The chair that Jack Germond sat in as one of the original panelists on The McLaughlin Group still reflects his presence, even though it’s been more than 16 years since he last appeared on the show. The chair hasn’t been replaced; it’s still the same worn blue chair that leans to one side just as the portly Germond did. And while many others have occupied the seat, it will always be Jack’s for those of us lucky enough to know him and to appear with him on television.
An old-fashioned shoe-leather reporter, Germond knew every state party chairman in the country. They were his drinking buddies, the network of human connections that made him a great reporter long before the Internet and social media came along to change how journalists interacted with sources in cyberspace instead of at the local bar. Jack died today at age 85 at his home in West Virginia, where he’d retired in order to be closer to the Charles Town racetrack.
Nothing impressed Jack. He’d seen it all before, and the first time I did the McLaughlin Group in the ’80s, he sought to allay my anxieties by saying, “It’s just television; it doesn’t have the power of the written word. It just goes out there and breaks into a million pieces.” While other panelists would sit in the green room working on their “spontaneous one-liners,” Jack’s phrase, he would be working on a racing form, or a crossword puzzle, as if to underscore his belief that television was just barely worth his time.
Truth is, Germond was one of the first—if not the first—print reporter to make it as a pundit on television. Jack was so old school, he didn’t like to call himself a journalist; he said that was a word reporters only used when they were out of work and looking for a job. He hated anything that was highfalutin, and he had a BS detector—his phrase again—that was unmatched in the business. The actor Tom Arnold played him in an iconic Saturday Night Live skit in 1991 where moderator John McLaughlin, played by Dana Carvey, barks out “Germondo” as Arnold lists to one side in the Jack chair.
Germond had the highest Q-rating of any of the panelists, meaning he was the one that most people tuned in to see and could relate to. Asked which panelist you’d most like to have a drink with, the answer was always Germond even though he was congenitally grumpy. That was part of the appeal: you couldn’t impress him, and he wouldn’t go out of his way for you. What you saw is what you got, and in politics, where there is so much posturing, that is a rare quality to be appreciated.
The McLaughlin Group gave him a notoriety that was unusual for a print reporter in his day, but he often said the only reason he stayed a panelist was to put his daughter through medical school. He seemed somewhat embarrassed to be enjoying celebrity status, but it wasn’t lost on the rest of us that he continued doing the show long after his daughter had graduated and was a practicing physician.
There was no point in challenging his cover story, especially knowing how proud he was of his daughter. Jack had another daughter who died of leukemia in 1977 when she was 14 years old. If I remember correctly, Jimmy Carter, running for president and knowing she was ill, had sent her an arrowhead that he found on his farm in Georgia.
Jack’s second wife, Alice Germond, a longtime officer of the Democratic National Committee, announced his death Wednesday morning in an email to friends. “I think he was a great reporter,” she wrote. “He had a bold journalistic ethic, and that matters. He was fortunate to spend his life working at a job he would have done for free during some halcyon times in the newspaper business.”
Jack didn’t necessarily identify as a Democrat. He was too cynical about politics, and he could spot phonies whichever party they were in. The last time I spoke with him was last summer, before the political conventions, when Mitt Romney looked like a strong contender to win the election. Not so, said Jack, summing up the contest in just a few words. Obama will win, he said. “People don’t like Romney, and they don’t vote for people they don’t like.” Words of wisdom handed down from the Fat Man in a Middle Seat, Germond’s memoir of 40 years of reporting in a business whose methodology has changed, but whose essence of excellence he will always embody.