Bob No­vak’s Wash­ing­ton

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary - BY BRETT M. DECKER

In his re­cently re­leased mem­oirs, “The Prince of Dark­ness: 50 Years Re­port­ing in Wash­ing­ton,” vet­eran colum­nist Robert D. No­vak pro­vides nearly 700 pages of ev­i­dence to jus­tify his di­a­bol­i­cal nick­name. On the first page of the book, he calls Joe Wil­son, hus­band of Va­lerie Plame, the CIA bu­reau­crat he outed, a naughty word. He then set­tles a half-cen­tury of old scores, in­clud­ing one against a pur­port­edly un­tal­ented and charm­less hack who beat him out for a sports edit­ing job on his school news­pa­per in the 1940s.

The book, how­ever, is more than a long, lurid vendetta. Read from cover to cover, it of­fers the tale of a jour­nal­ist com­ing of age in the post­war era and why he grad­u­ally be­came a con­ser­va­tive. As Mr. No­vak de­scribes the ever-ex­pand­ing reach and risk of the fed­eral nanny state, “A gov­ern­ment that can give you ev­ery­thing can take ev­ery­thing away.” That’s why he de­fends small gov­ern­ment, low taxes and pro­tec­tion for civil lib­er­ties.

At a re­cent book sign­ing, the fa­mous writer re­flected that most read­ers of his new­est pub­li­ca­tion are most in­ter­ested in his re­la­tion­ships with Lyn­don Baines John­son and John F. Kennedy, and his con­ver­sion to Ro­man Catholi­cism at 67 years old. There is a rea­son for this. The sto­ries are fas­ci­nat­ing, and they paint a color­ful por­trait of an in­ter- es­t­ingly rib­ald Wash­ing­ton that is long gone.

For ex­am­ple, there is the time Mr. No­vak forced a drunk LBJ into a taxi to save him from fur­ther em­bar­rass­ing him­self dur­ing a long night of drink­ing at the Na­tional Press Club. There is a char­ac­ter­is­tic ac­count of JFK show­ing in­ter­est in a young lady that the bach­e­lor No­vak had picked up at a bar. Richard Nixon sin­gled out the in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter as “the en­emy” to his young aide Pa­trick Buchanan, though Mr. No­vak bash­fully laments that he didn’t make the cut for Tricky Dick’s of­fi­cial en­e­mies list.

At one point, FBI Di­rec­tor J. Edgar Hoover or­dered sur­veil­lance taps on all of the No­vaks’ phones. The com­mand wasn’t car­ried out be­cause the head of the FBI’s black­ops de­part­ment was a source for an Evans and No­vak col­umn and qui­etly dis­obeyed his pow­er­fully vin­dic­tive boss.

It is shock­ing that the Evans and No­vak col­umn never won a Pulitzer Prize. For more than 40 years, im­por­tant news has been bro­ken in the col­umn. All the scoops be­lie the pas­sion of an old-school re­porter who out-hus­tled other jour­nal­ists by wear­ing out shoe leather, get­ting sources drunk and oc­ca­sion­ally play­ing hard­ball. On this last score, Mr. No­vak’s no­to­ri­ous warn­ing to a vac­il­lat­ing source has be­come part of Wash­ing­ton lore: “You are ei­ther a source or a tar­get.” This mem­oir makes clear ex­actly how risky it is not to be a source.

Not only does Mr. No­vak de- scribe a boozy Wash­ing­ton old boys’ club, where pol­icy and pol­i­tics were con­ducted over scotch and smokes, but he be­moans a jour­nal­is­tic pro­fes­sion that has changed as much as the cap­i­tal has, and like­wise not al­ways for the bet­ter. For in­stance, it was shock­ing to him how few col­leagues in the Fourth Es­tate came to his de­fense for doggedly pro­tect­ing the iden­tity of his sources dur- ing the re­cent CIA leak con­tro­versy. He notes the irony of lib­eral Demo­cratic jour­nal­ists slur­ring him as a Repub­li­can patsy when his pro­fessed mis­sion has long been to “give ev­ery­body a hard time.”

Sur­pris­ingly, the reader catches glimpses of the care­fully hid­den, ten­der side of the dark prince of jour­nal­ism who fondly misses old friends who have passed away. He re­counts with rel­ish how Sen. Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han quipped at Mr. No­vak’s 1998 bap­tism that, “No­vak is now a Catholic. The ques­tion is: When will he be­come a Chris­tian?” What he doesn’t re­port from that event is what I wit­nessed from the pew be­hind the cyn­i­cal old sen­a­tor. As the priest poured holy wa­ter over the con­vert’s head to cleanse him of his sins, Pat Moyni­han sobbed, wiping tears away from his eyes.

The Va­lerie Plame af­fair proved how Mr. No­vak is still on top of his pro­fes­sion break­ing ma­jor sto­ries into his sev­en­ties. Per­haps equally as im­por­tant to­day are the au­thor’s warn­ings and count­less il­lus­tra­tions about how thor­oughly po­lit­i­cal power cor­rupts. Mr. No­vak’s in­scrip­tion in this reviewer’s copy of his mem­oirs reads: “To a good friend and a real con­ser­va­tive even if he works for the gov­ern­ment.” This cranky mes­sage gets to the heart of the Prince of Dark­ness’s phi­los­o­phy: “Al­ways love your coun­try but never trust your gov­ern­ment.” His book pro­vides 50 years of anec­dotes for why that is wise ad­vice, and why he is feared like the devil in the halls of power.

Brett M. Decker, a re­porter and television pro­ducer for the “Evans and No­vak Inside Re­port” from 1996-99, is a se­nior vice pres­i­dent for the Ex­port-Im­port Bank.

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