Robert Novak, that giant of American journalism, is dead.
In all of our history, few columnists have ever come close to having the impact Bob had on this country, and whenever I ponder that impact I think of the classic column from the early spring of 1976 that ran under the headline “The Sonnenfeldt Doctrine.”
State Department Counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt had told a private London gathering of American ambassadors that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was actually necessary for world peace. In fact, Poland was a good example of the benefits of Soviet control because that had enabled the Poles to overcome their “romantic” political instincts which had led to so many “disasters in their past.”
All this was contained in a secret State Department cable slipped to Novak by a highly placed source. Henry Kissinger’s right-hand man was confirming that détente was code for Communist victory over freedom. Within days, candidate Ronald Reagan who was challenging President Ford in Republican primaries, declared the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine meant “slaves should accept their fate.”
That column was quintessential Novak: Great reporting on secret State Department dealings that the people needed to know. About the only thing missing was Novak’s anger with Republican bean counters defending high taxes as the best way to balance the budget.
Ford survived the conservative eruption over Sonnenfeldt’s words only to have the column indirectly revived in his presidential debate with Jimmy Carter. A New York Times reporter asked the President about Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and, still defensive over the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine, the hapless Ford stubbornly insisted that the Polish people were free. The election was over.
For those who believed the Cold War should be won, Novak’s Sonnenfeldt Doctrine column was a gift that kept on giving. Eight years later I was director of the Reagan Administration’s Voice of America when top State Department official Lawrence Eagleburger summoned me to his office. He was enraged by tough VOA editorials damning Polish strongman Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski as being “Soviet imposed” on the people of Poland.
At one point, an aide interrupted Eagleburger’s harangue. “Tomlinson is a close friend of Bob Novak,” he explained. “Before he leaves we better have an agreement that he will not tell Novak of this meeting.” Suddenly Eagleburger’s demeanor changed. There were no more complaints about our anti-Soviet Polish broadcasts.
Throughout my life, I followed Bob Novak journalism like I followed the careers of my favorite sports figures. Later, as editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest, I would become one of Novak’s nominal bosses, though the fact was that every time I worked with him or was associated with him in any way, it was I who felt privileged.
I discovered the Evans-Novak column in the summer of 1963 shortly after it was launched by the New York Herald Tribune. I was a summer intern in Washington and a Goldwater fan, and it became apparent that reading Evans-Novak was the best way of following what was actually happening in the fledging Goldwater movement.
It turns out Novak, who got to know Goldwater covering the Senate, was no fan of the Arizona senator. But he was infatuated with the brilliant work of Goldwater political operative F. Clifton White, who actually orchestrated the Goldwater nomination. And White was a close source.
With the nomination in hand, Goldwater dumped White and imposed a collection of Arizona pols, and the Evans-Novak column seemingly gleefully chronicled the Goldwater debacle in the presidential race against Lyndon Johnson.
During the LBJ White House years, Evans-Novak produced a truly remarkable biography of Johnson that would be heralded by virtually all reviewers as the ultimate in reporting. The real Johnson in all his manipulative fury came live in this work. (It didn’t hurt that Novak had married Geraldine Williams, a top Johnson secretary.) Johnson biographer Robert Caro would declare that Novak’s work “has enriched mine in more ways than I can ever count.”
It has been noted many times that Evans and Novak were polar opposites. Evans was Yale, a close friend of the Kennedys, most comfortable at Georgetown dinner parties. Somehow his friendship with Henry Kissinger survived Novak.
Bob was Illinois and early in life was most at home in sports bars and, throughout his years in Washington, at unfashionable University of Maryland basketball games. (One day in the mid-70s after he had spent an evening with William F. Buckley, Jr. and friends at the Buckleys’ townhouse in Manhattan, Novak complained how boring the evening had been. “All they talked about was harpsichords,” he said.)
By day, however, Novak worked political sources like no other reporter. That is why so many people would be astonished when his political sources would become known. It was stunning when Novak revealed that the Democratic senator who dismissed the McGovern for President campaign as being about little more than “amnesty, abortion and acid” was none other than Thomas Eagleton, who McGovern would later (albeit briefly) choose as his vice presidential nominee. Who would have imagined that Novak’s source for the Valerie Plame CIA column was Richard Armitage, Colin Powell’s No.2 and certainly no friend of the Bush White House.
The fact is that Novak, as he would disclose in his autobiography, actually admired very few politicians. He wrote that he found the first politicians he covered less impressive than the athletic coaches he had covered as a young reporter — “an impression of the political class that did not change appreciably in a half-century of sustained contact.”
But then, many big-time politicians didn’t like Novak. Pat Buchanan relates a priceless story of being with Richard Nixon in the mid-’60s in a high-school gym in Indiana. Nixon peeked through the stage curtain, finding Novak in the first row of the press section. “Look at him,” Nixon commanded. “That’s Bob Novak. That’s the enemy.”
One of the few exceptions would be New York Congressman Jack Kemp, a close relationship that would grow from Novak’s magnificent obsession about supply-side economics that one day would have profound influence on the American economy. They genuinely liked each other.
Novak was the journalistic godfather of the supply-side movement, and his columns gave political legitimacy to Kemp’s 30% tax-rate cut proposal that would, at the 11th hour, make it into Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign offerings.
As influential as Bob’s work would be on the Reagan presidency, he did not care for many of the people (e.g. Jim Baker and Dick Darman) who surrounded the President in the White House. (He obviously liked Pat Buchanan and also respected Don Regan.) Novak believed that Reagan’s ability to survive those around him in the White House years is explained by a story the President once told him.
Two psychiatrists, one old, one young, commuted to work together. At the end of each day the young psychiatrist was exhausted and disheveled while his elder was as fresh as when he started the day. “Why are you so unaffected by your day?” the young psychiatrist asked. “I don’t listen,” his elder replied.
It was Novak’s theory that Reagan was so secure in his beliefs and so focused on the world he wanted to see that it really didn’t matter who was running his White House.
Novak had little regard for either President Bush (for different obvious reasons), but he found Karl Rove and his encyclopedic understanding of American politics irresistible. And Karl, as a source, would have a profound influence on both their careers, ending with the truly strange Plame affair. I will never understand why some did not believe that the Plame role in the CIA’s dispatching her husband to Niger was not a legitimate story.
And then there are some who also puzzled over the role Ted Turner would play in Bob’s life.
It was in the mid-’80s and Bob and I were preparing to enter the Atlanta coliseum for the ACC basketball tournament when I turned to the looming CNN building nearby. “What’s the deal on Ted Turner?” I asked.
That trademark toothy grin crossed his face, and Novak replied, “Ted doesn’t believe in anything.” (This was years before Turner married Jane Fonda and became an anti-nuclear activist, which some would argue confirms that he didn’t believe in anything.) Novak went on to observe that the kind of entrepreneurial genius responsible for the creation of CNN, whose news formats ran counter to every piece of conventional wisdom in the broadcast industry, could not be inhibited in people who don’t believe in anything.
It would turn out to be the irony of ironies that Bob Novak was be a part of Turner’s CNN from its inception — and that the concept of we-present-and-you-decide that would later be institutionalized by Fox News actually had its origins with Novak and CNN.
“Capital Gang” and “Crossfire” became institutions in the ’80s and ’90s (and all this would make Novak a rich man). He loved “ Capital Gang” And ”Crossfire” would turn Novak into a genuine folk hero. Even I was surprised at the large number of ordinary people who would line up at ACC basketball games to thank Bob for unabashedly standing up for them — and their conservative values. This was a first for American television.
But Novak would insist CNN was never the same after Turner left the network he founded, and control drifted into the hands of Time, Inc. functionaries. He came to believe that when “Crossfire” began featuring political characters like James Carville and Paul Begala, it trivialized his journalistic presence. He hated to lose “Capital Gang,” but was just as happy to see “Crossfire” end. Bob Novak was first and always a reporter, and that is what made the politics of his column so appealing for conservatives and liberals like.
How many reporters, when George W. Bush named Paul O’Neill as his Treasury secretary, knew that he had been a pal of young government staffer Dick Cheney and that it was O’Neill who was the reason Gerald Ford’s vision as he opened his presidential campaign was “essentially that of a Washington bureaucrat.”? Of course Novak wrote the column. But did Bush (and Rove) ever come to see that Novak was right?
In recent years, some of Novak’s most significant work was done in association with Tom Phillips, who had begun publishing the bi-weekly Evans-Novak Political Report in1971 at Phillips Publishing and then had moved the newsletter to Eagle Publishing after he founded Eagle in 1993. Under the umbrella of the Phillips Foundation, Phillips and Novak developed the nation’s largest journalistic grant program for young writers — offering five-figure stipends to finance research and development of significant conservative books and articles that otherwise would not have been produced.
Not a Saturday night passes that I do not miss “Capital Gang.” Spring is not the same without the ACC tournament. I cannot pick up the Saturday New York Post or the Monday Washington Post without a sense of regret that the column is not there.
Sign up to the Human Events newsletter