night, then we'd go to dinner. I'd have a steak and drink vodka martinis or scotch. After dinner we'd go back to the hotel for a nightcap. There would be a poker game in the pressroom.

In the old days journalists got to know politicians better than they do now. Today the pols have so many handlers who try to keep them from talking to the "pressies," as I once heard a Gore aide calling us.

Politicians as a group are very good company. They're analytical, detached, most of them are funny, though not always intentionally. I remember I went to see George Wallace once in Alabama, and I knew how sensitive he was about the press. One story I'd seen mentioned his wife, Lurleen, brushing dandruff off his shoulders. I said, "I've been reading about you a lot lately," and he jumped up and pointed to his shoulders and said, "You don't see any dandruff?" He was serious.

In all the years I've known presidential politics, there's never been a time that either party nominated the candidate I thought was best. We used to judge them mostly on what kind of a story they were. Sometimes the story could be very big. I was there the night Bob Kennedy got shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in L.A.; I was walking along a parallel corridor. I heard shots, and when I came in he was on the floor. Later I went over to the hospital and there were a couple of middle-aged black women kneeling on the grass outside the emergency room wailing and praying for Bobby. I remember some entrepreneur showed up selling Pray for Bobby bumper stickers. There's always somebody. Bobby died the next night.

I thought Jimmy Carter was a good public official. He was also a nice guy. I was traveling with him in early '75, and he was asking about my family. When I told him my daughter Mandy had leukemia, he sort of teared up and looked out the window. A few weeks later, there came a package addressed to her in pencil in his hand, and inside were these two arrowheads he'd found on his farm. It was a lovely gesture.

Hubert Humphrey was a marvelously effervescent, positive guy. I remember being at a party for Walter Mondale in 1977, when Hubert was well along in his cancer. He was almost skeletal; it was clear he wasn't going to live. But he was playing the piano, dancing with his wife. I started to leave, and I had this heavy Burberry overcoat. Someone grabbed it and held it up for me. It was Hubert, sweat running off his head. He was so determined that he wasn't going to let it get him down.

I got to know Clinton in 1978, when he was running for governor of Arkansas. I must say, he conned me right out of my shoes. He knew so much and was so articulate. But he turned out to be such a disaster.

But at least he was a formidable political leader. Here were Gore and Bush, neither of whom had ever really done anything other than politics to distinguish themselves. One would get ahead in the polls and the public would say, "Oh God, we don't want him." So the polls would shift. Then a couple of weeks would go by and they'd say, "Four years of him," and the polls would shift back.

The polls control everything now. I can remember Lyndon Johnson carrying a poll in his jacket pocket, which he would pull out and make some point. But there used to be only three or four polls; now there are 30. And the politicians pay attention to them. When Bush was first advanced as a candidate, nobody knew him, but the polls showed him as the favorite with Republicans. I was at a Republican southern regional conference in '98 and everybody thought he was the favorite there. You'd say to these people, "What do you like about him?" They didn't know, they just knew he was ahead in the polls. I got so sick of the Gore-Bush race that rather than listen to the news on my car radio, I started listening to classical music. I've gotten so I like it. Chopin. Mazurkas, for Christ's sake.

Politics have gotten nastier as well as duller. In the old days conservatives hated progressive Republicans as well as Democrats, but they thought they were wrong on the issues, not morally off. Now if you're on the wrong side, you're beyond the pale. Part of this is the religious element of the conservative movement. But some of the liberals are pretty goddamn smug too.

It's not just politics that's changed, it is the people who cover it. They don't like politicians, and they don't see being a political reporter as a long-term career. They see the job as a way station to becoming managing editors. During the primaries I was amazed at the number of reporters who had dinner together without getting a candidate or campaign manager to go with them so they'd have somebody's brain to pick. We always used to try to make somebody go to dinner with us.

But working the campaign trail is as grueling as it ever was. You have to get by on very little sleep. And it's hard on your family. I didn't spend as much time with my kids as I should have. When Mandy got sick, it was difficult because I was doing this job and traveling. When she died in 1977, my whole attitude changed. Reporters would come in to complain about something and I'd think, "That's not important." Losing a child is a defining thing.

So now I'm going to sit on my deck and watch the birds. I'll probably write another book. The one thing I won't do is run for office. I couldn't stand giving the same speech three times a day.

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