The first and only time I met Robert Novak, who died this week at the age of 78, was at a job interview in Washington D.C. He was asking one of those questions that made him so effective in the spin-saturated world of Washington politics and that is more memorable in hindsight for its style – direct, concise, penetrating – than for its substance. Though he specialized in political anecdote, it was Novak’s talent to cut through the puffery of modern politics and to get straight to the heart of the matter.
That skill, honed over an illustrious journalism career spanning 50 years and 11 presidents, made him an icon to young reporters, especially those who shared his fiercely small-government politics, and a scourge to politicians who were the targets of his famously scoop-packed columns.
By his own account, Novak didn’t arrive in the nation’s capital as an ideological conservative. Born in 1931 in Jolliet, Illinois, he cast his first vote for the establishment Republican Dwight Eisenhower, whom he favored over his more conservative rival, Robert Taft. As his views evolved, Novak would come to regret the decision even as he rejoiced in the journalism career that his early obsession with politics helped launch.
And what a career it was. Starting as a cub reporter at the University of Illinois, Novak would go on to work for the Associated Press, and his carefully reported columns always showcased the tenacious legwork of a wire-service newshound. Indeed, Novak considered himself an “AP man” long after he had moved on to more prominent journalistic posts. One of these was the Wall Street Journal, whose Senate beat he joined in 1958. But the more famous perch was the Evans-Novak report, the nationally syndicated political newsletter he started in 1963 and co-wrote with his late colleague Rowland Evans. Fusing original reporting with insight and analysis, it became a must-read for politicians, journalists and political junkies alike.
The Evans-Novak report would play an influential role in American politics – and earn Novak the lasting scorn of the Left. In an April 1972 column, for instance, Novak quoted an anonymous Democratic politician worrying that Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern would be politically undone once voters in Middle America discovered that he was a liberal – a supporter of amnesty for Vietnam War draft dodgers who backed abortion and the legalization of marijuana. The quote, faithfully recorded by Novak, instantly transformed McGovern into the candidate of “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid.” His campaign was doomed.
Democrats, joined not for the last time by the establishment press, wailed that Novak had invented the quote out of whole cloth to damage McGovern’s career. A lesser journalist might have leaked the name of his source to defend his own reputation. Novak, having promised confidentiality, stayed scrupulously silent. Not until his source’s death in 2007 did Novak reveal the quote’s surprising origin: Senator Thomas Eagleton, the Democrat from Missouri who would become McGovern’s presidential running mate mere months after contributing the line that assured the ticket’s defeat.
Already suspect politically, Novak won no new friends on the Left with his devastating reporting on Jimmy Carter. While covering Carter’s presidential campaign in 1975, Novak discovered a man whose folksy southern demeanor masked a petty demagogue who could not admit mistakes and who would lie without provocation about matters large and small. Initially sympathetic to Carter’s anti-communism on the campaign trail, Novak found himself doubting whether the candidate would make good on his rhetoric. A disastrous one-term presidency and a disgraceful post-presidential career would ultimately confirm the prescience of those suspicions. In his superb 2007 autobiography, The Prince of Darkness, Novak would render this unsentimental verdict about the “Man from Plains”: “Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes.”
It was a more recent column that found Novak in the national spotlight and under siege by his political opponents like never before. In July 2003, Novak wrote a column that cited an unnamed source to identify CIA researcher Valerie Plame as the instigator behind her husband Joseph Wilson’s 2002 trip to Niger to investigate reports that the Iraqi government was actively seeking to purchase uranium in the African country – a trip that Wilson would later use in his partisan campaign to discredit the Bush administration and its case for military intervention in Iraq. Novak’s column was not directed at Plame; rather, it exposed the anti-Bush animus of the CIA, which had gone so far as to send a Democratic partisan with no background in intelligence gathering to undermine a charge made by the Bush administration. That should have been the story. Instead, the story became Novak himself.
Goaded by the media, the Left condemned Novak for allegedly outing a covert CIA agent, Plame, in order to help the Bush administration justify its case for war against Iraq. Never mind that the Left historically had been happy to support the outing of covert CIA agents. In Novak’s case, the allegation was doubly absurd. For one thing, Plame was not in fact a covert agent, having been outed by CIA turncoat and Soviet spy Aldrich Ames prior to his 1994 arrest. Novak, meanwhile, was anything but a supporter of the Iraq War, which he considered unjustified and against the national interest.
Once again, Novak could have quieted the public furor against him and silenced the scurrilous attacks from the far Left by revealing State Department deputy secretary Richard Armitage as his source in the Plame affair. Instead, at considerable cost to his personal reputation, and despite incurring over $160,000 in legal fees, he kept the source secret until he was finally released from his obligation.
Painful as the episode was for him, Novak would have the last laugh. In 2004, Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts concluded that not only did Wilson fail to prove that the Bush administration had been lying in making its Niger claim, but that Wilson himself “gave some intelligence analysts even more reason to believe that it may have been true” (emphasis added). Roberts’s conclusion was crushing: Wilson, “either by design or though ignorance, gave the American people and, for that matter, the world a version of events that was inaccurate, unsubstantiated, and misleading.” Hoping at the time to make a name for himself as a foreign policy advisor to the John Kerry campaign, Wilson was suddenly cut adrift. His reputation has never recovered.
Novak did not always distinguish himself in political battle, however. Although it was never his signature issue, Novak shared the Arabist sympathies of his colleague Rowland Evans, and his attendant reservations about the U.S. alliance with Israel sometimes found discreditable expression in his columns and television appearances on CNN. In a column penned two days after the 9/11 attacks that he himself acknowledged was “contentious,” Novak wrote, wrongly, that al-Qaeda’s hatred for the United States was merely an extension of “hatred of Israel rather than world dominion,” and lamented that in the aftermath of the attacks the “United States and Israel are brought ever closer in a way that cannot improve long-term U.S. policy objectives.” That the United States and Israel might have a common enemy in genocidal terrorists who vowed to subjugate the world under Islamic rule, and to kill innocent unbelievers in the process, was a possibility he declined to consider. It was not entirely fair to lump Novak, as some on the Right did, with the more anti-Semitic and anti-American strain of paleo-conservatism – not least because Novak himself repudiated these “ideological extremists.” Nevertheless, it was not his finest hour as a pundit.
Novak was more convincing and more committed in the service of the two causes he championed most ardently in his work: economic freedom and political liberty. Moved by Whittaker Chambers’ book Witness, Novak recognized early on the evils of communism. Consequently, he saw the Cold War as an “epochal struggle” and “a defense of our values, transcending the foolishness and weakness of Western political leaders.” Years later, he would look back on Evans and Novak columns that exposed Soviet treachery, particularly the USSR’s cheating on arms-control agreements, as a highlight of his career.
Closely connected to his support for waging the Cold War abroad was his support for small government at home. Novak questioned whether he won that fight. In 1954, he noted, President Eisenhower proposed a $71.8 billion budget. By 2007, his Republican and ostensibly more conservative successor, George W. Bush, boasted a $2.77 trillion budget. Even that paled in comparison to the last presidential budget of his lifetime: the $3.6 trillion colossus unveiled by President Obama earlier this year.
It’s disheartening to think that at a time when runway government spending is facing its severest scrutiny in recent years, a veteran advocate of the small-government cause will not be around to make the case and lay bare the administration’s follies. Fortunately, Robert Novak’s legacy still leaves much to be thankful for. In an age when the internet has expanded access to original information and cheapened its value, Novak recalled a time when columnists came armed with facts and information, unearthed through years of cultivating sources and dogged determination, and not merely opinions.
Although he delighted in stirring up strife for the political class, Novak always seemed less a happy warrior than a prince of darkness, the nickname he earned from a fellow journalist for what he called his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects of America and Western civilization,” and which he embraced, not without irony, as a badge of honor. The name has never seemed more fitting. For Washington is a darker place without him.