KABLETOWN – Retired reporter Jack Germond’s longtime fascination with horse racing has a tie to his other great passion: a love affair with presidential politics that dates to the 1950s.
Decades ago during the Nixon Administration, the 84-year-old Boston native learned how to read racing forms from NBC White House correspondent Richard Valeriani as a way to pass time on Election Day.
“Before the returns started coming in, as reporters we all had time to kill,” Germond remembered during an interview at his bucolic home by the Shenandoah River. “I got hooked.”
Soon Germond started frequenting Charles Town Races and then he and his wife of 24 years, Democratic National Committee secretary Alice Germond, found a dream home in Kabletown. During their years working full-time on Capitol Hill, the Germonds used the place as a weekend getaway, but now they make it their full-time base.
Retired from writing for The Sun of Baltimore as well as from TV’s “The McLaughlin Group” – the political shoutfest where he was a left-leaning regular starting from its inception in 1981 – Germond splits his time between watching the horse race for the presidency and perusing The Racing News. He makes the trek to Hollywood Casino once a week or so.
Politics has changed greatly since he first began covering presidential campaigns in the 1950s, said Germond, who earned a degree in journalism and history at the University of Missouri following a stint in the Army.
The single biggest shakeup? According to Germond, that would be “that stupid Supreme Court” that in 2010 found the government cannot ban political spending by corporations in candidate elections. Thanks to the 5-to-4 Citizens United ruling, corporate money has flooded the political marketplace, corrupting democracy, Germond said.
Another factor that has hurt the political process, Germond said, are changes in the way the public stays informed in the weeks and months leading up to Election Day. “Over the years, it’s become more and more superficial,” he said.
Decades ago, most voters learned about the candidates by reading detailed newspaper coverage, but now millions of Americans get their insight into the candidates by watching network and cable TV programs that often are long on opinion and light on facts.
As a talking head on McLaughlin’s show for 15 years, Germond is an expert on the rise of TV as a political game changer.
“When Bob Novak and I shot the pilot, we said afterward, at least we’d get paid for that – we never thought the show would get made, much less take off,” he said. “I never would have predicted TV shows like these would become as popular and as influential as they have, but people love conflict.”
Unfortunately, Germond said, the debate is often not grounded in relevant information. “On all the issues, most [TV commentators] have deep knowledge on a handful of issues and then the rest – well, hum a few bars and we’ll fake it. On TV programs like these, though, thorough reporting isn’t what drives the discussion.”
During his years on TV, Germond continued to write his newspaper column, where he included the results of the substantive reporting he so enjoyed.
“[On TV], you don’t see an appreciation for what represents a serious issue and what is not,” he said. “Instead of focusing on the nuances of each campaign, there’s so much attention paid to issues that aren’t of any importance at all.”
As an example, Germond points to the recent criticism by some Republicans who laid blame on the White House for the security in place at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya where assailants killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11.
“Do we really believe the president ought to be involved and weighing in on every security decision at every consulate and embassy around the world?” Germond said. “What we see are Republicans intent on tearing Obama apart on every possible point of every possible issue.”
Germond – whose books include 2002’s “Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics” and “Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad” published in 2004 – hasn’t been impressed with the Libya criticism or other aspects of the campaign of Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney.
“I covered George Romney in ’67-’68,” said Germond of the Michigan governor who was ahead of fellow GOP challengers as well as President Lyndon Johnson in polls when his offhand remark that he’d been “brainwashed” by U.S. military officials on Vietnam derailed his campaign.
“Although I didn’t agree with him on a lot of issues, leaving that aside, I thought he was a good candidate,” Germond said. “He was as consistent as could be – a straight guy. I can’t imagine him having a son who is so different. It’s striking to me that [Mitt] Romney is such a bad candidate.”
Germond cites a lack of warmth in Romney and says his shifts in stance on abortion rights and other issues will prove a problem with the electorate. “It comes down to this: He’s not a likeable guy,” he said. “And he’s dodging on so many issues now. He’s changed his mind so many times on so many things. It becomes obvious to people after a while that he doesn’t believe a lot of what he’s saying. Only on a very few issues is he at all reasonable.”
There are Democrats in Germond’s line of fire, too – namely, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and the state’s junior senator, Joe Manchin, neither of whom attended the Democratic National Convention last month in Charlotte, N.C., where Alice Germond presided over the roll call of states as Obama’s re-election campaign formally got underway.
“As a West Virginia resident, it’s disheartening to hear Joe Manchin saying he might not vote for Obama,” Germond said. “He can think that, he can do that, but why say it publicly? He’s playing a cheap game.”
But Germond – who also enjoys bird-watching from his library and front deck, hanging out with Freddy, his yellow Lab/golden retriever mix, and entertaining his grandchildren when they visit (his daughter, pediatrician Dr. Jessica Moreland has four children and Alice Germond is grandmother to two others) – isn’t completely without hope for the future of democracy.
“What could change things is if a very forceful candidate with real bona fides were to come along and run a completely different kind of campaign – and win big doing it – then that could make a difference,” he said. “Politics is imitative. If something works, then everyone else tries it.”
Germond says it’s an issue he thinks about often. “I’m spent a lot of hours, sitting around in saloons with lots of reporters, tossing around what it would take [to fix the political process].
“That’s the best I can come up with.”