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The Outsider

Inside politics with Robert Novak.

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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The Prince of Darkness

50 Years Reporting in Washington

by Robert D. Novak

Crown, 672 pp., $29.95

I am a pessimist by nature, which is why I have spent my life as a journalist instead of trying to be a leader, which requires optimism.

So writes Robert Novak in this memoir entitled, inevitably, The Prince of Darkness. "I am not a person who is easy for a lot of people to like," he writes at another point. After the teenage Novak printed the names and addresses of all the bookies in town in the Joliet Herald-News, his editor told him it was "always better to be a 'builder-upper' than a 'tearer-downer.'" To which Novak adds, "I never dreamed of taking his advice."

He hasn't in the 50 years since he drove his yellow 1956 Ford convertible into Washington to work at the Associated Press bureau on Pennsylvania Avenue. Most reporters are liberal and most seem to me to be optimists. Novak has always been a Republican--though he voted for John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson--and has certainly always been a pessimist. That has given Novak a double advantage. Optimistic liberals always are on the lookout for signs that Democrats are winning and Republicans are losing. A pessimistic conservative is always alert for signs that his side as well as the other side is losing. Since, as the British politician Enoch Powell noted, "all political careers end in failure," and since every human enterprise is more likely to fail than to succeed, a pessimistic conservative will tend to get more scoops than his peers. Especially if he's a hell of a reporter.

Which Novak is, and was from early in life. His parents were staunch Republicans, but his mother took him to see Franklin Roosevelt speak in Joliet when he was five; on reading the text recently, he called the speech pabulum. He listened on the radio, at nine, to the 1940 Republican National Convention. At 15 he was writing sports stories for the local shopper; at 16 he became a sports stringer for the Herald-News. His uningratiating personality helped cost him the sports editorship of the University of Illinois Daily Illini (it went to historian Michael Beschloss's father) and seems to have caused university officials to deny him the one credit he needed to graduate (their successors supplied it in 1993).

He served two years in the Army after college and, in 1954, got a 12-week job in the Associated Press bureau in Omaha--the beginning of what is now 53 years in journalism. Asked to substitute for the guy who wrote predictions for high school football games, he told him he knew nothing about high school football. "'Kid,' he replied, 'do you think I do?'" Novak cribbed them from the Omaha World-Herald, with a few camouflaging changes. In 1955 the AP sent him to Lincoln for the legislative session, then to Indianapolis to cover the legislature and state politics there.

The young Novak presented himself then, as he has done through most of his career, as a regular guy--an enormous sports fan who loved fast cars and liked to stay up late drinking and smoking at bars. His prose has always been lean and muscular, but not especially graceful and certainly not literary. Like Ronald Reagan, he grew up at a time and a place and made his way up through a business in which it was always to his advantage to hide the fact that he was also a voracious reader and an intellectual. In The Prince of Darkness Novak gives some indication of his wide and serious reading and provides the key to his own political philosophy: Whittaker Chambers's Witness, which he read while in the Army. Chambers's pessimistic account of his break with communism, and his sense that he had left the winning side for the losing one, made Novak a passionate believer that the United States must win the Cold War. He always voted for the candidate who seemed most likely to vigorously prosecute the Cold War.

Other positions he came to hold later. His opposition to the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and the Iraq war in 2003 were the outgrowth of his agreement with the Arabist positions long advocated by his partner, Rowland Evans. Similarly, he came in the 1970s to agree with the supply-side economics of economist Arthur Laffer, Wall Street Journal editorialist Jude Wanniski, and Congressman Jack Kemp, and he has supported tax cuts ever since.

Novak made his way up in journalism the old-fashioned way: by hard work, and by being noticed and appreciated by older men who gave him crucial legs up. In Nebraska and Indiana the unmarried Novak stayed up late schmoozing with politicians and got stories everyone else missed. In Indianapolis he was asked to brief Doug Cornell, the AP's chief national political writer, on Indiana politics. It must have been a great briefing, because Cornell promised him a job in Washington--and delivered in May 1957.