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Bob Novak and Me

5 years ago
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I learned of the death of Bob Novak from an e-mail sent to me by an NPR reporter looking for a comment. And I felt awkward, for my last public exchange with the conservative columnist and TV pundit who relished his "Prince of Darkness" nickname had been an ugly one. There is, of course, the don't-speak-ill-of-the-dead rule. But what could I say about a fellow who had blasted me on national television as an ideological hack?

There wasn't always bad blood between us. Years earlier, as a substitute host on CNN's "Crossfire," I had come to enjoy wrestling with Novak. When I began that gig, though, he barely paid any attention to me before or after tapings, adopting an attitude that seemed to say, "Show me your stuff, kid." He acted as if I were an irritant, not a sparring partner who deserved to be in the ring with him. But I didn't expect much from Novak. For years, I had thought he used his column and cable appearances to do favors for conservative allies and to sully (sometimes unfairly) liberals. Eventually, he warmed up -- well, as much as he could -- and started pumping me for information on what Democrats and liberals in Washington were thinking. I hardly held any top-secret information in that regard, but we did what most political reporters in D.C. do when forced to spend time together: trade tidbits, gossip and half-stories. And in his 2000 book, "Completing the Revolution" (as in: the "conservative revolution"), he described me as a "bright, young, left-wing journalist." (Given his age, I suppose someone in his early 40s was "young.")

So on July 15, 2003 -- as I was about to write the first article suggesting that the leak in a recent Novak column outing Valerie Plame Wilson as a CIA officer might have been a violation of federal law -- there was no reason not to call him for a comment. I was not accusing Novak of committing any crime. A little-known law called the Intelligence Identities Protection Act prohibited government officials from passing such classified information to reporters; it did not say that a journalist couldn't use the information once he or she obtained it.

Though Novak's column had yet to spark controversy, he was not eager to talk to me about it -- but he did. He brusquely said he had no reluctance about blowing Valerie Wilson's cover. Referring to his two Bush-Cheney administration sources, he noted, "I figured if they gave it to me, they'd give it to others. . . . I'm a reporter. Somebody gives me information and it's accurate, I generally use it."

I quoted Novak in my article -- which did not slam him. In my mind, the main culprits were the administration officials who were his sources. (They turned out to be Richard Armitage at the State Department and Karl Rove at the White House, but this wouldn't be known for years. Scooter Libby, Cheney's chief of staff, also leaked the same information to Judith Miller of The New York Times.) In the following years, as I covered the CIA leak scandal, I repeatedly explained to Novak-bashers that that he had done nothing illegal under this particular law.

Still, I heard that he was mighty steamed at me. I assumed that he, like other conservatives, believed that I had single-handedly kicked off the CIA leak investigation, which had caused him to retain a lawyer and spend a ton of money. (I doubt it was my one article that led the CIA's lawyers to ask the Justice Department to investigate the leak in Novak's column.) Perhaps more important to Novak, his starring role in this caper tainted his reputation. (Soon after the inquiry began, Novak revealed his sources to investigators, but he said nothing publicly for 2½ years.)

Fast-forward to September 2006. That month, Newsweek's Michael Isikoff and I published our book "Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War," which broke the news that Armitage had been Novak's primary source for the Valerie Wilson leak. Novak and other conservatives quickly pounced on this revelation to argue that the Bush White House had not been involved in outing Valerie Wilson -- ignoring the fact that Rove and Libby, who both had been hell-bent to discredit former Ambassador Joe Wilson, an administration critic, had also leaked information about his wife's CIA identity to reporters.

As this debate raged, Novak went on C-SPAN and made a series of harsh comments. He said the CIA leak investigation -- which had led to the conviction of Libby for obstructing justice -- was a big nothing burger that had merely been "ginned up by left-wing journalists such as David Corn." He called me a "left-wing ideologue" and claimed that I had advised Joe Wilson and egged him on to make a stink about his wife's outing. (That was a false statement; Joe Wilson needed no encouragement to be upset about what had happened to his wife.)

Novak got personal. He said:

Mr. Corn is a nasty piece of work -- let me tell you that. And he was the one who really built this story up. He is in what I think is a deliciously ironic situation because he was one of the people -- much more, I believe, than Chris Matthews -- [responsible] for building this story up from the outset. . . . And he is in a position where most of the investigative work done by his partner Isikoff he is a party to breaking down this story . . . which must actually destroy him.

He also said of me, "I don't think he's really interested in getting facts. He's interested in getting out a line."

But rather than being destroyed, I was delighted that our book, with all its playing-it-straight revelations about the CIA leak case and the Bush's administration sales job for the Iraq war, had become a bestseller.

I was, however, saddened that Novak, who had admirably been a skeptic of the Bush-Cheney administration's decision to invade Iraq, had now become an apologist for the Bush White House (and Rove) on the CIA leak story. He was miscasting facts and repeatedly refusing to acknowledge that the Bush-Cheney gang had tried to undermine Joe Wilson -- and that this effort had included disseminating information about Valerie Wilson's CIA employment. (By the way, the Bush White House issued the false statement that Rove was not connected to the leak -- and never corrected itself.)

After this dust-up, I didn't have much to do with Novak. His career certainly has entailed much more than the CIA leak case. So what to tell the NPR reporter? I noted that, ideology aside, Novak had been one of the most successful practitioners of insider journalism in Washington for decades, yet it seemed to me that he had too often allowed his bias to shape his reporting -- as opposed to using his reporting to support his bias. But in its short piece, NPR didn't have space for that. (I'm not complaining; three minutes is not much time.) Instead, NPR used my observation that for many people the CIA leak case "was an event that came to define" Novak. My hunch is that Novak realized that and hated it -- and that's why he came to dislike me so much, blaming the reporter for the facts reported.

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