As a syndicated columnist, Robert Novak has specialized for the past forty-five years in the inside-Washington branch of political news reporting. To the casual newspaper reader it may seem a delightful job: expense-account lunches with movers and shakers, getting to know famous rascals, gleaning the secrets of mysterious “sources” whose identities must not be revealed.
Such a career might produce an ebullient memoir of life on the raffish side of American power, but ebullience is not Novak’s style, and he is not amused by raffishness among politicians. As displayed in The Prince of Darkness, his style is earnestness, his temperament is solemn, his judgments are unsoftened by mercy, and thoroughness is his habit.
The result is an exceedingly long book (662 pages) which never quite decides whether it wants to preach conservative politics, entertain with high-level gossip, reveal tricks of the journalistic trade, or settle old scores with blunt insult. Thus Al Gore, who refused to carry out his end of a deal after Novak had done him a favor, is “a phony,” and the late Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, former speaker of the House whose memoir contained “the worst lie about [Novak and his partner Rowland Evans] ever committed to print by a public figure,” was not only “mean-spirited” but also “soft on Communist penetration of the Western Hemisphere” and “brutal” to fellow Democrats. Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense, was “overbearing and hypocritical” in his first interview and ever after, thus gaining special distinction: “Of many political personalities I have disliked during a half century in Washington, I would place McNamara on top.”
Presidents are treated with a candor common in reporters’ private conversation but rare in print. Nixon was “a poor president and a bad man who inflicted grave damage on his party and his country,” Novak writes. In 1968, by contriving to have Thieu’s government in South Vietnam boycott the Paris peace talks announced by LBJ, Novak suspects, Nixon “got away with the most successful dirty trick of his career.” Carter, caught fibbing eight years after leaving office about why he hadn’t responded to a social invitation, “was still lying about matters large and small.”
He puts the boot into the famous (Henry Kissinger, James A. Baker, Robert Dole) and the forgotten alike. Jeb Magruder, a hapless member of the Nixon Watergate gang, who deliberately planted a misleading story in Novak’s column thirty-five years ago, is repaid with an anecdote painting him as a small-bore expense-account swindler.
While dispensing rough justice to politicians who have displeased him, Novak does not spare himself from critical examination. His book periodically turns somber while he confesses his vices, none of them notably depraved. We learn about his drinking (once prodigious, now modest), his gambling (heavy betting on sports), his smoking (four packs a day when young, none since), and his failures at parenthood (“so engrossed in my work that I had paid little attention to my children”).
He describes his nearly fatal onset of spinal meningitis and tells how advanced medical technology and excellent doctors helped him overcome three bouts of cancer (lung, prostate, kidney). He has also broken his hip and ankle and has suffered from asthma. A brief failed marriage during his twenties is examined and causes of the failure analyzed (cultural incompatibility, she an Indianapolis debutante and Junior Leaguer, he a “spoiled only child, very difficult to live with”).
Throughout this vast stream of information, public and private, we also follow his religious evolution. The grandchild of Jewish immigrants from tsarist Russia and Lithuania, he is far gone in agnosticism by college age, ventures among the Unitarians in his twenties, then apparently ceases to ponder religion until he discovers Catholicism. His conversion, at the age of sixty-seven, is reported in detail, including some tart exchanges with Jewish relatives. Thorough here as in all else, he does not omit Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s joking remark after the ceremony: “Well, Novak is now a Catholic. The question is: When will he become a Christian?”
Liberals, as well as his friend Moynihan, he says, may have thought that Catholicism would lead him “to favor redistribution of income and oppose capital punishment,” but such changes in his politics “were not to happen.” Such folderol is the stuff of liberalism, and Novak is a conservative, proud of it, and eager to spread the gospel.
His devotion has been severely tested in his old age by the neoconservatives, who are furious about his opposition to the Iraq war and would happily see him expelled from the lodge. Still, his loyalty to the faith remains undiminished. His book often feels like a seminar on supply-side economic theory and the virtues of withered government.
Novak is not content to be merely a political columnist, or an inside-Washington columnist; he is a conservative columnist—“a notoriously conservative columnist,” he states. There have always been conservative columnists—having grown up on Hearst newspapers, I was in college before discovering there could be any other kind—but in the 1940s and 1950s they were not like today’s messianic bunch. They were sturdy, dependable, clock-punching workmen, reliably delivering their assaults on New Deal “crackpots” and labor unions year after year with what, looking back on it, could only have been weary patience. In their time, conservatism had been so crushed for so long that they must have carried a sense of futility in their bone marrow.
What a change Goldwater, Reagan, and Karl Rove have worked. Richard Nixon deserves credit, too. His constant laments that the press was in thrall to liberals created pressure on newspapers to furnish more outspoken conservative content. The New York Times and The Washington Post responded by hiring two former Republican political operatives, William Safire and George Will, as Op-Ed columnists.
It was Reagan’s election, however, that opened the golden age. Reagan made conservatism not just successful again, but also fashionable. Once mocked as “mossbacks” and “troglodytes,” conservative journalists were now welcome everywhere, especially on around-the-clock cable news channels desperate for ways to fill their idle hours. Lecture-circuit demand for conservative journalists famous for fiery rhetoric often provided large supplements to traditionally austere newspaper salaries.
The new conservative journalists were high-spirited and zealous for battle. Their eagerness to become unabashed political warriors coincided with journalism’s transformation into “media,” a slippery word that usually means “television,” which usually means “the entertainment business.” With television even politics could be entertaining if staged as a good brawl. Suddenly there were careers and money to be had for journalists ready to put on makeup, abandon objectivity, and duke it out rhetorically on camera with colleagues of opposing political persuasions.
In short, Novak at midlife found himself playing a right-winger on TV. At first it did not demand much theatrical fakery. Although he had started out, he says, slightly left of center and voted for Kennedy in 1960, by 1964 he had been moved toward the ideas generated by William F. Buckley, The National Review, and the Goldwater campaign. It was 1972, eight years before the Reagan victory, when he took his stand on the right.
The occasion was an academic seminar on the mass media at which he presented a paper taking what was to become the basic Nixon-Agnew view of the press as captive of liberalism—“ideologized into a part of the liberal establishment,” he said. Washington reporters, he said, were basically tools of the Democratic Party, polluting the news with liberal bias, and young journalists were compelled to knuckle to liberal dogma if they hoped to get ahead. With this, Novak says, he departed “the mainstream of Washington journalism,” having “broken a tribal taboo in publicly criticizing colleagues.”
Television appearances inevitably began to turn him into a “personality,” and “personalities” tend to lose their grip on journalistic discipline, not to mention the real world. Once converted into a “personality,” a journalist ceases simply “appearing” on TV and begins “performing.” In the 1980s Novak was performing on a variety of programs, chiefly for CNN, and noticed that performance demands were influencing his political thought. Before television, he writes, his conservatism was based mainly on an enthusiasm for tax-cutting, desire for more vigorous antiCommunist foreign policies, and dislike of big government.
Required to “perform” as a political advocate on the show Crossfire,
I found myself engaged on issues I seldom wrote about: capital punishment, gay rights, abortion, and gun control. I was never asked to take any position I opposed, but the process had the effect of hardening my positions. I was ever more becoming a right-wing ideologue.
Novak’s present political views suggest a yearning for the Gilded Age. Among presidents, he prefers William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, the pioneer of twentieth-century progressivism. McKinley, elected in 1896, represents a time when income was tax-free and government never interfered with a corporation’s urge to do as it pleased, and often went out of its way to assist. To Novak the entire twentieth century must seem like a political catastrophe.
Public perception of him as a conservative political personality brought the furies howling down on him during the Valerie Plame affair, in which agents of the Bush administration were widely suspected of using Novak to do a political well-poisoning. The essence of the suspicion was that the Bush people, seeking to punish a retired diplomat who had challenged their justification for the Iraq war, leaked to Novak the fact that his wife worked for the CIA and Novak published it.
What really happened and why is a dark tale of bureaucratic knife play between the Rumsfeld-Cheney-neocon faction, which was drumming up the Iraq war, and a CIA that sullenly opposed it. Novak’s role was small and incidental. He learned of Valerie Plame’s CIA connection from Richard Armitage of the State Department, which had been shut out of decision-making about the war. (Novak himself had opposed the war and was becoming a target of the neocons.)
To Novak the column seemed not very important; nor did he think disclosure of Plame’s identity of any consequence since she was not working under cover. He now describes it as “a trivial incident” that was “exaggerated into a scandal by the Left and its outriders in the news media.” Its impact on his life and his career was not trivial. It was a brutal lesson in what agony may befall a reporter who goes crusading as a political ideologue.
Novak, widely recognized in his media persona as Mister Right-Winger, found himself widely denounced as a flunky delivering vengeance on behalf of a right-wing government cabal. Liberal journalists “despised me for being a conservative,” he says, and general support or dislike for him “usually was a function of ideology.” Shouting crowds called him “Traitor!” in the streets of New York and his CNN employer was faced with morally upright inquisitors demanding to know why CNN continued to employ him.
After a while it didn’t anymore.
Novak attended the University of Illinois, then worked in Omaha and Indianapolis for the Associated Press, which brought him to Washington in 1957 to cover stories of local interest to midwestern papers. He was a careful, aggressive, hard worker, and was soon handling major stories. Competition for talent was heavy in Washington in the Fifties, and soon he was hired by The Wall Street Journal, a top-of-the line bureau.
The money was not much. In 1957 the AP paid him $125 a week, about $9,000 a year in 2006 dollars, he reckons, and the Journal started him at $160. Unlike most journalists, Novak is not shy about discussing money. He seems to think that people believe he has made a fortune and is at pains to dispel the notion. The best year of his entire career, he says, was 2004 when his adjusted gross income was $1.2 million. In 2006 he made “a lot less.” The greater part of his income in these years came from various cable TV jobs; at one time he was making $625,000 a year from his work for CNN. His present financial worth is “in the high single-digit millions,” he says.
The partnership with Evans began in 1963. Evans, whom Novak barely knew at the time, covered the Capitol for the New York Herald-Tribune. Its editor wanted him to write an “inside-Washington” column six days a week. This would have been a killing job for a single reporter, and Evans invited Novak to share it.
They were an unlikely team. Evans was a classic white-shoe type: inherited income, Philadelphia Main Line, prep school, Yale, social pal of the Kennedys. He was a naturally genial clubman who, unlike Novak, found time to attend parties, play squash, and go horseback riding on weekends. It was easy to imagine Evans as a figure walking out of The Great Gatsby. Nine years older than Novak, he was a World War II veteran. On the Monday morning after Pearl Harbor, Novak writes, he joined “a long line of patriotic Yalies” waiting to enlist in the Marines, “survived the fierce combat” of the Pacific island campaigns, made sergeant, and came home in 1944 with malaria and a medical discharge.
Novak’s portrait of Evans is the most affectionate in his book, aside from passages about his wife and family. Rowly, as everyone called him (it rhymed with “holy”), began as a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat, probably inheriting the views of his father who, Novak says, “may have been the only New Deal Democrat riding the Main Line.” The young Evans covered the Senate like a club member at ease among his peers, addressing the most senior grandees by their first names. To Rowly even the august Senator Richard Russell was “Dick.” Novak recalls Rowly lunching in the Senate Dining Room one day with John F. Kennedy when Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia, a senator of Olympian grandeur, passed by. “‘Harry, how are you?’ asked Rowly.” JFK was astounded. When Byrd left, he said: “You call him, ‘Harry?’ I’ve never heard anybody call him by his first name.”
The Evans & Novak column endured for thirty years and became simply the Novak column when Rowly retired in 1993. Evans had done most of the international travel for their foreign policy columns, but, as with Novak, it was the small chaff of day-to-day Washington politics that fascinated him.
Columns like theirs, which are expected to deliver something original or at least faintly newsworthy five days a week, require ceaseless toil. The big political news story is instantly gobbled down by the mainstream press. The columnist is like a prospector panning for gold; a lot of pebbles and sand have to be sifted, and the nugget is sometimes tiny. Much Evans & Novak reporting inevitably seemed trivial or simply mystifying to readers with no interest in Washington politics. To political junkies, however, the column was catnip.
No matter how slow the political season, in Washington there is always a low-voltage flow of political activity which can be detected by tirelessly working the telephones and cultivating human sources of information—always called just plain “sources.” Novak’s book is at its most entertaining and revealing when he is writing about his sources, many of whom he identifies.
Journalists are not supposed to do that, and by doing it here Novak will probably disturb people who fret about ethics. Journalists assume more or less instinctively that they are supposed to endure judicial torment and even prison rather than peach on people who, “off the record,” give them material that governments and other big institutions want concealed from the public.
There are obvious and persuasive reasons for sheltering sources from exposure, but they are not so persuasive when the informants are merely trafficking in the daily tittle-tattle of Washington, which constitutes most political news. Reporters are rarely sure what “off the record” really means, and people at the top of the news business are divided about when it is ethically right to defy a court order to reveal their sources.
Novak does not dwell very seriously on this debate. The decisive test, he says, should be whether, after many years, exposure may still be damaging. In his view, death settles the matter. And so the privilege finally ended for former Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Thirty-five years ago in conversation with Novak about George McGovern’s prospects for winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Eagleton said, “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot…. Once middle America—Catholic Middle America, in particular—find this out, he’s dead.”
In his column Novak attributed the remark only to a “liberal Senator,” and McGovern’s opponents used it to attack him as a “Triple-A” candidate, supporting “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid.” McGovern won the nomination anyhow, and for his vice-presidential running mate chose, of course—Eagleton, who was then dropped after it turned out he’d concealed his treatment, by electric shock, for nervous problems. Eagleton still insisted on his privilege thirty years later when Novak asked permission to use the story in his memoir. Eagleton replied that “it was off the record, and I still consider it that way.” He died last March at the age of seventy-seven, Novak writes, “relieving me of the need to conceal his identity.”
The cavalcade of Novak sources, many still alive, contains few startling faces. There are senators past and present, House members powerful and obscure, and political handymen who carry water for the great and the near-great, but mostly the wannabe-great. Karl Rove is here. (“I never had enjoyed such a good source inside the White House,” Novak says.) The affable Senator Trent Lott, of course. Former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Congressman Vin Weber. And a thirty-one-year-old named John Carbaugh, highly valued by Novak (“might have been the best source I ever had”), who sometimes turned up bearing documents; once he brought a top secret paper outlining American policy for defending Germany against Soviet military invasion.
In 1977 Carbaugh was on Senator Jesse Helms’s Capitol payroll, “knew everybody in the right wing of American politics, and had his hands on multiple clandestine operations,” Novak writes.
He ran a secret organization called the Madison Group (that met at Washington’s luxurious Madison Hotel), consisting of conservatives who plotted initiatives in Congress and the executive branch. He could be found most mornings at breakfast in the Hay Adams dining room whispering to somebody. It was me about once a week.
An equally bizarre source was the political strategist Dick Morris, reputed to be “a scoundrel who did not believe in anything,” who in 1996 turned up on Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign team. Though Morris was said to be inaccessible to reporters, “I reached him easily” and had “my most productive relationship with any Clinton aide,” Novak writes. Morris quickly became a source without information after newspapers published pictures of him entertaining a prostitute in his hotel room.
Managing political sources is a subtle art. It requires the ability to recognize the source’s motive for talking, which is sometimes sinister, often devious, commonly self-serving, and rarely innocent. Novak’s only entrant in the innocent category is Robert Matsui, a California Democratic congressman, who provided inside reports on his colleagues’ activities as Speaker Jim Wright was being railroaded out of office. Matsui “did not leak to me out of self-protection…or ideological motives,” Novak writes. “He just seemed to want me to get it straight.”
Many sources hope to ingratiate themselves with a columnist and have the favor repaid with some glowing publicity—or, as with Evans and Novak, protection when they erred. Novak suggests that someone who declined to become a source risked becoming one of what he calls their “targets.” He is candid in describing the price he could exact for silence:
Bob Haldeman was treated more harshly because he refused any connection with me. He made himself more of a target than he had to be by refusing to be a source.
Alexander Haig was “protected frankly as a longtime source of Rowly’s,” therefore treated “more gently than other apostates” in the Reagan administration. David Gergen, a master of Washington survival arts who scarcely knew Novak, came to his office with a briefcase of material that “gave me a terrific Evans & Novak column”: a batch of working papers on Reagan’s 1981 tax-reduction message soon to be delivered to Congress. Novak thinks Gergen “was working the source-or-target model with me. Gergen never really became my source, but he was not my target either—which I believe was his intent.”
Some sources just enjoy hanging out and talking shop with reporters. Two of Novak’s favorites were Melvin Laird, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, and Robert Strauss, a Democratic political wise man from Texas. The column’s steady rain of compliments on Laird and Strauss over the years made it obvious to all Washington that they were major contributors, and Novak now acknowledges his gratitude, and adds one more compliment. Laird, he states, was the authentic Republican mastermind in the House of Representatives, and Gerald Ford little more than an empty showpiece. (It was Ford, not Laird, who ended up as president, but never mind.)
There is an implicit understanding between source and reporter that they are using each other. Sometimes the source is using the columnist simply to have a good meal on someone else’s expense account. This must have been a constant peril for Novak, a tireless luncher who used the fashionable Sans Souci restaurant’s food and drink to loosen tongues. He still has sour memories of a high-level Nixon man thirty years ago who “downed three double bourbons on the rocks before lunch and sipped a single bourbon during the meal, telling me nothing unintended in the process.”
Lyndon Johnson’s mastery of the Byzantine maneuver made him dangerous for any reporter who thought he had a White House “exclusive,” as Evans and Novak did when they entertained Bill Moyers at dinner in the winter of 1963. Moyers, then very close to Johnson, “could not wait to enter the Evans dining room for the meal before he sent his message.” They were certain that the Moyers message came straight from Johnson. Their next column began, “The leading prospect for the Vice-Presidential nomination in President Johnson’s own mind is Sargent Shriver….”
LBJ had no intention of choosing Shriver; it would have seriously irritated Mayor Richard Daley, the Democratic master of Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was probably always his choice. So why was Moyers sent to plant a misleading story? Novak is now “convinced” that Johnson was sending a message to Robert F. Kennedy: “Under no conditions will you be my running mate.”
Novak closes his story in an uncharacteristically sensitive vein. Conservatism’s evolution since he came to it in Goldwater’s time has brought the so-called neoconservatives to power under George W. Bush, whose foreign policy they created. It also produced a new generation of young gunslingers with the usual urge to show the old guys that their day has passed.
Novak is clearly one of the old guys, as he realized on a March day in 2003 when National Review, conservatism’s intellectual journal, published an article calling him a “paleoconservative,” a word summoning up images of fossils and dinosaurs. Novak believes it was intended to carry even nastier implications, that the author meant to associate him with other “paleos,” a couple of whom “embraced anti-Semitic views that I abhorred.”
The author was David Frum, who had spent a year as a White House speechwriter, resigned, and written a book about it. There had been a comic-opera quarrel about whether it was Frum or another ghost who had thought of reviving the word “axis,” originally applied to the German-Italian alliance in World War II, for use in a Bush speech, and who had said it should be “axis of hate,” and who had countered with “axis of evil,” and so forth. A Novak column had dilated on this foolishness, apparently chafing Frum, and later Novak reviewed Frum’s memoir most uncharitably in American Conservative.
Frum’s National Review attack was obviously “payback,” Novak says, which seems possible, writers being aesthetically sensitive people. At the heart of the matter, however, was a dispute about the neocons’ support for the Iraq war, their great and defining achievement in the Bush administration. Both Evans and Novak had always been dovish on Middle East policy, and Novak had opposed the present Iraq war from its inception. This distinguished him from the right-wing media claque, exemplified by but hardly confined to the Fox News group, which loyally followed the White House line long after public support for the war began to shrink.
Novak had often taken independent positions when he found White House policy at odds with his own principles. He sometimes writes as if he were a major political power: “I was in sympathy with Bush’s conservative principles, and strongly supportive of his tax cuts…[but] I opposed the president on his education and prescription drug programs and was deeply concerned about his military intervention in Iraq.”
In 2003 as Bush began the war in Iraq the National Review launched an attack of its own against conservative dissenters. Shades of Moscow! The old party faithful suddenly accused of failure to think in harmony with the new—it evoked unconservative memories of Stalin purging the old Bolsheviks.
The thrust of Frum’s article is indicated by its title: “Unpatriotic Conservatives: A War Against America.” Its targets were the “paleoconservatives,” who included Novak. Powerful prose flowed unrestrained:
They are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure if it happens. They began by hating the neo-conservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.
Novak turned to longstanding conservative friends for support and found very little. His old pal William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said he had not heard of the Frum article but would check and call back. He didn’t. Novak says they have not talked since.
He heard that Rich Lowry, the National Review’s young new editor, “tried but failed” to change the article by separating him from the “paleos,” but he cannot believe that Lowry lacked the power to do whatever he chose with the piece. Bill Buckley sent Novak “a nice e-mail” saying that though they disagreed on “the animating spirit and strategic analysis” behind the Iraq war, he regarded Novak as “a great conservative figure.” William Rusher, the magazine’s retired publisher, wrote a column essentially reading him out of the movement.
And so it went. “National Review’s complicity deeply grieved me,” Novak writes. “This was Bill Buckley’s vehicle that created the modern conservative movement.” Novak had been reading it and writing for it for decades, and now the new boys had caught up with him for not backing their war in the desert, and he was old, out of fashion, and hurting, and “it was,” he says, “burning a hole in my heart.”
October 25, 2007