Bob Novak’s Washington
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.