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Bob Novak: An Appreciation

6 years ago
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The Prince of Darkness is gone, and Washington won't be the same without him.
Robert D. Novak was the ultimate insider newspaper columnist, at once celebrated and reviled by the movers and shakers among the politicians and journalists of the nation's capital. He was also the ultimate shoe-leather reporter, who in his heyday worked nearly round the clock with time left over to drink and gamble and exchange insults with his colleagues. He never lacked for sources or opinions, but the secret of his success was that he interviewed more people than his competitors did. Richard Harwood, my late, great editor at The Washington Post, used to say, "Make the extra phone call!" No one ever had to tell this to Novak. As his friend, Al Hunt, another persistent reporter, once told me, no one ever outworked Bob Novak.
Nor did anyone exceed Novak in self-confidence. For this useful trait he credited his doting mother, who indulged her only child and taught him he could accomplish anything he set out to do. "If you're just going to report on car wrecks and interview the victims, you don't need much confidence," Novak told Barbara Matusow of The Washingtonian in a 2008 interview. "But if you're going to make proclamations on the state of the world, it helps to have confidence -- even if that confidence is unwarranted."
Let me make the case that it might have been warranted, even though I mostly disagreed with Novak on everything except the current Iraq war. Opinions aside, Novak accomplished what many reporters in Washington only aspire to do -- tell the inside story of the skill and skullduggery of the political players, often from the mouths of the players themselves. The best stuff was in his columns, before he become a TV personality, but there are also many nuggets in the books he did with his sidekick Rowland Evans, my favorite of which is "Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power." Written before the Watergate break-in, this 1971 book portrays a president who was uncomfortable and suspicious in high office even when things were going well -- just the sort of chief executive who would authorize a break-in of opposition headquarters and lie about it.
Novak was a patriot who didn't care much for presidents. He was the true disciple of the now-forgotten John T. Flynn, a conservative reporter-columnist of an earlier era who wrote that the way for a reporter to look at a politician was down. In his candid memoir, "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington," Novak describes Lyndon Johnson as divisive, Nixon as a "fraud," Gerald Ford as a nice man who was over his head in the White House, Jimmy Carter as a "habitual liar," George H.W. Bush as clueless, Bill Clinton as a leftist posing as a man of the center, and George W. Bush as secretive and unwilling to admit mistakes. Novak rather liked John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan (also my modern presidential favorites) but considered them a bit light.
What makes "Prince of Darkness" so believable is that Novak is as hard on himself as he is on the politicians he covered. He tells us that his routine was to have two Scotches while having lunch with a source, and often a bottle of beer during the meal, write a column and then head to a bar near work by himself where he would consume two more Scotches before driving home to a cocktail hour with his wife and wine with dinner.
"I drank too much, I drove too fast, and often I combined them by driving under the influence," Novak wrote. He also confessed to occasional brawling and too much gambling. It took a series of health setbacks to persuade Novak that he had a "major drinking problem." An asthma attack induced him to give up his four-pack-a-day smoking habit in 1963.
Novak's memoir was also candid about nearly everything else. He admitted to neglecting his beloved wife, Geraldine, and their son and daughter, who turned out well anyway - Novak credited his wife – and he provided the details of his multi-faceted income, including putting the first three-piece suit he ever owned on his Wall Street Journal expense account. He acknowledged that he had been registered in two states and committed the "juvenile act" of voting twice for Dwight Eisenhower. He acknowledged underestimating Martin Luther King, and told of "scoops" that turned out wrong and of other scoops that never saw the light of day. He also acknowledged that he had been taken in by a false story fed to him by White House insiders who told him that Nixon decided to move the 1972 Republican National Convention from San Diego to Miami Beach because of concern about anti-war demonstrations.
"I had been used," Novak wrote. "We were so ravenous for exclusive news that we were susceptible to manipulation by leaks, compromising our credibility."
Novak was able to talk about himself in a way that few of us would have the courage to do because he was devoted, despite holding many outrageous opinions, to the truth. This is the quality that separates the great reporters from the pack, and Novak was a truly great reporter. In his best years he was the columnist equivalent of what the incomparable James Agee called himself and all writers: "cold-laboring spies," trying to win the confidence of the people we interview so we can make their stories our stories. And in the conservatism of his later years, Novak was also reasonably consistent. Love your country but never trust your government, Novak told a college graduating class that included his daughter.
It took me a long time to appreciate Novak, who was two years older than I am. We met during Reagan's abortive solicitation of Republican delegates in 1968 in the South, where I got off on the wrong foot by absent-mindedly forgetting his name. Big mistake. Late that night, at a bar, Novak came over to me, bought me a drink and said, "Don't ever forget that Robert Novak bought you this drink." I never did. In Washington, in later years, it often seemed that everyone I interviewed had already spilled his guts to Novak. Even the politicians who couldn't stand Novak talked to him because they knew Novak was talking to their enemies.
Our paths crossed often. Once I challenged him in a story in The Washington Post, chiding him for some now-forgotten calumny about James Baker, the accomplished White House chief of staff who was conservative by most standards but suspected of liberal sympathies by Novak. The Evans and Novak column had made an error, which I compounded with an error of my own, in my story about their attack on Baker. It wasn't until I wrote the correction that I learned that the original error was made by Evans, whom Novak defended to the point of pretending he had written the column.
As I later learned, it wasn't the first time that Novak had willingly taken the flack for something written by his colleague. The chink in Novak's armor was that he was a nice guy, but didn't want anyone to know it. He would phone people who had lost loved ones or were in some kind of trouble. But he never called these acts of kindness to anyone's attention. He was the journalistic equivalent of the ballplayer cast as a bad guy who was willing to visit the sick kid in the hospital just as long as no one reported it. Because he realized that being nice might make him vulnerable, Novak reveled in the nickname, Prince of Darkness, given him in 1964 by the mordant Newsweek reporter John Lindsay, whom we called "real John" to distinguish him from the then-mayor of New York. Novak wasn't yet a conservative, but Novak wrote that Lindsay gave him this label "because of my unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for American and Western civilization." He had that right. Appropriately, Novak was an admirer of Whittaker Chambers, who believed when he broke with Communism that he was leaving the winning side for the losing one.
Novak survived four cancers before the one that killed him as well as many other illnesses. He also survived controversies that would have ruined a lesser man. On the right, his patriotism was questioned because of his opposition to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. On the left, he was described as a traitor because of a column in which he revealed the name of CIA agent Valerie Plame, whose husband, Joseph Wilson, had sent her (in Novak's words) to Niger "to investigate possible Iraqi purchases of uranium." The column led to an investigation by a special prosecutor in which a New York Times reporter spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify her source and a national security aide was convicted of perjury. But Novak was not part of a White House plot to smear Wilson. He had protected his source, as any journalist should, until the FBI confronted him with a waiver from the source, Richard Armitage, saying he could reveal their conversation. Novak went to his grave wondering why neither Armitage nor the Justice Department had come forward to identify his source before a special prosecutor was named. I wonder, too.
Novak was born and raised as secular Jew and was briefly a Unitarian before becoming a Roman Catholic. He gives a compelling account of his conversion in "Prince of Darkness" and he told Matusow that his new religion was comforting to him as he prepared for the final months of his life. While reviewing Novak's memoir for National Review, I was reminded of the passing of the fictional Frank Skeffington, the charming but unscrupulous Boston political boss in Edwin O'Connor's novel, "The Last Hurrah." As Skeffington is fading, the mournful retinue at the dying man's bedside includes an old foe, a Roman Catholic cardinal, who in a misplaced attempt at forgiveness, proclaims that if Skeffington "had it all to do over again, there's not the slightest doubt but that he'd do it all very, very differently." Skeffington opens his eyes and says: "To hell I would!" One can easily imagine Robert Novak doing the same.
(Lou Cannon, a California free-lance writer and Reagan biographer, worked 26 years for The Washington Post.)
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