The Magazine

The Outsider

Inside politics with Robert Novak.

Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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."