Longtime D.C. political columnist Robert Novak died today at age seventy-eight. This review of Novak’s autobiography originally ran in the July/August 2007 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review.
The best story that Bob Novak broke during Watergate was about the eighteen-and-a-half-minute gap on a tape, and he got it the same way he got many of his scoops in those days. He met a friendly source at the fashionable Sans Souci restaurant, had a couple of drinks and a meal, and then walked back to his office and wrote what he’d been told. Novak wasn’t the sort of reporter who ambushed targets returning to their apartments at midnight or who met with sources in underground parking garages. He had a deserved reputation for very hard work, but his idea of clandestine reporting was to reserve a table at a second-rate restaurant where he wasn’t likely to run into any of his friends.
It was John Lindsay of Newsweek who dubbed him “The Prince of Darkness,” and it had less to do with his pugnacious conservatism than with his gloomy pessimism about what he considered the sorry state of the country. It also was Lindsay who joked that the buzzing noise on the tape Novak wrote about wasn’t an attempt to scramble the evidence but just Nixon running around the Oval Office in his bumblebee suit. That’s a story not repeated in this book, which would have benefited from a little more levity.
Novak says that he did “fastidious” reporting on Watergate, and that the notion that he and Rowland Evans, his longtime partner in the “Evans & Novak” column, were apologists for Nixon is a liberal canard. In fact, they wrote almost nothing at all about Watergate between the time of the break-in and the start of the congressional hearings a year later. Novak’s biggest scoop came seventeen months after the burglars were caught. It wasn’t until he was told by another trusted source in another fashionable restaurant that Nixon was finished and everyone knew it that he started cranking out more than 120 columns on the subject, which some might consider confirmation of Murray Kempton’s observation that the role of a columnist at a modern-day newspaper is to ride down from the safety of the hill after the battle has ended and shoot the wounded.
Watergate was long ago, and just a short episode in Novak’s long career. But the chapter is representative of much of this 639-page autobiography in that it’s defensive, self-congratulatory, somewhat revisionist, and intent on having the last word. The same is true of his chapters on the Valerie Plame CIA leak case, thirty years later. Novak says he is “not a person who is easy for a lot of people to like,” but even for someone with this tough-guy image there’s much in his book that seems mean-spirited and gratuitously insulting. He begins it by saying that Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, is an “asshole” and ends it by suggesting that Richard Armitage, the State Department official he identified as his primary source on the story, acted like one in keeping his identity hidden while much of official Washington put the blame on Karl Rove, a close friend who in fact was also a source. His chapter on the Carter presidency is titled: “The Snopes Clan in the White House.”
And yet it’s a book that’s hard to put down. It’s both engaging and engrossing, filled with compelling stories from Novak’s half-century of reporting on our government and its leaders, his encyclopedic knowledge of how Washington works, and his gritty descriptions of the sausage-making that legislation often involves. Like the Drew Pearson Diaries 1949-1959, it’s a book likely to be mined by historians for years to come for its insights into the people and events that helped shape American life.
There have been many criticisms over the years, with Newsweek noting that the column was sometimes disparaged as “Errors & No Facts,” and The Wall Street Journal criticizing its strident view and propensity to promote jobs for friends. David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director, said that Novak could be so depended on to convey his messages that he used the column as his “bulletin board.”
But Novak has admirers as well, including other reporters who watched him spend years slogging through the backwater political precincts all over the country, talking with voters, doing informal polling, and interviewing the foot soldiers in thousands of campaigns. He’s got an impressive record of accurate predictions for House and Senate races that stretches back to the sixties. And many of the people who later became important sources at his Washington lunches—including people as different in their politics as Les Aspin and Karl Rove—were people he first cultivated while doing street-level reporting in Wisconsin and Texas and everywhere else in America.