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Reading and writing obituary tributes to the great journalist Robert Novak will, no doubt, provide most of the day’s work for myself and others who admired Novak and his work. My young friend Richard Spencer recalls the famous question asked by Pat Moynihan, after Novak — of Jewish ancestry and a secular upbringing — had converted to Catholicism:
“Now that we have made Novak a Catholic, do you think we can make him a Christian?”
Novak made many friends during the course of his long career because he was never afraid to make enemies. When I heard the news of his death today, I remembered the first time I met Novak, at a May 2002 foreign policy forum sponsored by Pat Buchanan’s American Cause organization. And when I Googled Novak’s name along with the name of Georgie Ann Geyer, the Washington Times columnist whom I recalled as one of his co-panelists that day, I found this report of the event:
Not surprisingly, the public debate won little press attention, probably because it actually applied reason to matters much of the press doesn’t want reasoned out.
Mr. Buchanan… sided with columnist Robert Novak against Richard Perle of the American Enterprise Institute and Middle East expert Reuel Gerecht, formerly with the CIA, at a debate sponsored by Mr. Buchanan’s think tank, the American Cause. The first topic debated was “Should the U.S. invade Iraq?”
The case for invasion was made by Mr. Perle and Mr. Gerecht, who argued that Iraq is seeking or already has weapons of mass destruction, that it may give these weapons to terrorist groups, and that terrorists armed with them might then launch massive attacks on the United States or other American targets that would make Sept. 11 look like a fender bender on the Beltway. Mr. Perle was also emphatic that Iraq already supports terrorism and may have had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks themselves.
Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Novak questioned all of the above. The two journalists demanded to know what Saddam Hussein had done to threaten the United States or its extensions abroad and what evidence there is for Iraqi support for terrorism today… .
Mr. Buchanan’s point was that by the logic of his opponents, we should invade anywhere and everywhere a foreign government is doing something we don’t like or something that might someday somehow threaten us. That’s a formula for perpetual war — and his opponents said little to distance themselves from it.
It was Novak’s criticism of the Bush administration’s Iraq policy, and especially his agreement with Buchanan on that subject, that earned him inclusion in David Frum’s notorious 2003 catalog of “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”
Since then, Frum has gone on to attack others, including Mark Levin. This seems to demonstrate a lamentable habit on the part of Frum, whom I wish to regard as a friend. As a result of the Bush policy — and the rhetoric that attended the political defense of that policy — every consideration of the U.S. position in the Middle East became a crude referendum on anti-Semitism, so that all dissenters were suspected of being closet Jew-haters in “unpatriotic” allegiance with terrorists.
This Manichean rhetorical escalation was both unfortunate and unjust, even if some of the dissenters (including Buchanan) had unwisely given their critics ammunition with which to arm accusations of mala fides. When discussions of policy become clouded by such damaging insinuations, when disagreement is cited as evidence of moral inferiority — can anyone but a child molester be worse than an anti-Semite? — then honest discussion becomes impossible. We see much the same problem at work today, when every critic of the Obama administration risks the charge of “racism,” which is often implied even when it is not made openly.
My own feelings of friendship toward Frum, considering that he once did me a favor when I badly needed it, have caused me tremendous angst, given his repeated attacks on others whom I also consider friends.
Today, of course, Novak can no longer be harmed by accusations that he, born a Jew, was guilty of aiding and abetting anti-Semites. Whatever his faults and errors, Bob Novak now awaits the judgment of a higher authority than David Frum. Let us pray that Frum will now pause to consider that he, too, shall one day be judged by the same authority.
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The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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