Novak, Chapter Two: In Which Our Prince of Darkness Finds Himself Aggrieved

Robert Novak is feeling a bit glum today. Not, mind you, because of yesterday’s hit-(a pedestrian)-and-(try to)-run accident—“He’s not dead, that’s the main thing,” Novak noted, with characteristic aplomb—but rather because his good friends at Camp McCain have, apparently, used him (grievously) and abused him (egregiously).

The tale is a sad one. Remember how this week was going to be the week when John McCain, to steal Obama’s thunder, was going to announce his prom date running mate? And remember how today was going to be, you know, The Day? But, alas, poor Novak. No announcement has come. He was wrong. And, apparently, wronged.

Wronged, because the whole Veep Rumor was started by Novak. Via his high-level sources in the McCain campaign. Thus wrote the Prince, Monday evening, on the Human Events Web site:

Sources close to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign are suggesting he will reveal the name of his vice presidential selection this week while Sen. Barack Obama is getting the headlines on his foreign trip. The name of McCain’s running mate has not been disclosed, but Mitt Romney has led the speculation recently.

From there, the tip moved along Campaign Gossip’s predictable trajectory: from Human Events to Drudge to The Page (where “***NOVAK BOMBSHELL***” was Halperin’s headline) to the wires to the newspapers to cable TV to…everywhere. Soon, everyone was talking about The Big Announcement.

The McCain campaign, not unsurprisingly, did what it could to stoke the rumors…by playing coy about them. When asking about the Running Mate Scuttlebutt on the Straight Talk Express, the WSJ’s Elizabeth Holmes notes, reporters were replied to as follows:

“Go away!” laughed Mark Salter, a senior aide.

“What do you want you little jerks?” McCain said.

“A reporter asked the candidate outright if he would be announcing his running mate in New Hampshire on Tuesday,” Holmes reports. “McCain responded with a mischievous grin and silently backed away.”

And “Salter later offered this dance: ‘I’m not denying, I’m not confirming.’”

Which was, in retrospect, it seems, merely the McCain campaign’s clever ploy to get attention (through Novak)—while revealing precisely zero new information (through Novak). Good politics; bad juju. Particularly because, in their move, they’ve officially Pissed Off the Prince of Darkness. “I got a suggestion from a very senior McCain aide … that he was going to announce it this week,” Novak tells the WSJ today (in a piece called “Veep Hoax”), and the campaign “suggested I put it out.” He now suspects, he says, that Camp McCain was “trying to get a little publicity to rain on Obama’s campaign. That’s pretty reprehensible if it’s true.”

But true it seems to be. And now, today, on top of everything else, Novak is feasting on crow.

Per the WSJ:

Barack Obama may be grabbing headlines overseas, but John McCain’s campaign knew exactly how to grab a few of its own this week. His staff apparently encouraged a report that the Arizona senator was on the verge of stealing a march on Mr. Obama by announcing the name of his vice presidential running mate. Columnist Robert Novak reported that Mitt Romney was the most likely front-runner…. Mr. McCain used to be lionized by the national media before Barack Obama came around and became the new, new thing. Now the Arizona senator is reduced to fighting for attention any which way he can. On the issue of his VP choice, chalk up one slightly ugly media victory for Team McCain.

And here’s the Houston Chronicle:

A reporter is only as good as his sources, and columnist Robert Novak is feeling dirty. The prince of darkness stirred up a frenzy when he reported that McCain may be making a veep announcement this week. Novak now believes he was intentionally misled by sources in the campaign, who were trying to steal some focus from Obama. That’s just wrong!

Alas, poor Novak.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.