Germond gives us what we deserve


Fat Man Fed Up: How American Politics Went Bad. By Jack Germond. Random House. 224 pages. $24.95.

Most viewers of political talk shows are familiar with Jack Germond, a bald, acerbic, and refreshingly overweight newspaper columnist with a gravelly voice, a twinkle in his eye, and generally common-sense views on most issues.

But few know that he got his start covering city hall in Monroe, Mich., where the publisher of that family-owned newspaper, JS Gray once told him that when it comes to government, "we get about what we deserve."

Mr. Germond went on to the big time, covering every presidential election since 1964, and working for papers including the Washington Star and the Baltimore Sun. (His memoirs, Fat Man in a Middle Seat, appeared five years ago.) Now semi-retired, he has written this chatty yet sobering new book as sort of a genial and cynical warning and wake-up call to his countrymen.

Half a century after getting that homespun observation from his first publisher, Mr. Germond concludes "he was right. Today, after 50 years of exposure to thousands of politicians, I am convinced that we get about what we deserve at all levels of government."

That is, he makes it very clear, not a good thing.

"Because so few Americans understand the political process or bother to follow it with even a modicum of attention, we elect presidents as empty as George H.W. Bush or as self-absorbed as Bill Clinton."

No, this isn't a let's-be-respectful-of-our-leaders book. Nor of just about anybody else. Old Jack gives it to the press - including himself - for not doing a good enough job of covering politics and government.

But he also gives it to all of us, dear readers, for not paying sufficient attention to the process that heavily affects all of our futures. One small example: whatever you think of the war in Iraq, it is pretty certain it wouldn't have happened had Florida been counted another way, and Al Gore counted in.

That's not to say that this book yells at us all the time. This is an entertaining read, full of chatty gossip, mostly about politics past.

The author's attitude seems to be: "Hey! It's your country. I'm telling you that you might want to fix it, but if you aren't interested, that's up to you."

Nobody will accuse him of spinning utopian fantasies. The vast amounts of money flying around make serious reform of the political system "unlikely or even remotely possible," he concludes. The fact that the political class has a vested interest in the way we pick our leaders also works against change.

"In the long run, the only hope for better politics lies in the possibility of better people who can command the public's attention and win on the force of their personalities and the qualities of their service."

What's needed is people who are "comfortable in their own skin," he says. Unfortunately, he says without saying it overtly, too few responsible competent grownups who match that description go into politics these days.

Old men tend to romanticize the past, and the author would cheerfully admit that there were plenty of clunkers in politics and incompetents among the press corps in the good old days. Yet somehow, they did seem to do a better job of realizing what was more important. And, along the way, of having more fun.

Years ago, when Jack Germond used to go to Lansing to cover legendary Michigan Gov. G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, the print reporters - and the governor himself - would sometimes add an obscenity or two to their questions and answers in order to keep TV from just airing raw footage.

Everything is different now. The author is an unabashed and unreconstructed liberal, but there is much here to which voters of nearly every ideological stripe will be able to relate. Surveying the landscape, the author, repeats one last time his old mentor's mantra, "We get about what we deserve," he concludes. "So I guess we deserve George W. Bush."

That, which will have long since become clear, is anything but a compliment.

Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's omsbudsman.