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.
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.
At bottom, Novak insists that the whole thing was “a trivial incident exaggerated into a scandal by the Left and its outriders in the news media.” But his version focuses mainly on himself and the public anger he encountered, the break with CNN that resulted, and the steep legal fees he incurred, and only minimally on the fallout in threats of jail, heavy fines, and serious legal fees for other reporters and news organizations that got caught up in the story. That fallout is far from trivial, because reporters now know they can’t really promise confidentiality in the future and sources now know they can’t really expect it. The ranging degrees to which reporters and news organizations ended up cooperating with investigators is something that’s likely to be discussed and maybe second-guessed long into the future, and that is something about which Novak probably isn’t going to have the last word.