Inside politics with Robert Novak.
Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
The Prince of Darkness
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.
In Washington he was the only member of the bureau under 30, and one of the few under 40, and was assigned to cover politicians from three midwestern states. But he grabbed the chance to be a "tail gunner," filling in for the regular AP reporters who were covering big stories while they ran out to file their copy. He covered a committee investigating Communists and got a scoop when he interviewed the staff director (a reporter for the Chicago Tribune!) about the next day's hearing.
In 1958 the Wall Street Journal's Alan Otten, whom he had also briefed on Indiana politics, offered him a job covering the Senate and U.S. politics. He grabbed it and ran. He took every chance to write leaders (long front-page stories) and editpagers (op-ed pieces) and wrote more of them than anyone else at the Journal. (When he presented his first editpager, the bureau chief asked, "Did you write that entirely by yourself, or did somebody help you?") He led the pack on important stories, noting that the Senate majority leader (Lyndon Johnson) was weakened, not strengthened, by the Democrats' big gains in the 1958 election. Another original analysis prompted Vice President Richard Nixon to complain to Journal top editor Warren Phillips, who informed Novak of the complaint.
"'What should I do?' I asked. 'Nothing,' Phillips replied."
That was the joy of working for the Wall Street Journal. When the venerable editorial page editor Vermont Royster extensively rewrote one of his pieces, he insisted on yanking his byline. Royster was impressed, and a few years later asked him to come to New York and write editorials--with the hint that he could succeed him. Novak declined, and the job eventually went to Robert Bartley, who held it for more than 30 years. He beat the New York Herald Tribune's hot reporter Rowland Evans on a story about a Democratic memo. Evans remembered, and in 1962, when Trib editor James Bellows offered Evans a six-days-a-week column, Evans called Novak. The first Evans and Novak column appeared in May 1963.
Novak makes it plain that he doesn't think much of politicians. "While John F. Kennedy was a failed president, Lyndon B. Johnson was a disaster." Hubert Humphrey was "well meaning and weak." He got to know Robert Kennedy (as counsel on the Senate labor rackets committee) "a little and dislike him a lot." Barry Goldwater was "far less focused than the Kennedys" and tended "not to follow through on what he had told me and other reporters he was going to do."
He saw Martin Luther King deliver "one of the greatest orations I have ever heard" at the Lincoln Memorial, but "I came to think of him as an exceptional orator who was badly organized in thought and deed and incapable of leading a great national movement." Richard Nixon was "a make believe tough guy" and "a poor president and a bad man who inflicted grievous damage on his party and his country." Spiro Agnew was "tendentious, unattractive and ultimately uncontrollable." Gerald Ford "had no public purpose." Jimmy Carter was "a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his public purposes." Tip O'Neill was "mean spirited." Birch Bayh, whom he encountered as a young Indiana legislator in 1957, was "superficial and ineffective."
Ronald Reagan, he writes, was never really the same after he was shot. George Bush 41 was politically deaf and soon written off as a one-term president. Bill Clinton "was a man of the Left who disguised himself as a man of the center," and who "put a lower premium on talent in his cabinet-making than any predecessor in my experience." Al Gore, whom he first met in 1960 when his father was a senator, turned out to be "even more of a phony than I had thought." John Kerry, whom he first met in 1971, was "arrogant and pretentious." George W. Bush, whom he first met and wrote about in 1988, "at first glance . . . did not overwhelm anybody," but Novak notes approvingly that he was "the most conservative Bush I had met (I had covered his liberal grandfather, Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, three decades earlier)."
"I found it hard to fall in love with any presidential candidate (even John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, both of whom I liked personally) because, as a reporter, I observed them at close range." He adds that no president, except perhaps Kennedy and Reagan, "ever entered the Oval Office with a warm feeling toward me."
Nor does he have warm feelings for most people in his own profession. He noticed the liberal bias of the press early on. He got his scoop on the anti-Communist investigation because other reporters didn't want to give the committee any publicity. He overheard the New York Times's W.H. Lawrence respond to another reporter's comment that it must be unpleasant covering the 1960 campaign: "No," Lawrence said. "I think I can do Jack more good when I'm with Nixon." (I can remember, as a Kennedy supporter, reading Lawrence's stories on Nixon with glee.)
In 1972 he delivered a speech at Kenyon College attacking press bias which "marked my departure from the mainstream of Washington journalism." The bias has only gotten worse since. In the years when Novak was a newcomer to Washington, there were lots of reporters who were hard-bitten conservatives, the guys who wore fedoras at the National Press Club bar, and it was nearly universal practice to avoid stories that might undercut respect for the men who held the nation's highest offices. Vietnam and Watergate--and the kudos and fame that went to reporters like David Halberstam and Bob Woodward--changed all that.
Novak, whose reporting on Vietnam was evidently not overoptimistic, and whose reporting on Watergate was relentless, continued to go his own way. The Evans and Novak column was a journalistic innovation: It was opinionated, but every column also contained nuggets of original reporting. Curiously, no one else seems to have consistently followed the model, maybe because it requires too much gosh-darned work. Evans and Novak breakfasted and lunched with countless sources and potential sources--many of them people whose views they abhorred, and many of them people Novak seems to have disliked. They found that unproductive sources could produce a big scoop, like the 1986 story that Paul Volcker had been outvoted at the Federal Reserve.
Seldom were sources identified by name in the column, but in The Prince of Darkness, Novak names names. William Sullivan of J. Edgar Hoover's FBI. Senator Russell Long ("for 28 years my indispensable source"). House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (Novak had no idea he was an alcoholic). Melvin Laird ("may have been my best congressional source ever"). Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal (who paints a devastating picture of Jimmy Carter). Democratic congressman Robert Matsui ("for 15 years he gave me an invaluable window into the House Democratic Caucus"). Ohio Republican chairman Bob Bennett ("political reporting means talking to the Bob Bennetts of the world"). Jesse Helms aide John Carbaugh.
With some he cherished warm friendships: Robert Strauss, Bob McCandless (a Democrat who handled John Dean's press relations during Watergate), Daniel Patrick Moynihan, California Democratic consultant Joe Cerrell. In some cases, relations between Novak and his sources were broken off. David Stockman, until the Atlantic story in which he repudiated supply-side economics; Novak then considered him unreliable and never called him again. Newt Gingrich, until some tough columns on his leadership. Richard Perle, until they disagreed on Iraq. And he retaliated and retaliates fiercely against those who, in his view, lied about him or distorted his record.
His scoops include Melvin Laird's nomination as secretary of defense, Gerald Ford's nomination as vice president, the Helmut Sonnenfeldt memo advocating strengthening the Soviet Union's hold on Eastern Europe ("perhaps the most influential column I ever wrote"), Jack Kemp's nomination as vice president. We learn here for the first time that the Democratic senator who, in 1972, coined the phrase "acid, amnesty and abortion" was the late Thomas Eagleton, and that the scholar who said that a Marxist professor at the University of Maryland was incompetent was the late Jeane Kirkpatrick. And on and on.
Did Novak give favorable treatment to good sources? Sure. "Reporters--and columnists--do not attack their sources," he writes. He might have added that they often describe them in flattering terms; but looking over the list of sources, I don't see many that could not reasonably be described as politically astute or highly knowledgeable.
"We were so ravenous for exclusiveness that we were susceptible to manipulation by leaks," he writes earlier, when the Nixon White House used the column for its own purposes. Reflecting on a meeting with White House chief of staff James Baker, Novak writes, "Had I backed off in a tacit version of the mutual nonaggression pact McCandless suggested? The last possibility was no way for an independent journalist to act. It bothered me in 1982 and still troubles me today."
Evans and Novak were pioneers in multimedia journalism. They started appearing regularly on television in 1966 and for 25 years they appeared on CNN--a relationship that ended unhappily in 2005. Novak was an original regular on The McLaughlin Group, and readers who are still unsatisfied by the vitriol directed at John McLaughlin in Jack Germond's memoir Fat Man in a Middle Seat should immediately go out and buy The Prince of Darkness. His likes and dislikes among his fellow journalists will surprise many readers. He is fond of many liberals and praises their works; he dislikes many conservatives. THE WEEKLY STANDARD is represented both on his A list (Fred Barnes) and S list (William Kristol).
Novak was charmed by John Kennedy, whom he remembers as "the most attractive political personality that I have met, before or since: handsome, witty charismatic, and very nice to me." He is aware that few people find him charming and he seems to have a giant chip on his shoulder about not being the kind of insider found at Georgetown cocktail parties. In this respect he is quite different from the subjects of three other wonderful books on Washington journalists in whose company The Prince of Darkness belongs: Ronald Steel's Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Robert Merry's Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Guardians of the American Century, and Katharine Graham's Personal History. And quite different from his partner, Rowly Evans.
It was an unlikely partnership, between a Philadelphia aristocrat who went to Yale and a small businessman's son who went to the University of Illinois, a man of graceful charm and regular giver and attender of Georgetown dinner parties, and a man who seemed profoundly uncomfortable in such settings on the few occasions when he found himself in them. Novak once threatened to quit, in 1967, when he wrote a critical column on Evans's close friend Robert Kennedy; they had a shouting match on the Sonnenfeldt memo column, which was sharply critical of Evans's friend and frequent source, Henry Kissinger. Evans told Novak he was retiring in 1990, then changed his mind; when he finally retired, in May 1993, the 30th anniversary of the column, he still kept writing occasional columns and appeared with Novak on some television programs. Novak expresses puzzlement that Evans would want to retire because work interfered with his horseback riding on his Virginia farm, and he tells us that he learned for the first time many things Evans concealed from him by reading his oral history and papers for this book.
What Novak wants to do, at 76 and after 50 years of reporting in Washington, is to keep working. In 1994 he had surgery in Los Angeles to remove a cancer from his lung on a Monday. It is exhausting just to read what he did next:
Through the fall he kept close enough attention to keep raising the number of House seats he was predicting Republicans would pick up, to the point that he was one of the few journalists to predict that year's Republican takeover. I was one of the others, writing in a U.S. News column in July that there was a serious possibility Republicans could capture the House, and I know how lonely I was.
As an optimist, I find many political developments depressing; as a pessimist, Novak sees them as part of a history of human folly from which he takes consolation from his conversion to Catholicism, here gracefully described. Anyone interested in politics, journalism, and the course of public events over the last 50 years who does not buy and read The Prince of Darkness is denying himself one of the pleasures that life on this earth very seldom offers.
Michael Barone is the author, most recently, of Our First Revolution: The Remarkable British Upheaval That Inspired America's Founding Fathers.