The Prince Redeemed
If Hollywood is home to “kiss and tell” memoirs, should Washington be the source of the “kiss up and tell” variety? Not if you’re the self-acknowledged, if not self-proclaimed “prince of darkness” of our capital city. Over the course of a half-century of plying his trade, whether as a University of Illinois student journalist or as a young reporter in Omaha and Indianapolis or as a longstanding Washington columnist/institution, Robert Novak has never been known to grovel before anyone. Take a poke? Maybe. Unleash a scowl? Certainly. Grovel? Never. If anything, when it comes to dealing with the powerful, Novak’s trademark approach might better be labeled anti-groveling.
By his own estimation, Novakian-style journalism has been very, very good to Robert Novak. In fact, by his own admission, it is the only trade at which he could have made the kind of living that he has made. Perhaps that’s because the print business provided Novak with an entrée to a somewhat related enterprise, an enterprise that encourages grovelers to grovel and enables anti-grovelers to, well, to make the kind of money that assures against surrendering to any temptation to grovel.
Let’s be honest here, a good chunk of the hefty Novak income has come courtesy of television. How hefty? Memoirist Novak is not shy about naming numbers or at least digits. He also takes frequent pains to translate past dollars into their current inflated equivalent, whether money is flowing into or out of the Novak household. Perhaps this is no more than a curious habit of a reporter-turned-autobiographer. More likely it’s confirmation that Novak actually is the congenital pessimist that he claims to be.
In any case, the “prince of darkness” role came naturally to Novak, the DH (designated hitman) of Crossfire, Capital Gang, and Meet the Press, among others. It’s a role that’s been both lucrative and long-standing for a born pessimist, whose half-century of near-daily contact with politicians has made him into a confirmed cynic as well. It’s also a role that he has played very well, perhaps because it has never really been a role at all. He is who he is, whether he’s on the tube or on the prowl.
It’s been a great schtick. He’s had a good run. And now it’s time to tell his story. It’s a story without much by way of regrets, save for an unfulfilled desire to be a sportswriter, followed by sneaking thoughts that playing point guard for the Washington Wizards or his treasured Maryland Terps would have been more fun, if less profitable.
Whether he’s assessing his own talents (or limits) or the talents (and limits) of those who would govern us, Novak has invariably displayed a sound instinct for facing reality. Burdened by height and speed deficiencies, consumed by a fascination for politics, and sustained by a penchant for independence, Novak long ago decided he’d better settle for distributing nuggets, not basketballs. Besides, he’s long had a more than sneaking suspicion that he hasn’t exactly “been easy to like.”
Not that Novak has been without partners. In fact, for many decades he had two of them at the same time. Now a near octogenarian, Novak’s second marriage is well into its fifth decade and going strong. The first marriage was brief and a mistake, and that’s that. And if there have been affairs along the way, they seem to have involved money and time devoted to three Bs, as in basketball games, bartenders, and bookies. “Kiss and tell” stuff? Hardly.
“Kiss up and tell” doesn’t really do it either. Presumably Novak has employed the first tactic on occasion—and off-camera. Who knows, he may even have succeeded now and again. It’s just that he didn’t tell then, and he won’t tell now. In any case, Novak being Novak, any target of his manufactured charms would have instantly seen through this act, and no doubt a pretty bad act it must be. Besides, Novak has made a career of exposing Washington types, whether politicians or their flacks, bureaucrats or lobbyists, all of whom do for a living what he hasn’t had to do for his.
Here’s where Novak’s second partner comes into play. That, of course, would be Rowland Evans. This match had all of the makings of the ultimate odd couple. Evans was eastern establishment and blueblood to the core; Novak was midwestern, working class, and Jewish. A nonpracticing Jew for many years, Novak converted to Catholicism a decade ago, a lateral move at best, if the name of this game is ingratiating oneself with Washingtonian types. It wasn’t—and isn’t.
The instigator of this match was actually Evans, who was both the more established and the senior of the two. The result was a match made somewhere short of heaven, as in something on the order of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison. But Evans and Novak did complement one another. Does that mean that Evans was the DG (as in designated groveler)? Novak won’t tell, but Evans’s style, sources, and circles clearly differed from his. One more difference added significantly to their complementary relationship, a difference that was virtually non-existent when their partnership began, but one which widened considerably during their years together. When the Evans and Novak byline was born in 1963, each man was a moderate to liberal Republican. The catch-all term would simply be Eisenhower (but certainly not Goldwater) Republicans. Rowland (“Rowly”) Evans remained essentially that for the whole of his columnist’s life. Robert Novak did not. Therein lay a tale, not to mention the storyline for this memoir.
It’s a story that runs counter to the usual Washington tale. Earnest and ambitious, conventional and conservative, a young reporter takes a Washington assignment, sniffs the air, follows his leads, joins the herd, and stays forever. Voila! Your conventional young conservative becomes a conventional aging liberal. Not so Robert Novak, who was closer to being a conventional liberal (Republican or otherwise) way back when and is anything but a conventional liberal today.
Whether a liberal or a conservative, Novak has long been a pessimist—at least insofar as the state of the world is concerned. How deeply pessimistic? Let’s just say that he was a pessimist before a youthful reading of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness pushed him further into that camp. The same might be said of an “addiction” to politics that began when he was nine and has not abated. If Witness convinced Novak that the west was doomed to lose the Cold War, his association with American politicians did little to encourage him to think that Chambers might be wrong.
And yet the young Robert Novak believed that the Cold War had to be waged—and deserved to be won. Hence his support for Ike over Taft in 1952. From that point forward, Novak voted for the presidential candidate who was most likely to challenge the Soviet Union, or at least do something other than pursue Cold War détente. These choices culminated with his support for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984—and his uncharacteristically kind words for a politician (Reagan) in this memoir.
Along the way, Novak has had kind words for few politicians and characteristically unkind words for most of them. Early exceptions to that general rule provided a hint of things to come. For example, Indiana senator William Jenner, conventionally dismissed as a McCarthyite neanderthal, is described as “intelligent and well-informed,” if possessed of an “overriding sense of hopelessness.” Barry Goldwater comes off as a thoroughly decent man, though surprisingly unfocused—and certainly “less focused than the Kennedys.”
In 1960 Novak voted for JFK, who took a harder Cold War line than Nixon and remains “the most attractive personality” he ever encountered in Washington. And brother Bobby? As of 1960, Novak had gotten to know him “a little and dislike him a lot.” That estimate did not change as he came to know RFK better. Nixon? Then and later, his conservatism was “mainly rhetorical.” Then and later, he was a “fraud” and a “make-believe tough guy.” In between was LBJ, for whom Novak voted in 1964 and whose presidency, put simply and starkly, was a “disaster.” Might another Democrat have done better? Let’s see . . . Hubert Humphrey was “well-meaning and weak.” Eugene McCarthy was a “complete cynic.” Edmund Muskie was an “erratic personality” and “dull and devoid of ideas” to boot. That leaves Robert Kennedy and George McGovern as potential Johnson successors. At no point in this memoir does Novak suggest that a second Kennedy presidency would have been good for the country. In fact, Novak doubts that Robert Kennedy would have won the Democratic nomination had he lived and believes that his late entry into the race served only to “guarantee” a Nixon victory in 1968. What of McGovern? After four years of rhetorical conservatism and phony toughness, Novak preferred the “fraud” in the White House to the authentic (“Come home, America”) isolationist in the race.
By 1976 the Democrats offered the country another version of authenticity. Novak was not—and is not—impressed. As a candidate, Jimmy Carter proved incapable of telling the truth about seemingly minor matters on his resume. As president, he proved incapable of handling the obviously major matters of the existing Soviet threat or the looming Islamic challenge. Still, Carter was the “last Democrat” for whom Novak “seriously considered voting.” Come November, however, he cast his ballot for Jerry Ford, the “nicest person to be president in my career” and the most “ill-equipped” as well.
There was, of course, another candidate in the field in 1976, Ronald Reagan, who failed to wrest the nomination from President Ford and yet, in Novak’s judgment, “saved the future of the conservative movement” by trying. Journalist Novak was never associated with that movement. But as early as the early 1970s he had clearly broken with his liberal Republican past. That past included strong support for Nelson Rockefeller in 1960 and later. In fact, Novak is convinced that the New York governor could have defeated Kennedy, because he would have taken his home state, plus Pennsylvania and Michigan. Novak is also persuaded that a President Rockefeller would not have “wandered into Vietnam without a plan for winning it.” Twenty years later Novak supported a very different sort of Republican, one who may or may not have had a precise plan for winning the Cold War, but who was willing to abandon Nixonian and Kissingerian détente and rebuild the American military—and speak truth to what was left of Soviet power.
Novak was in Reagan’s corner on all three fronts. He also endorsed Reaganite tax cuts in a manner somewhat reminiscent of George Wilson. If Eisenhower’s defense secretary thought that what was good for General Motors was good for the USA, one of Reagan’s favorite columnists looks back fondly on the 1980s and declares that what was good for the country also proved to be good for Robert Novak.
There was a time when Novak believed that the country was best served by a two-party system in which the differences between Republicans and Democrats were minimal. There was also a time when he was well within the “mainstream of Washington journalism.” Both of those times seem to have ended by the early 1970s. “Seem” must be the operative verb, because Novak is reluctant to ruminate at any length as to the reasons behind his shift to the right. He is willing to let what’s left of his hair down on a trifecta of his excesses, specifically his drinking, his speeding, and his gambling. But when it comes to introspection on the evolution of his politics, he prefers to stick simply and straightforwardly to telling his story, rather than probing what might have been behind it all. The result is the Novak treatment administered to Robert Novak himself.
Clearly, the excesses and idiocies of the 1960s, as well as the back-to-back presidential disasters of Johnson and Nixon, played a role and took their toll, as did the decided shift to the left within his own profession. That shift became a chasm in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle and the Roe v. Wade decision. Unlike many moderate and liberal Republicans who were appalled by their party’s embrace of the prolife position and association with the dreaded religious right, Novak moved to that position himself—and away from the prochoice stance of mainstream Washington journalism. This shift occurred well before his own conversion to Catholicism, and was no doubt assisted by his wife’s growing involvement in the prolife movement.
No doubt Novak’s innate pessimism was a factor as well. In any case, that pessimism only deepened when the disasters of allegedly competent presidents (Johnson and Nixon) were followed by the disasters of an inept president (Ford) and his truly incompetent successor (Carter).
Novak takes his story well into the presidency of George W. Bush, but the heart of his tale concerns his first three decades in Washington. As the curtain begins to fall, Novak finds little reason to question his credentials as a full-bore pessimist—at least when it comes to Washington affairs. There was what now seems to amount to the Reagan interlude, but that ended long ago. There is his own very full, very productive life. His politics and his pessimism aside, Robert Novak has had a very good time of it in this vale of tears.
Still, he is in a quandary. He begins and ends this memoir with the Valerie Plame affair and his inadvertent role in it. How so much could be made of so little amazes and troubles him—and angers him. Somewhat the same might be said of his relationship (or absence thereof) with some of his erstwhile allies on the right. They would be the dreaded neocons, especially Norman Podhoretz, William Kristol, and David Frum. Novak himself does not dread them, but he does think they have been dead wrong on Iraq. He opposed the first Gulf War at the outset, and he opposes it still. He opposed the current war in Iraq at the outset, and he opposes it still.
Where does all this leave Robert Novak today? A conservative without either a political home or a political hero (his claim to being a hero-worshipper at heart notwithstanding), a journalist without a regular TV gig or a columnist/partner (Evans died in 2001), Novak has every reason to be consumed by pessimism at this late stage of his life. But he is not. Does that mean Novak’s pessimism really has been an act all along? No. What is it then? Has he simply been lucky enough to have lived long enough to write this memoir so that he can stick it to his enemies, settle scores, record his “I told you so’s,” if not “kiss and tell.” No—or at least not essentially.
Something else has been at work in this pages—and in Novak’s life. It’s something that this political junkie has long known, but only hints here. In one sense, politics has both been his life and has given him a very good life. In another very real sense, however, politics has been anything but the whole of his life. Think of his family. Think of his adopted Church. Even think of those three Bs—and more.
Given all of that, one guesses that Robert Novak knows something else as well. He knows that if you confine your pessimism to what seem to be the big things, the rest of your life doesn’t have to be so dark after all. In other words, if you confine your pessimism to things that you care about but can’t control, such as the state of American politics and the fate of the West, you can still find reasons to smile without sneering—or frowning.
Posted: September 6, 2008
Thinking in Pairs with Poets and Scientists
Joseph T. Stuart
Volume 47, Number 3–4 (Fall 2010)