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Washington’s Prince

Robert Novak has penned an American classic for all political seasons.

By 10.29.07

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This review appears in the October 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.

The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington
By Robert D. Novak
(Crown Forum, 662 pages, $29.95)

"I am not a person who is easy for a lot of people to like," Bob Novak writes early in this not-massive-enough memoir. But how can anyone ever dislike someone who never fails to make an impression, and always with an economy of words and never by shooting his mouth off?

I remember the first time I met him. It was early June 1983, in a conference room at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, where my magazine was hosting a dozen or so visiting British and European journalists and such eminences as Novak, Chris Matthews, and Robert Kaiser of the Washington Post had kindly come by to brief them on U.S. politics. One problem: the visitors were nowhere to be found. "I'm getting angry, I'm getting angry," Novak soon enough let on, drumming his fingers on the table in front of his chair and giving me a look that could kill. The session was to have begun promptly at 1 p.m. Our visitors didn't stagger in from their three-beer lunches until about 10-15 minutes later, oblivious to the insult they'd caused. Fortunately, the storm clouds lifted, Novak gave an expert presentation (certainly better than Matthews's hammering away at "the gender gap"), answered questions, and soon was off to his next designation.

One thing was immediately clear. This was a no-nonsense professional, someone who works very hard, can't afford to waste time, yet is also generous with it, as I've had occasion to observe many times since. Whenever I come across Michael Kinsley's famous slam at Novak, "Underneath the ass---- is a nice guy, but underneath the nice guy is another ass----," I cringe, not just for Kinsley's sake, who for all we know was projecting, but for Novak's, who has probably suffered more abuse than any journalist in Washington history, the recent Plame nonsense being merely the latest example. Typically, though, in a memoir that has some wonderfully blunt things to say about numerous Washington personages, Novak never responds to Kinsley in kind. Not even close. Underneath it all is a well-mannered gentleman.

And a gentleman reporter keeps most everything tight to the vest (his first came with the three-piece suit he purchased in frigid Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in 1960). It's been like that for five decades and counting. Consider a small recent dinner for Fred Thompson attended by Novak and George Will, among others. The discussion was political, cordial if cool. If not for this memoir, one would not have known that Thompson was a source of his during Watergate -- they'd first met at a Washington watering hole -- or that the fiercely competitive Novak has been a longtime admirer of Will, and in 1972 had unsuccessfully recommended Will to succeed David Lawrence at the Publishers-Hall syndicate. Rejecting Will's sample columns, Novak's contact at the syndicate told him, "The words are too long, the sentences are too long, the paragraphs are too long, the whole damn columns are too long. Bob, it's not a newspaper column."

Novak knew better, of course. Already by 1972 he'd been in the newspaper business for more than 20 years, including a senior year at the University of Illinois spent working for the Champaign-Urbana Courier (which almost cost him his senior year -- but that's another story). A temporary AP gig in Omaha led to full-time political reporting in Lincoln and then in Indianapolis, a transfer to Washington in 1957 and a year later a move to the Wall Street Journal, whose presence in Washington grew exponentially once it had Novak to cover the Senate and the 1960 presidential campaign. In 1961 Vermont Royster offered him a leading editorial position in New York that in 1963 would go to Robert Bartley. By then he had accepted Rowland Evans's offer to join him as his partner in a double-bylined syndicated column for the New York Herald-Tribune. An instant hit, initially it ran six mornings a week (among book and other writing projects, and soon enough, television, thanks above all to the pioneering work of Ed Turner). Even today, almost 15 years after Evans's retirement, Novak files three columns a week.

INSIDER WASHINGTON REPORTING has not seen anything like it, providing new information in every offering and requiring its authors to be no less politically savvy than its subjects and cultivating sources relentlessly. I lost track of the individuals Novak mentions as important sources -- at times he comes across as a director of central intelligence continually tapping into many networks of informants, knowing all the while that some might be more self-serving or devious than others. Some would arrange drops. Others would meet only in dank restaurants. And once in a while one of them would get Novak into trouble.

In one such instance, a good friend of his passed along a long memorandum from an off-the-record lunch in New York with Washington Post-Newsweek executives at which Secretary of State Dean Rusk heatedly denounced "pseudo-intellectual" critics of the Vietnam War. It was too juicy not to use, even though Novak had to lie to protect his source-who happened to be a Washington Post reporter-and even though Katharine Graham, president of the Washington Post Company, had attended the lunch. Imagine her surprise when in her own newspaper on the morning of October 13, 1967, she read about Rusk's off-the-record remarks to "a select group of New York executives." First thing that day, Novak received a frosty call from her. "She told me that I had caused her personal humiliation," and said to him "our personal relationship is now at an end." That was no skin off Novak's nose -- he had met her for the first time only several weeks earlier when, at LBJ's request, she had called Evans and Novak in to ask them to be nicer to him. Novak just didn't want to see their professional relationship come to an end. A profuse, 500-word letter of apology from Novak helped save his neck. The Washington Post was and remains the Novak column's most important outlet.

Other sources Novak liked he later learned were snakes -- David Stockman, for instance, who it turned out was alternating Saturday breakfasts with Novak and William Greider, author of the notorious Atlantic article in which Stockman mocked the supply-side policies he was supposedly championing. "You must think I'm Judas," Stockman said to Novak, in the last conversation they ever had. At least they had one. Bill Kristol, a source and friend for 17 years, Novak writes, never returned a call as promised after Novak's patriotism was questioned in National Review on the outbreak of the Iraq war, and when asked about Novak on C-Span during the Plame hysteria, replied, "Novak is a friend -- [pause] -- an acquaintance." One can sense this washing of hands hurt Novak more than all the physical pain he's withstood in his long career -- since 1981 alone he has survived spinal meningitis, two cancer operations, and two broken hips. He's a very tough guy, but even tough guys have real feelings.

You won't be able to put this book down.

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About the Author
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director of The American Spectator and the editor of AmSpec Online.