Robert Novak on 50 years as the Prince of Darkness.
HH: Special half hour ahead. I’m joined by the Prince of Darkness himself, Robert D. Novak, author of a wonderful new memoir titled The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Of Reporting In Washington. Robert Novak, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show.
RN: Thank you very much, Hugh.
HH: It’s a grand book, and I want to start with the most surprising line in it. “Poor Geraldine, she hated politics.” How could Robert Novak be married to a woman who hates politics?
RN: (laughing) Well, you’re not the first person who asked about that. And I said we never talked politics, and they said what in the world do you talk about? You know, there’s millions of people in America, most of them outside Washington, who never talk about politics, and have happy, married lives.
HH: Well, I’m stunned by that. She must have, over the years, had to put up with an enormous number of stories that you had to bounce off of her. Did she develop into a conservative like yourself?
RN: She developed into a conservative not because of stories bouncing off of her, she is really quite a different kind of conservative than I am. She is…as I said, we didn’t talk politics, and as I said in the book, she became a pro-life activist. I didn’t know she had become one. And so I found out later, and she’s very highly principled. She’s one of those consistent people who was against abortion, and against capital punishment.
HH: I’m also…I think I’m very safe in declaring that she’s going to win the wife of the century. Now I’m happily married for 25 years, but on page 201, you record that in 1966, she dropped into the Washington Redskins downtown ticket office, and bought you two season tickets, which I assume you still have, and which have not been on the market for what, 30 years?
RN: That was the last year you could buy them without being on a waiting list.
HH: I’m telling you, she’s my new hero. I’m going to send that out. Robert Novak, did you decide at the beginning of this that you were just going to let it all out there? Because this is a very candid memoir.
RN: Yes, I did. I’d been thinking since, oh, I don’t know, maybe the last 25 years about writing a memoir someday, and my game plan was that I would write the memoir as I retired. And you know, just as boats burning like Cortez in Mexico, you know…
RN: I would just fade into the night, until I finally came to the realization some years ago that I would never retire as long as anybody would print my columns, and I didn’t want…so I couldn’t wait for that time to come, and I decided it was the time to write the memoir, even though I hadn’t retired. But I still was going to be as candid as I could. Hugh, I read a lot of journalist memoirs, and journalist memoirs, I think, are the most boring as a rule, of all memoir writers, and it’s because they’re so circumspect. They don’t tell you anything. They are dealing with secretive politicians for so many years they become secretive of themselves, and that’s something I tried to avoid.
HH: Well, the one memoir by a journalist I liked, I posted on this on my blog on the weekend, and he shows up in yours, was Vermont Connecticut Royster’s My Own, My Country’s Time from 25 years ago.
HH: And he tried to get you to come to the Journal. I was surprise by that.
RN: Well, I was on the Journal. I was in the Washington bureau. He tried to get me to be an editorial writer…
RN: And he kind of painted a picture that I was going to be his eventual successor as editor, which kind of teased me a little bit, but one of the reasons…I didn’t want to leave Washington and go to New York, but the other reason I gave him was at that time, I didn’t think I was conservative enough to be an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
HH: Well, I’ll get to some of the politics, but I want to do some of the personal stuff, first. I mean, you were quite a drinker. A lot of Cutty Sark vanished under your tender care.
RN: Ah, my goodness, I…
HH: And you tell…why did you put that stuff in the memoir?
RN: Because I think it was part of my personality and my life, that I’m a human being, I’m not just an automaton. I’ve had development, some for the better, I hope most for the better, and change as a more spiritual person, and I thought I had a drinking problem, which I wouldn’t admit, and then I also thought I had, as I said in one paragraph, a gambling problem.
HH: And you also had a long journey to your Catholic faith now, assisted by an Opus Dei priest, but also by an anecdote. If you could just retell it here, about going up to the College Republicans at Syracuse and being confronted by a young lady.
RN: Yes, I gave a speech, and of course, the student committee met with me, and this young lady had a crucifix around her neck, and I asked her if she was a Catholic. And I thought she said yes. As it turns out, I contacted her many years later while writing this book, and she was not a Catholic, she was Greek Orthodox. But this was, I think the Holy Spirit was at work here, and the mysteries kind of cloud things over. But anyway, I told her that…she asked me if I was a Catholic. I said no, my wife and I had been attending Mass for several years. And she said do you plan to convert? And I said no plans. And she said something that just chilled me. She said Mr. Novak, a life is short, but eternity is forever. And it just…it was a chilling phrase from this beautiful young student telling me that. And I came back to Washington the next day, and I told my wife that I think the time had come, that we’d been going to Mass for some time, and I think my wife had been ready to convert for some time, but I think we both were ready now.
HH: It’s a marvelous chapter, Chapter 40. It begins, though, interestingly, with very detailed discussions of your negotiations with CNN at that time, and your counter-offer by Fox. This is in the mid-90’s. Tell me, again, you don’t often read details of contracts from high profile media people. What was your intention in putting that stuff out there, and net worth stuff? I think it’s fascinating. I think it’s going to sell a lot of books.
RN: I really think people are interested in it, people want to know, but you never tell them. People often tell you how much, how hard things are at the beginning, you don’t make much money. I remember William Shirer, the journalist and author, had two wonderful volumes of memoirs, and he even put his family budget, reprinted it in his book, on how hard things were, and they were on the brink of bankruptcy. And then when he struck it rich with his book, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, he never tells how much money he made. And a lot of books do that. They tell how poor they were, but never say how well they did when they got successful. So I thought I’d let it all hang out, and I think I made more money than I ever thought I’d make, but I probably make a lot less money than people thought I made.
HH: I think that’s exactly right. It’s very compelling stuff. Now a couple of particular anecdotes, 1964, St. Francis Hotel, you take a swing at a young Republican who calls you a bad name, I can’t say it on the air, I don’t want to get fined by the FCC, and then Ben Bradley just says get used to it, Novak, I’m running the story. Did you stay mad at Bradley? Or is that just what you would have done?
RN: That’s I would have done, too. The problem was that Newsweek was doing a…he was then a Washington bureau chief of Newsweek, and they were doing a very nice story on the Evans and Novak column as the hottest young reporting column, we’d had a lot of exclusives coming into that convention. And I didn’t want the story spoiled by…I not only took a swing at him, I hit him. I don’t think I did much damage, but I did hit him, and I didn’t think that made me look very good. But Mr. Bradley, I explained to him thoroughly how, you know, it really wasn’t apropos, and he agreed with me, but said I’m going to run the story anyway.
HH: You also tell the story of a dinner in the home of Robert McCandless in ’68, when Mark Shields brings up your Trotskyite-Muskie supporters column…and did you guys come to blows that night?
RN: Well, I think we almost did. We were both very drunk. Mark was an immense beer drinker at the time. He could drink more beer than anybody I ever saw, and I would drink one scotch after another. And he accused me of McCarthyism, of degrading a great American in Ed Muskie, and I told him he was in the Muskie campaign just so he could ride in limousines. And he said that was a smear on his integrity, and I said I intended to, and we were both on our feet. At the time, this was after dinner in McCandless’ living room, and he separated us.
HH: You know, I’ve got to tell you, the sense that comes through is of a Beltway journalism elite that’s gone now. Everybody knew everybody, everybody didn’t cooperate, but competed jovially, and drank with each other. Is that in fact gone now?
RN: I think it is gone. You know, Jack Germond in his memoir refers to the current crop of reporters as kind of dweebs who eat salad and drink iced tea. But I don’t want to downgrade the present reporters. They have a different lifestyle. But I think we had a great deal more fun, and we were more robust, and I think we had a great exaltation in life, even when we disagreed with each other.
HH: You know, I was stunned to find your partner and your close friend, you describe him more as a brother than a friend, Rowland Evans, was very close to Bobby Kennedy, and that that is the sort of relationship you don’t get much anymore inside D.C.
RN: No, and it was a great strain on our column, too, and I didn’t really discover it until after when I started writing this book, when Rowlie was dead, and Bobby was long dead, that some of the conversations they had, I got Rowlie’s oral history from the Kennedy library, and they had a lot of conversations that he didn’t tell me about. And so it was a little bit of a strain on the column, but Rowlie said that he told me, and he told the oral history, that he was really too close to Bobby for a news source and a columnist. And I think that is a problem when you get on a personal basis, where you’re really a deep, personal friend. And I think that was the only person he ever really did it with, was Bobby Kennedy.
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HH: Let me ask you, I’m bored silly by the Plame affair, Robert Novak, but I do have one question about your opinion? Why was Armitage not charged if Valerie Plame’s identity was a secret, and Patrick Fitzgerald was investigating its leak?
RN: Because there was no crime committed under the Intelligence Agents Identity Act. That bill was passed, Hugh, to protect intelligence agents overseas from being outed by left wing forces, and then marked for assassination. It was really a deadly serious act, nothing like somebody sitting in Langley in the CIA headquarters as Mrs. Wilson was, doing analysis. There was no crime committed under that act, and therefore, he was not charged. And so that is the whole problem with the Libby indictment. He was charged for obstructing justice when there was no underlying crime committed, or allegedly committed.
HH: Why did Fitzgerald, do you think, in your opinion, continue on with the investigation once Armitage had revealed it was he who was the leaker?
RN: Because…you know, when he entered the case, he was told that Armitage was the leaker. That information was given to him, because it had been known for three weeks before he was named as special prosecutor. And therefore, I think the Justice Department should have bitten the bullet and taken care of him itself. Why he did not reveal that is something that is in the mysteries of the whole, strange relationship of special prosecutors. It is very difficult for them to say no crime was committed, you’ve named me for nothing, and I’ve established a staff for nothing. But that’s in fact what he should have done.
HH: Now let’s turn to journalism. You have a wonderful picture of your seven grandkids. Do you want any of them to be journalists, Robert Novak?
RN: I would hope they would, though that’s the wrong statement to make, particularly with the newspapers business declining so badly. But one of my grandsons, they all like books, and one of my grandsons got a little writing award. He’s eight years old, nine years old. And so I think it’s a great way to make a living. My son-in-law, Chris Caldwell, is a journalist.
HH: I didn’t know Chris was your son-in-law.
HH: Oh, he’s a tremendous writer.
RN: He is indeed. And his wife, my daughter, is a journalist.
HH: Well now, I’m looking at his picture. There he is. I didn’t even notice him. I was looking at your grandkids. I didn’t notice Chris there.
RN: And my son works for a publishing company, Regnery Books, and so we’re all kind of in the business together. And I wouldn’t mind them going into journalism.
HH: Can anyone do it the way that you and Evans did it now? Just good political reporting? I think at one point, you described it as something new every day, but with definite opinions, and people knew who you were, and where you were coming from, as opposed as this oh, I have no opinions, I’m Mr. Objectivity. Is that kind of journalism possible to do well and profitably anymore?
RN: I’d like to see somebody else try it sometime. You know, I felt we had a successful product for many years. I have the second oldest syndicated column right now, and so it’s a good model. But I’m really surprised. There are such a plethora of columns, Hugh, that are out there. And none of them really follow our model. The general way is you read something in the paper, and you sit down, and give your opinion on what your take is on it…
RN: Rather than trying to dig up new information.
HH: Now on Page 163, you quote from a column that you wrote after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, and I’ll quote it here. “As political reporters, we have noticed the change insidiously picking up momentum across the country, the passion of political hatred against a Lyndon Johnson or a Bobby Kennedy passes old bounds. The political dialogue, public and private, becomes more rancorous. The dissenters, particularly the Negro, poor and the war protesters turn to direct action, and most uncivil disobedience. What this adds up to is nothing less than a rejection of conventional forms of political action.” It goes on. Do you see the same thing playing out again now, Robert Novak?
RN: I hate to say it, but I think the hatred toward George W. Bush is just mad. I listen to, sometimes in the car radio, on talk shows, and the venom that comes out of the mouths of some of these women, particularly, I’m not trying to be sexist, but they’re so vicious toward him. And I don’t think that really contributes. And also, the bloggers, I don’t read the bloggers very much, but it is really, it’s really vicious. I’m on the Washington Post…Washington Post is kind enough to run my column, I’m on their website. And sometimes, I look into the reader comments, and they’re just hysterical. They have nothing to do with what I’ve written. They’re just personal attacks on me, and my loyalty to my country, and my integrity. So I think this is all very disturbing.
HH: You know, I’ve had a lot of journalists, left, right and center on here. Joe Klein has made the same complaint. Many people do. And I tend to believe that’s more lefty than center-right by a lot, Robert Novak. And I don’t know if you read the right blogs like Powerline Blog or Instapundit or mine, but I think the level of discourse there is quite high, although some of the nutter commenters are nutty, again. It’s a vitriol that’s, I think, overwhelmingly weighted on the left. I don’t know if you agree or disagree with that.
RN: I tend to agree with that.
HH: Let me ask you about Crossfire. Paul Begala, I’ve thought he’s the nastiest of the public commentators out there. My old friend, Bill Press, who I did radio with for a number of years, you’ve expressed some admiration for Bill in your book, and I like that. I like Bill, too. He’s not rotten, he’s just wrong. But Begala struck me as rotten, often.
RN: Well, Bill…Paul can be a very charming guy, in a way, at the same time he was being very hard-nosed and attack…I could…Paul was on Crossfire four nights a week, and Carville only once, and I was on either two or three nights a week when they were on. So I wouldn’t be on all that much with Carville. But I found it much easier to deal with Begala than Carville. Carville’s an interesting guy when you’re on, doing a speech with him on the road, having a drink. He’s…they’re both very pleasant company. But I found Carville almost impossible to deal with on the air, he’s so demagoguical and personal. And of course, that led to my blow up, which gave CNN an excuse to do something they wanted to do anyway, and that’s canceling my contract.
HH: You know, the decline and fall of CNN’s Crossfire, as we spend our last minute here, and you called the John Stewart attack on it, it really mirrors what’s happened to political journalism, I think. It’s very well chronicled here. But do you see any kind of show like the old Crossfire, where people have extended conversations, hard-hitting, with high end political people across party lines coming back? Because I don’t see Democrats going close to conservatives, or Republicans going close to lefties, except Russert.
RN: No, you don’t really see that very often. Yesterday, there was just a wonderful…it reminded me of the old Crossfire, where Senator Jim Webb and Senator Lindsey Graham went head to head on Meet The Press, and you ought to pick it up on the archives. It’s just a wonderful time. But that’s rare. I miss the political shows on CNN. Of course, I had a lot to do with starting Capitol Gang, and Evans & Novak, which I talk about in the book, and I think it’s a loss to not have those programs. That may sound self-serving, but people do come up to me and, just a couple of years after its last program, say gee, we really miss Capitol Gang.
HH: I do, too, and I’m glad that you wrote about it at length, and I very much appreciate the Prince of Darkness. It’s a great book, a great memoir. Robert Novak, I look forward to having you back on the program. Congratulations on a great career and a great book.
End of interview.