The political columnist: Bitter lessons in the South
Former Baltimore Sun political writer Jack Germond is pictured at his home. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / April 20, 2012)
I was aware of The Sun's reputation for quality, and I had read the paper often in the 20 years I had been covering Washington and national politics. I knew the work of its stars — notably Phil Potter, Pat Furgurson and later Paul West — because we often were covering the same story.
What gave me pause, however, was the prospect of working for a paper with different priorities than the Star. For The Baltimore Sun, the first concern necessarily was the big local story. For a Washington paper like the Star, the biggest local story was also the national story. It was almost impossible to cover politics too thoroughly. Jules and I wrote five columns a week jointly, and individually almost as many hard news stories and political analyses.
I quickly learned, however, that my fears were unfounded. The Baltimore Sun was indeed a local newspaper, but it was not a parochial newspaper.
Our readers, I found, were entitled to coverage of important stories by Sun staff writers in Washington, Moscow, London, Beijing, wherever. And — under editors such as Jack Lemmon, John Carroll, Bill Marimow and Anthony Barbieri — they were also privy to political stories of intrinsic interest to readers everywhere.
Thus, my warmest memories of 20-plus years at The Sun do not include any pieces displayed under an 84-point banner headline on Page 1. Nor do they include any column of what seemed at the time to be a particularly penetrating piece of analysis.
Instead, they are stories I enjoyed reporting with the resources of The Sun because of the people and issues involved and what we could learn from the results. Two examples make the point.
In 1986 there was a Democratic primary contest in Georgia's 5th Congressional District. Ordinarily, a primary fight for a House seat is about as exciting as one for sewer commissioner. But in this case the candidates were John Lewis and Julian Bond, longtime leaders of the civil rights movement as chairman and communications director, respectively, of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.
I had come to know both men over almost 20 years of covering civil rights. They had been close since they were 19, so close they sometimes spent family vacations together. The story would be about how the personal dynamics played out in a campaign in which there were no issues dividing the two other than their own ambitions.
Bond's political advisers were pressuring him to argue that he would be more effective in Congress in pursuing their common goals because Lewis would be less so — in effect, by suggesting his old friend lacked the charisma that had made Julian Bond a bona fide celebrity. Bond, however, would not agree.
Lewis, meanwhile, was also being urged to exploit rumors that Bond had a drug problem. But Lewis enjoyed a reputation for probity — he was known in the political world as "Saint John" — and he, too, resisted "going negative" against his old friend.
In the end, Lewis blinked, using a debate to challenge Bond to a drug test — thus throwing the issue into the arena and, as it turned out, winning the House seat. The lesson was that even the best people can get bent out of shape to win an election.
I learned another political lesson covering another Southern campaign for The Sun: the 1991 contest for governor of Louisiana between Edwin Edwards, who had previously served three nonconsecutive terms, and David Duke, a racist and leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
On the face of it, there would seem to be no reason to imagine a close contest. Edwards was a charming rogue who had been the subject of several ethics investigations. But Duke was a smooth-talking demagogue who put a benign face on raw racism and anti-Semitism that seemed to hit a chord largely with the rednecks in north Louisiana.
But polls showed a tight race. The result was a bizarre coalition of local political powers, civic leaders, educators, professional groups, big business, labor unions, merchants, clergymen and newspapers — all welded together by the fear that Duke would destroy the state's reputation and, perhaps more to the point, its economy. Even sportswriters got into the picture, writing about a future when the Super Dome would be empty rather than hosting the Super Bowl.
But black voters were those most alarmed by Duke, and on Election Day they showed it. About noon I drove through several black precincts in New Orleans and found long lines of voters, including many young women with their children in strollers. Poll watchers told me the turnout was unprecedented — when I checked again later, it had reached almost 100 percent in some precincts. And it was overwhelmingly for Edwards. Several people laughingly repeated the advice sweeping the city to "vote for the crook."
In the end, Edwards won easily with 61 percent of the vote, and liberals quickly celebrated what they saw as the good sense and decency of the Louisiana electorate. Wrong. In fact, Duke carried 56 percent of the white vote, even more in north Louisiana.
Readers of The Sun learned that unpleasant-but-necessary lesson because The Sun was a newspaper willing to spend time and money to cover the news. It was a newspaper I was proud to represent.
Jack W. Germond was a reporter and columnist for The Sun from 1981 to 2001. He lives in West Virginia, where he writes books and plays the horses.