Longtime political commentator and columnist Jack Germond has died. Germond was 85. He had a series of physical ailments. Germond spent decades chronicling the successes and failings of political candidates. He did it for the Baltimore Sun and he did it in terms that were accessible and blunt. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, Germond rose to national pop culture status in the medium he respected least, television.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Jack Germond smoked and loved martinis and red wine and fine food. He was almost as round as he was tall and he loved betting on horses. He lived life large and didn't suffer phonies. But here's the thing about Germond, and you don't find much among reporters today, he liked politicians.

JACK GERMOND: By and large, I find that, first of all, most politicians have something, some public purpose they want to accomplish. They are not greedy, as people think they are. Most of them can make more money doing something else. You may not agree with their public purpose but they have one.

FOLKENFLIK: Germond was born in Boston, but also lived in New Jersey and the South, as his father bounced from job to job. He was an editor at his high school yearbook and newspaper in Baton Rouge. After college and journalism school, he took jobs at a series of small city newspapers.

Then, as a political writer for the Gannett newspaper chain, Germond became a boy on the bus - in Timothy Crouse's famous phrase - one of the reporters who helped to determine presidential winners and losers as the parties lost their grasp over big-time politics. Walter Mears of the Associated Press was a rival and friend who said Germond knew politicians from the precinct captains to presidents.

WALTER MEARS: It was the era of the typewriter and the payphone and primitive tools by the likes of people who drink their Evian water now and not the libations that Jack and Jules and I used to close the day with.

FOLKENFLIK: Jules is Jules Witcover, then a columnist for Newhouse newspapers. In the 1970s, the two of them ended up writing a column together, first for the now defunct Washington Star and then The Baltimore Sun. Germond's second wife, Alice, was prominent in the Democratic National Committee, and his own liberalism became more apparent as a commentator, especially on TV.

Germond would battle for more than a decade with the conservative political talk show host John McLaughlin.


GERMOND: You know, Bill Clinton is not absolutely barefoot in this thing. He has the veto pen and there are enough Democrats there...

JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: This Congress is veto-proof, Jack. Just look at the numbers. Look at the numbers.

FOLKENFLIK: It was a love-hate relationship, with an emphasis on the latter. Germond became famous around the country, even spoofed on "Saturday Night Live," yet he ultimately quit the show, saying he had done it for the money. But Jules Witcover says there was something that rang true, both to viewers and to politicians.

JULES WITCOVER: He could be very, very tough, not simply on the television screen, but in his interview. But he could then go out and have a drink or two, or more than a few, with the same politicians and walk away feeling good about himself and having them feel good about him. It was quite a talent.

FOLKENFLIK: Germond titled his 1999 memoir "Fat Man in a Middle Seat," and signed a copy to a newspaper colleague with "another slave to the Sun's whim." He retired at the outset of 2001, telling Bob Edwards on NPR's MORNING EDITION that he could no longer take campaigns driven by focus groups and handlers and the men in suits keeping him at a distance from the politicians themselves.

GERMOND: I got sick of politics, Bob. I particularly got sick of these two candidates this year. You know, you get to the point, you know, you're 72 years old and you're covering George W. Bush and Al Gore and you say, how do I explain that to my grandkids? I mean, that's terrible.

FOLKENFLIK: After retiring, the slave to no one else's whim, he spent a lot of time with his wife and family, and at the racetrack and in completing a long-planned novel shortly before his death. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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