As you surely know by now, Bob Novak stormed off the set of CNN’s “Inside Politics” yesterday, after declaring that James Carville’s gleeful suggestion that he (Novak) was trying to “show these rightwingers that he’s got backbone” to be “bullshit.”

We found the incident amusing, of course, but also baffling. We ourselves probably would have been offended by Carville’s suggestion, had it been about us — he implied, after all, that Novak wasn’t intellectually honest.

But that’s the reason we’re not television commentators (well, one of the reasons) — it’s almost expected in such a forum that people will parrot talking points instead of honestly engaging an issue. In truth, Novak has for a long time operated in a murky place between journalism and political hackery — just the fact that he once chose to host a debate show like “Crossfire,” on which he proudly proclaimed his ideological bona fides, renders absurd the idea that Carville’s suggestion was such a horrible affront to his intellectual purity. Can Ken Mehlman or Howard Dean plausibly claim that they don’t engage in spin to benefit their party? Of course not. Yet a man who has spent years getting paid to spout his side’s rhetoric on television storms off the set when someone implies he’s pandering to his ideological base?

There have been a few explanations offered for Novak’s behavior, of course. One is that Novak’s been having a tough time of it lately, what with his involvement in the Plame leak, and he simply lost his cool. That’s possible, we think, though Novak has been on television far too long to engage in such amateurish behavior, particularly as he was relatively unprovoked. Another is Mickey Kaus’ theory that Novak was “running from a book” — that he escaped the set before Ed Henry was able to ask him whether he’d discovered Plame’s maiden name from the book Who’s Who in America, which was sitting on the desk in front of Henry. But that’s not entirely satisfying either, as Novak knew he would be asked about the Plame case in advance. Had he wanted to avoid answering, surely he could have thought of a better way to go about it.

We’ll never know for sure why the incident happened, of course, but there’s something in the words of Amy Sullivan that, to us, just felt right. She wrote:

It’s not just that Novak doesn’t want to answer questions; what’s clear is that he doesn’t think he should have to. The comparison that keeps coming to my mind is with Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessup in “A Few Good Men.” “You need me on that wall. You want me on that wall. And you can’t handle it if I have to out a few CIA agents now and then.”

Novak’s outburst yesterday made him look more than ever like someone who’s stayed in the game for too long, who’s grown arrogant and condescending and contemptuous of the notion that he might be held to account for his actions, and who remains obdurately oblivious to the fact that in many quarters he’s considered something less than a paragon of journalistic integrity.

At least now the 74-year-old Novak will have some time to reflect; CNN has announced that the network has “asked Mr. Novak to take some time off,” though they’re “characterizing it as a mutual decision.”

We’re characterizing it as a good one.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.