Robert Novak chose to subtitle his memoir, The Prince of Darkness, “50 Years Reporting in Washington,” and that is a good part of what is about: the people who passed through Washington over the course of a half century from the Eisenhower years and the New Frontier, through the Vietnam War, the Great Society, Watergate, Jimmy Carter and the Reagan Revolution. Novak was there with Rowland Evans through it all, knew the players and reported on what he saw, and carried on alone after Evans’ death in 2001.
Focus on the Truth
It’s a book that anyone interested in politics or journalism ought to read and, in the process, learn the story of a young Midwesterner from Joliet, Ill., who, after apprenticing for the Associated Press in such garden spots as Omaha, Neb., and Indianapolis, got his chance to come to Washington in the late 50s. It’s the story of his life, his collaboration with Evans, his family and his successes as well as his failures, because love him or hate him, Bob Novak has always told the truth as he’s seen it. And he’s as honest about himself as about the politicians he’s covered over the years.
It’s been quite a life. Novak has covered (and broken) many important stories over the course of his career, but he’s also enjoyed himself. The man, to start with, is “car crazy.” He runs around Washington these days in a black Corvette and spends an inordinate amount of his time in court-mandated remedial driving courses. He writes that he arrived here as a poorly paid reporter in 1958 driving a “1957 Ford convertible.” I ran into him after reading this memoir and suggested that a poorly paid reporter in 1958 wouldn’t have been driving such a car. He looked at me disdainfully and informed me, “I’ve never skimped when it comes to cars.” It’s no wonder that friends have gotten the impression that one of the most humiliating experiences he’s had to endure came after his first wife left with the Ford and he was forced to tool around town in her old Volkswagon until he could scrape together the money for a vehicle with more flair.
As I worked my way through this book’s 662 pages (cut down from an original manuscript that was more than twice as long, took three years to write and months for his editors to cut), I realized that for me at least Bob Novak had always been there. I began reading Evans & Novak as a high school student back in Wisconsin and just never stopped. The column was carried by the Wisconsin State Journal, and I’ve never tired of the reporting or the attitude.
Although Evans & Novak’s Sunday column of short, gossipy insider reports from Washington didn’t impress the perhaps overly sophisticated editors of the Washington Post who didn’t run it while I was in college, it was a real favorite in the hinterlands. It and just about every Evans & Novak column were avidly read and discussed by the political junkies of my generation who figured from their tone and the substance of what they wrote that these guys must have really known what was going on in Washington.
Today’s young conservatives consider him one of their own — a columnist and commentator who instinctively shares their values and goals, but it wasn’t always thus. In fact, as we read the Evans & Novak columns back in the 60s, we often found them as infuriating as they were interesting. As Goldwater conservatives, we weren’t all that amused by their obvious affinity for the Eastern Republicanism of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller or their penchant for dismissing our more conservative political heroes as “dinosaurs.”
This book is also the story of his journey along the ideological divide from where he started to where he stands today. He tells of the influence of Whittaker Chambers and of Jude Wanniski among others who helped him along or influenced his thinking so that today he enthusiastically embraces the politics of the very dinosaurs he found so amusing.
As I sat down to write this review, I realized that I should point out that I come to the task with a certain bias. I have known the man for more than 35 years, consider him one of the most important journalistic figures of his time and have come over the years to consider him a good friend. I also know that, friend or not, he would expect any reviewer to be honest in assessing his most important and personal book.
I first talked to Bob Novak as a young conservative in 1970. I came to Washington that summer to meet with then-President Richard Nixon and, while I was here, to interview for a job with Vice President Spiro Agnew, who decided to hire me in spite of what soon turned out to be my first run-in with the Prince of Darkness.
Early on the Sunday morning following my return to Wisconsin, my phone began ringing with calls from friends who cursed me for what I had allegedly done earlier in the week while I was in Washington. I had no idea what they were talking about until one of them angrily sputtered that I should get my morning paper and read about it in Evans & Novak.
What I read ruined my morning. The column reported briefly that I had been in Washington as an emissary sent by senior conservatives to urge the President to “muzzle” his rhetorically out of control Vice President. The authors didn’t explain why senior conservatives would saddle a 24-year-old with this task, but most of my friends who read it assumed it must be true.
I didn’t know what to do. I assumed my chance of landing a job in Agnew’s office was gone, but I had to do something to set the record straight and salvage whatever reputation I had among my conservative friends. I thought about it for a while and decided I would have to beard the lion in his den.
In those days, Novak’s number was listed, and after getting it from information, I called him to ask why he would publish such a report without even checking with me. I reached him, told him his report was dead wrong and asked my question. He rather haughtily told me that he had excellent sources and didn’t need to check with me for a short item that he “knew” to be true.
As I recall, I was shaking a bit, but told Novak that while I had no idea who his source might be unless it was Richard Nixon, Pat Buchanan or me, his source had absolutely no way of knowing what I told the President about Agnew or anything else. He hesitated for a moment before saying he would check with his source but was certain his information was sound. Then he hung up.
I went around in a bit of a funk for the next day or so, but when I got back from class the next Tuesday, there was a message waiting for me from Novak. When I returned the call, he told me that he’d checked and that, while he still suspected his source was correct, he had to admit he wasn’t there and had no way of really knowing what went on in the meeting. I breathed a sigh of relief when he gruffly promised to “correct” his report the next Sunday and was pleasantly surprised when he followed through on his promise.
That was my first run-in with Novak, his manner and his uncompromising devotion to the truth. I think that in checking, he discovered that his “source” had been less than truthful with him and subsequent dealings with the man convinced me that the one thing Bob Novak would never tolerate from anyone was a lie.
Contending With Liars
As he reveals in this memoir, he has had to contend with more than his share of liars during his career but has never forgiven one. He names more than a couple, while praising those who often provided him information though they had no agenda of their own but just wanted to help him get things right. Those are the sources a journalist such as Novak treasures and celebrates in this book.
He has been in a fight or two over the years and defeated all comers. He’s been on the verge of death, been disappointed by friends and had to defend himself a time or two with his fists as well as his typewriter. He tells us all of this and lets us know which fights he wished he had avoided and which he’s sorry he didn’t pursue.
Novak begins and ends his memoir with the so-called Valerie Plame Affair and lays out exactly what happened. Those who have followed the tens of thousands of words written about the leak and Novak’s role in “outing” the woman as a CIA “operative” will find that what really happened differed in many respects from what others thought had happened. But as one gets into the book itself it becomes clear that this wasn’t the first time that a Novak or Evans & Novak story had the sort of repercussions that always made the column necessary reading.
We learn that, in Novak’s view, Sen. Eugene McCarthy (D.-Minn.) gave one of the greatest political convention speeches ever and that Novak didn’t like Richard Nixon or Spiro Agnew, despised Jimmy Carter as a liar and was amazed by the incompetence of many of the men and women in positions of power and influence who crossed his path over the years.
Some of his initial encounters with people he would later cover were humorous. In 1971, for instance, Novak attended a White House Correspondents Dinner where he met a young and obviously ambitious John Kerry whom he thought “arrogant and pretentious.” After the dinner, Kerry approached Novak, informed him that he was going to run for Congress and said, “I’d be privileged to feel free to call on you for advice now and then.”
Novak simply looked at the eager young liberal and said “John, what makes you think I’m for you.”
One man who turned out to be far deeper and more serious than Novak at first thought, however, was Ronald Reagan. In fact his report on a conversation he and Evans had with Reagan back in 1981 is worth repeating here as it revealed a side of Reagan that even many of those of us who admired him most didn’t know existed.
Novak and Evans sat down with Reagan two months into his presidency, and Evans asked a question that both men at first thought Reagan wasn’t going to be able to answer very succinctly. The question was simple enough: Evans wanted to know which philosophical writers and thinkers influenced Reagan most.
As Novak reports, Reagan replied “oh, boy, Rowly” and went silent. Both interviewers thought he was at a loss, but then it became clear that he was simply gathering his thoughts. Writes Novak: “Describing himself as a ‘voracious reader,’ Reagan cited 19th-Century free-trade advocates John Bright and Richard Cobden and 20th-Century Austrian free-market economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek. He also said, ‘Bastiat has dominated my thinking so much.’ Bastiat? Rowly and I had to look him up.”
“Later in the interview,” Novak continues, “Reagan talked about liberal clergymen who had been influenced by Reichenbach’s advocacy of big government taking care of the poor. Reichenbach? That sent Rowly and me back to the reference books to look up Hans Reichenbach (1891-1953), a German philosopher who belonged to the Vienna Circle of legal positivists. Reagan was better read and better educated than we were.”
They were impressed.
This is a book to savor. Novak names many of his sources and tells us a lot about how journalism and Washington really work. The 50 years he covers might as well be called the “Novak Era,” because without him, they might well have been different and certainly far less interesting.
He’s relaxing more now, but he’s still working, and for that we can all be grateful.