Every now and then a book comes along that everyone interested in politics should read. The new memoir by veteran journalist Robert D. Novak, I think, is one of those books.
Most people, even those who live there, wonder what Washington politics is really like behind the scenes. There is no one in political journalism better equipped to tell that story than Bob Novak. In The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington he tells it with an honesty and wit worthy of Balzac — he spares no one, including himself.
Bob Novak has been a political reporter in Washington since 1957. Along with Bill Buckley, Novak has written the longest running syndicated column in America. He has published the Evans-Novak Political Report since 1963 and pioneered television journalism culminating with CNN's Capital Gang and Crossfire.
After 25 years at CNN he moved to Fox News over wrongful on-air accusations that he had leaked confidential information about a CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Novak's chilling account of the Plame affair, grand jury and all, suitably begins and ends a book filled with accounts of politically motivated lies and deceptions.
Novak's sometimes hilarious, often startling experiences with Washington notables through thirteen administrations combine to create a veritable Bonfire of the Vanities of our nation's political life.
His personal takes and insider stories on presidents, congressmen, and media celebrities will not be well-received in the halls of power.
I expect Novak will be on the receiving end of some fairly cutting jibes and attempts to squelch sales of his book by dismissing it as the vindictive ramblings of a right-winger who stayed in journalism too long. Washington is already buzzing about which cable news show will, or more likely will not, interview Novak about his book.
Novak admits he has "few heroes," and apparently none of them have been political leaders. Since leaving the sports reporting of his youth, he has consistently found politicians "less impressive" than the athletic coaches he covered as a teenager. Jimmy Carter is described as a "habitual liar," Nixon a "bad man," Gore a "phony," and Gerald Ford as the "nicest person to be president during my career, [but] was ill equipped for the job." The list could go on and on.
One hundred pages into the book Novak made what I took to be a cynical comment, "Little in Washington is on the level." By the end of the book, over 500 pages later, I thought he had pretty much made his case.
For the story it tells about American politics, as well as its candor, Novak's book covering his five decades as a print and TV journalist, immediately becomes the indispensable guide to what you really need to know about the messy intersection of the media and politics in Washington.
Novak's memoir, however, has another more edifying side. Catholics and others will be fascinated by the conversion to Christianity of a non-practicing (but bar-mitzvahed) Jew from Joliet, Illinois. The grandson of Jewish immigrants, Novak was never — uncharacteristically — a liberal, although he was sometimes perceived as such. His father Maurice, an engineering expert in gas production, was fervently anti-New Deal and FDR, a "rare Republican Novak." There was so much political news floating around the house, through newspapers, magazines, and radio shows Novak became "addicted to politics" before he was nine!
He was also addicted to sports, and not being very good at any of them, he resorted to covering them for school newspapers, first in high school then in college. When the school administration did not name him as sports editor of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois he learned a lesson that would change his life: "It taught me that politics for me was a lot like sports. I was a lot better reporting it than practicing it. I am not a person it is easy for a lot of people to like. No stirrer-up of strife is ever very popular."
His self-description as a "stirrer-up of strife" was inspired by a figure from Canto XVIII of Dante's Inferno, Bertrans de Born who is depicted as carrying his severed head like a lantern.
Novak admits there were other reasons he was not likeable. He was perceived as arrogant, was prone to depression, and did not make predictably optimistic comments about the future of the country. This led to the "Prince of Darkness" label first bestowed on him by John J. Lindsay of the Washington Post.
It didn't help that for most of his life he was a heavy drinker, as were many of his generation, which sometimes led to angry words with friends or a fist being thrown at a belligerent colleague. Drinking was so much a part of his daily routine the reader may be left feeling a bit thirsty.
Novak admits his foibles and his mistakes. His drive to scoop other reporters led him to some serious blunders. He admits being "used" by Chuck Colson to write a story suggesting a pending lawsuit against Time magazine for claiming Colson was connected to the Watergate break-in. When Colson never sued it became apparent he never had any intention to do so. Novak concludes his name wasn't found on Chuck Colson's famous "Enemies List" from the Nixon White because "I could be manipulated."
Whereas his dogged pessimism set him apart from fellow journalists at the beginning, it was his style of reporting, and eventually his discovery of faith, that led to a greater sense of isolation from centers of power.
An early turning point came during the McGovern campaign for the Democratic nomination. Novak quoted a "liberal Senator" who said people didn't know that McGovern "is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot… Once middle-America — Catholic middle-America, in particular — finds this out, he's dead." Although McGovern beat Humphrey for the nomination, the "Triple A" label (amnesty, abortion and acid) contributed to his dismal showing against Nixon in 1972. The irony of that story is revealed for the first time in this memoir: the "liberal senator" was Thomas Eagleton, a Catholic, who McGovern eventually chose as his running mate.
Novak writes, "The liberal establishment — including journalistic colleagues — never forgave me."
The scorn of the establishment would grow to encompass conservatives and Republicans due to the 124 columns written on Watergate with partner Rowland Evans. In one particularly colorful episode, White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig called Novak into his office and "smashing" his West Point ring on his desk asked, "How can you defy your commander-in-chief?" Novak had to remind Haig he was a reporter and hadn't served in the military since the Korean War.
Novak often observed the overt media bias in favor of the Democratic Party. During the 1960 campaign the lead reporter for the New York Times, William Lawrence, commented on being assigned to covering Nixon: "I think I can do Jack [Kennedy] more good when I'm with Nixon."
This thread can be traced throughout the book, e.g.; the reporters covering the 1972 campaign "were so deeply in love with McGovern they had taken leave of their better judgment." After the story broke on Thursday before the 2000 election of George W. Bush's previous arrest for drunk driving "Reporters covering his campaign could not conceal their elation." When it looked as if Al Gore was going to beat Bush on election night, "[Bill] Press was so excited he could barely contain himself on the air…"
The counterpoint of these political and journalistic machinations is the warm account of Novak's lifelong friendship with his partner Rowly Evans, his marriage to a former aide to Lyndon Johnson, Geraldine Williams from Hillsboro, Texas, and their mutual discovery of the Catholic Church. Without her husband knowing, Geraldine had become an anti-abortion activist in the early 90s.
When Geraldine began attending Mass at St. Patrick's Church near the Capitol her husband began going with her. When he revealed their regular Mass attendance to a student from Syracuse University after a lecture she bluntly asked when they planned to join the Church. He replied that they had no such plans and she responded, "Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever." When Novak returned to DC he "suggested to Geraldine that the time had come for both of us to enter the Church." They were received on May 20, 1998.
Reading The Prince of Darkness you encounter a long life lived navigating the tumult of political storms, but also a life that finds itself suddenly, and peacefully, coming to rest on a further shore.
Robert D. Novak's The Prince of Darkness can be purchased from Amazon.