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.
There’s a kind of reporting that’s uniquely prized in the capital that focuses less on the merits of an issue than on the politics that often trump it; that takes early note of whose star is rising and whose stock is falling; that reveals signs that alliances are fraying and that cabals are forming. Evans and Novak became masters of this genre, and it became required reading throughout official Washington, from the Oval Office right down to the worker-bee cubicles in the cellars of the bureaucracy.
That happened with the help of sources too numerous to list here, although they included Colin Powell, Daniel Moynihan, Barry Goldwater, Russell Long, Wilbur Mills, Gene McCarthy, Melvin Laird, Bob Strauss, and Jack Kemp. The sources most people are interested in these days are those involved in the leak of Plame’s identity as a CIA officer, and he tells us much about his discussions with Armitage, who he says first provided it; a little about his discussions with Bill Harlow, the CIA spokesman who confirmed it; and almost nothing about his discussions with Rove, except to say that Rove told him, when asked about Plame, “Oh, you know that, too.” There was, he admits, more discussion than that, but he says that since Rove hasn’t spoken publicly about it, he hasn’t either. In short, we’re left not knowing just how much Rove told him or how strongly he encouraged him to write it.
While Novak both begins and ends his book with “The Plame Affair,” as he calls it, he doesn’t actually add much to what he’s already written and said. His shorthand version is that he broke no law and endangered no intelligence operation, and that he was just trying to answer the obvious question of why the Bush administration would have sent someone like Joe Wilson, a former Clinton White House aide, on a fact-finding mission to begin with. The answer: his wife was a CIA officer and the CIA sent him.
It was Newsday that broke the story, in July 2003, that Novak had outed an undercover officer in disclosing Plame’s identity, and that quoted a retired CIA official as saying that whoever leaked the story might have violated the law and endangered Plame’s career. The story also said: “Novak, in an interview, said his sources had come to him with the information. ‘I didn’t dig it out, it was given to me,’ he said.” Novak admits to the quote but says this didn’t mean they had come to him, and that it was “shoddy journalism” and “inexcusable” for it to be reported that way.
I was in my last weeks as editor of Newsday when the story was reported and don’t remember Novak complaining about it or asking for a retraction. Tim Phelps, who interviewed Novak, said he never asked for one but began attacking the story in October, more than two months later, after a special prosecutor had been appointed to investigate the leak, and after others had reported that Bush people had been trying to plant the story to punish Wilson for accusing the administration of hyping Iraq’s weapons threat.
Novak says no one planted the story with him and that he cooperated with the prosecutors only after his sources first gave themselves up and after his lawyer told him that trying to fight it in court was unlikely to succeed and could be “financially devastating.” That last statement was probably true and not to be minimized, particularly since he didn’t have a deep-pockets news organization to support him.