- The Washington Times - Monday, July 5, 2004

FAT MAN FED UP: HOW AMERICAN POLITICS WENT BAD

Jack W. Germond

Random House, $24.95, 224 pages

Jack Germond is a fat man. But he makes up for it by being short. He is not Mr. Five-by-Five, though he comes close.

More importantly, Mr. Germond is, or rather was, one of the nation’s better political reporters and columnists. Although he is now what one might call semi-retired, he still dabbles in television, writes an occasional op-ed piece, and now and then a book. His first four books were co-authored with fellow columnist Jules Witcover.

His first solo book was titled, appropriately, “Fat Man in a Middle Seat”; now he has followed it with “Fat Man Fed Up,” a book consisting largely of anecdotes and laced with the sort of personal opinions and invective that would not ordinarily fit into a news story or even a political column. But Mr. Germond makes a number of valid points that have to do with today’s politics and news media.

And in the end he finally gets around to telling us why he is fed up. I think the reason is mainly — although he may protest there’s more to it — that he liked the good old days better.

“American politics has gone sour,” he says. “We’ve made a series of mistakes in choosing our presidents.” Who, Democrat or Republican, could argue with that assertion?

The trouble is, the men Mr. Germond preferred either could not be elected or, like his hero Mario Cuomo, wouldn’t run.

Actually, that’s just part of it. The book has a whole chapter at the end devoted to what’s wrong with America — its presidents, its politics and its news media. But you don’t have to wait until then for a list of Mr. Germond’s gripes. Cynicism abounds throughout. For instance, in Chapter 1 the author tells us, “There is no penalty for bad behavior in American politics. No one is paying attention.”

Mr. Germond’s liberal prejudices are a mile wide and every bit as deep; since he makes no bones about his own liberalism and even confesses to atheism, it is not very surprising that he calls the first President Bush “an empty suit” and shows his contempt for any number of other Republicans.

Unfortunately, some of his shots border on being cheap, such as: “I noticed that George W. Bush’s daughters didn’t volunteer to fight in Iraq.”

He also gives us the liberal take on the ending of the Cold War, telling us that “the radical policies of Mikhail Gorbachev” effectively led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan, apparently, was a mere bystander.

Good reporter that Mr. Germond is, there are several spots in the book where it seems he relies on a faulty memory instead of files. Briefly — and Mr. Germond to the contrary not withstanding: Drew Lewis was never governor of Pennsylvania; Christie Whitman was never a U.S. senator from New Jersey; the 1988 presidential campaign of George H.W. Bush was not responsible for the “infamous” Willie Horton TV spot. You could look them up.

And yet in many ways, for people who are interested in politics or the news media, “Fat Man Fed Up” is a fun book, made more so by Mr. Germond’s curmudgeonly approach.

Among other things, he writes about “spinning” the results of debates, about the role of television versus that of newspapers and about liberals versus conservatives. He also dredges up some old political scandals, such as former Sen. Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice aboard the good ship Monkeybusiness.

And, delightfully, he points out the differences between his generation of reporters and today’s generation. His generation — and this is true — sought out sources and spent their nights drinking booze and eating steaks and ribs with them, talking to them, never betraying them. Today’s generation seeks out each other, drinks wine or designer water and eats fish. Unlike the Jack Germonds of the trade, “they tend to go to bed before closing time.”

On the subject of eating, Mr. Germond is not fat for nothing. Though he names R.W. (Johnny) Apple of the New York Times as the press’ No. 1 gourmet, that is modesty speaking. I know from first-hand experience: If you’re going anywhere in this country and you want the name of a good restaurant there, call Jack Germond. He knows.

That expertise alone is enough to make one forgive or at least overlook his contempt, distrust and loathing of most things and persons — with a few exceptions, of course — conservative.

If the author gets around to writing a third book, I hope it will be called “Fat Man Drinking and Dining” or maybe “Fat Man on a Bar Stool.”

Lyn Nofziger, a Washington writer, was a political adviser to President Reagan.

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