Inside politics with Robert Novak.
Aug 6, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 44 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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.