WASHINGTON — Jack W. Germond, a syndicated columnist and droll TV commentator who became an authority on national politics and championed ‘‘horse race journalism’’ that predicts election winners and losers, died Aug. 14 at his home in Charles Town, W.Va. He was 85.
The cause of death was complications from pulmonary disease, said his wife, Alice Travis Germond, a former secretary of the Democratic National Committee. She told friends in an e-mail that Mr. Germond had just completed writing a novel
As Washington bureau chief of one of the leading newspaper chains, Gannett, and later as a columnist for the Baltimore Sun, he was a dominant figure in political journalism. He spent nearly 25 years sharing a byline in newspapers and books with journalist Jules Witcover.
Mr. Germond built a solid reputation for his aggressive pursuit of news, his skill as a storyteller, the high-level sources he cultivated in Washington and state capitals over 50 years, and a vivid understanding of how the US political system functioned for better and, often, for worse.
While reveling in the persona of an ink-stained wretch — down to the poker playing and whiskey drinking — Mr. Germond was among the first of his breed to make the transition to television. He cut an unlikely TV figure, with a pugnacious manner, bald head, and generous stomach, but his knowledge was unquestioned.
His books, columns, and appearances on such TV programs as ‘‘Today,’’ ‘‘Meet the Press,’’ and ‘‘The McLaughlin Group’’ made him a top interpreter of American politics.
In a profession not known for the humility of its practitioners, Mr. Germond was often said to stand out for his self-deprecating wit. He poked fun at his girth in his memoir, ‘‘Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics’’ (1999), and its follow-up, ‘‘Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad’’ (2004). In the first, he wrote of a career spent as a ‘‘leading advocate and practitioner of what the political scientists disparage as horse race journalism, which means putting the emphasis on the winners and losers rather than the issues.’’
‘‘I would agree that voters need to be told where candidates stand, or pretend to stand, on their concerns,’’ he continued. ‘‘But a reporter who doesn’t quickly tell the readers what they most want to know — the score — won’t last long on the beat. Better he should teach political science.’’
Mr. Germond first made his mark in journalism as a political reporter in New York state for Gannett, covering the rise of Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the 1950s. Mr. Germond became a national political writer in the 1960s and reported on presidential candidates, including Senator Barry Goldwater, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, with whom he said he ‘‘got pretty stiff’’ on scotch during a plane ride after a campaign stop.
It was an example, he said, of an era in which a reporter could get fairly close to a politician without each fearing the other’s motives. ‘‘We started talking about the kids we’d seen in the ghetto that day,’’ Mr. Germond later told the Washington Post, referring to Kennedy. ‘‘He wasn’t trying to plant a story. He was really interested in the subject and really affected by what he’d seen.’’
Gannett promoted Mr. Germond to Washington bureau chief in 1969 at the start of the Nixon White House. He got the job despite what he called reservations by company executives about not only his admittedly liberal political leanings but also his appearance.
Mr. Germond later worked for the Washington Star until it folded in 1981 and then for the Baltimore Sun until he retired in 2001. From 1977 to 2001, he teamed with Witcover, formerly of the Washington Post, to write a syndicated column.
Their column, ‘‘Politics Today,’’ appeared in about 140 papers. They also wrote books that critiqued the presidential campaigns they covered.
Jack Worthen Germond was born in Newton, Mass. His father moved the family around during the Depression, with Jack attending 11 grade schools before graduating high school in Baton Rouge. He played semipro baseball before serving in the Army from 1946 to 1947.
He majored in journalism at the University of Missouri in 1951 and became a sports reporter in Jefferson City, Mo. He transitioned to political writing when he took a job covering city hall for the Evening News in Monroe, Mich., and in 1953, he joined the Gannett chain.
In later years, Mr. Germond grew grimly critical of the changes he saw in politics and journalism. He bemoaned the way a younger generation of reporters appeared hostile toward politicians and the way campaigns had become, in his view, ‘‘totally contrived, mechanized.’’
In short, he was glad to retire.