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TERRY WOSTER: Political reporting's heyday fading away

Jack Germond died the other day, and I couldn't help thinking back to the early 1970s when any young kid with an interest in political writing would warm up the television 10 minutes early to make sure it was ready when "Meet the Press'' came on.

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Germond was a fixture on that program for a while. He worked for the Washington Star and the Baltimore Sun in the early days, but he's probably best known -- among those who recognize the name at all -- for his partnership with Jules Witcover on a five-days-a-week syndicated column, "Politics Today.'' The major newspapers carried the column, and every aspiring political writer read it. One of my personal favorite Witcover-Germond collaborations was "Blue Smoke and Mirrors,'' a book detailing the Reagan-Carter campaign in 1980.

The early 1970s was a heady time for young men and women interested in journalism as a college major and as a career. It was the time of Watergate. There are those, of course, who will tell you that the press did the country no favors by the relentless reporting on the Watergate break-in and the other related stories about the Nixon presidency. That's one argument, all right.

Young people determined to be newspaper or broadcast reporters found another argument, siding with Woodward and Bernstein, the Washington Post reporters who got on the story at the beginning and followed it through all sorts of twists and turns and eventually, you know, into a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.

I never saw statistics to support it, but I was told that the Woodward-Bernstein reporting of Watergate helped fill the college and university classrooms with shiny-faced girls and boys eager to be the next Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein and to uncover the next giant political scandal. Well, that makes sense. A young person trying to break into baseball in the era of Mickey Mantle might well have spent a ton of time trying to be a switch-hitter or trying to launch those crazy, towering, tape-measure home runs the Mick crushed often enough so you thought it could happen with any at-bat.

I read Germond whenever I could, and Witcover, too, back when I worked for The Associated Press. I was out of school by that time, working for The Associated Press in Pierre, covering the Legislature and politics. Anyone on the national scene who worked for a newspaper and covered politics caught my eye. Back in English lit class, I was told that writers who want to get better read good writers. I figured that held true for political writing as much as for, uh, writing writing.

Now, in those days, the press boxes in the House and Senate chambers of the South Dakota Legislature were usually pretty full. Both wire services, several newspapers and some TV and radio stations assigned reporters to all or part of the annual legislative session. Several of us were young, and all of us were smitten with the notion of being big-time political reporters, covering the White House, covering presidential candidates as they toured, riding the media bus.

Riding the bus. Man, did we think about that. Sometime in 1973 the book "The Boys on the Bus,'' was printed. A guy named Tim Crouse joined on the media buses the big-foot reporters who were covering the 1972 Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign. He rode, watched and eventually chronicled in fascinating, sometimes embarrassing, detail, the life of a reporter on a candidate's bus during a presidential race.

All of the top political reporters of the time were on the bus and in the book. A guy named Walter Mears, the AP's top political reporter, drew a measure of fame when Crouse wrote that after many political events, other reporters would gather to ask, "What's the lead, Walter?'' Crouse interpreted that to mean Mears was most respected among them, and if another writer missed Mears' lead, the editor gave a scolding. The reporters on the bus said they were just funnin' with old Walter.

I never knew Germond, but I read him a lot. When I read his obituary, I felt a sense of loss -- not so much for him, but for what he represented in one of my favorite times in newspapering.