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Conservative commentator Robert Novak, who has energetically promoted the bestselling book “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry,” published an unusual addendum to his syndicated column on Sept. 6. It read: “In response to queries: My son, Alex Novak, is director of marketing for Regnery Publishing Inc., publisher of ‘Unfit for Command.’ He is 36 and has been employed at Regnery for six years, since receiving his MBA from the University of Maryland. He has had no connection with my reporting about ‘Unfit for Command,’ a bestselling book dealing with Kerry’s war record whose news value is obvious. I plan to continue to pursue this story as developments warrant.”
But Novak’s son’s employment at Regnery, revealed by the New York Times on Aug. 30, isn’t Novak’s only tie to the Washington publisher of conservative polemics. Novak also has a long-standing professional and personal relationship that he did not reveal — with Regnery’s owner, newsletter magnate Tom Phillips. Phillips owns Eagle Publishing, whose subsidiaries include Regnery; Human Events, a 60-year-old conservative newsweekly; and the Evans-Novak Political Report, Novak’s subscription-based newsletter ($297 a year). In addition, Novak is an unpaid member of the board of Phillips’ private foundation, the Phillips Foundation, which awards journalism fellowships to young conservatives.
At Morton’s Steakhouse in downtown Washington on Sept. 21, Robert and Alex Novak joined Phillips and several dozen other cogs in the right-wing propaganda machine to celebrate the success of “Unfit for Command,” which boasts 850,000 copies in print and sits at No. 2 on the New York Times bestseller list. (“Unfit” was knocked from the top spot recently by Kitty Kelley’s exposé “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.”)
Most of the guests at the party — including the two generations of Novaks — have been promoters of the negative narrative of Kerry’s military past that culminated in a ringing cash register for Regnery.
The guests of honor were the authors of “Unfit,” former Nixon operative John O’Neill and Jerome Corsi, who are driving forces behind the discredited Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group, with millions of dollars from Republican Party donors closely linked to Bush political advisor Karl Rove, ran a barrage of television ads attacking Kerry’s war record in August and September — which many analysts believe has helped tilt the race recently in Bush’s favor.
On television and in his columns, Novak has trumpeted the “Unfit” authors’ unfounded claims that Kerry lied about the heroism that earned him the Bronze and Silver stars. Novak’s work has been amplified by other guests at the party, such as talk radio host Laura Ingraham and Greg Mueller of Creative Response Concepts, the conservative P.R. outfit that promoted the book and SBVT.
Other prominent conservatives at the party included lawyers Victoria Toensing and Joseph DiGenova, a husband-and-wife team of cable TV commentators; GOP direct-mail wizard Richard Viguerie; African-American radio host Armstrong Williams; and Chris DeCivita of DCI, a Washington lobbying firm that helps advise the Swift Boat group.
Then there was a crew from the Phillips publishing empire, including Regnery Publishing president Alfred Regnery, Phillips Foundation secretary John Farley and Eagle Publishing president Jeffrey Carneal.
Since the Swift Boat ads began running in August, Novak has been one of the chief peddlers of the group’s line that Kerry served dishonorably in Vietnam and lied about the events that led the Navy to award his medals. He has persisted despite the fact that none of the Swift Boat accusers actually served with Kerry on his boat, while Kerry’s actual crew mates are adamant that he did act heroically. Novak has ignored an investigation by the Washington Post that found that the Swift Boat accusers’ own military records contradict their assertions that Kerry did not save a crew mate’s life under fire and instead support Kerry’s version of events. And he has even dismissed the Navy’s announcement that Kerry’s awards were proper.
“Nothing has been disproved that the Swift Boat Veterans say!” Novak exclaimed Sept. 18 on CNN’s “Capital Gang.” In an Aug. 28 column, Novak trumpeted the “first on-the-record interview” with a retired rear admiral, William Schachte Jr., who said he was present when Kerry received the wound for which he was awarded his first Purple Heart and that, in his opinion, the Democratic nominee had merely “nicked himself.”
And on CNN’s “Crossfire” on Aug. 27, Novak threw up his hands and declared, “I’m just a humble journalist,” when Democratic commentator and consultant Paul Begala backed him into a rhetorical corner over the controversy. Begala, Novak said on the show, is a “very, very able political practitioner” — as if Novak weren’t.
Indeed, Novak explained to New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg for an Aug. 30 article that he didn’t disclose his son’s employment at Regnery, while essentially flacking the “Unfit for Command” book, because “I don’t think it’s relevant.” Novak added: “I’m just functioning as a columnist with a point of view.”
Phillips Foundation secretary Farley said in an interview that Novak and Phillips are old friends, and that “Bob was the trustee [of the Phillips Foundation] who came up with the idea of giving journalism scholarships.” Farley said Novak is unpaid and does not receive expense reimbursements from the foundation. “It’s sort of a labor of love for him.”
The foundation’s net worth in 2001, the latest year for which public tax returns are available, was $9.4 million. According to Farley, most of the foundation’s wealth comes from stock it owns in Phillips Publishing International, the newsletter company Phillips founded. In 1999, the Thomas L. Phillips Revocable Trust made a $5.5 million gift to the foundation, records show. Phillips did not respond to a request for comment placed with Farley.
The Phillips Foundation has received money from other conservative foundations. In 2001, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation donated $50,000, the Charles G. Koch Foundation gave $25,000, and the Lebensfeld Foundation gave $25,000, records show.
Novak, the “humble journalist,” has been in high dudgeon over what he perceives as others’ conflicts of interest. Exposing a “conflict of interest,” after all, was the rationale Novak gave for his decision to blow the cover of covert Central Intelligence Agency operative Valerie Plame in a column last year after her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, at the behest of the CIA debunked claims that Iraq had signed an agreement with the African country of Niger to purchase uranium for nuclear weapons. That column, citing “two senior administration officials” as sources, led to the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate possible felonies that carries a 10-year prison term.
In a brief interview with Salon by telephone Thursday, Novak declined to comment on whether his service on the Phillips Foundation board and his personal and professional relationship with the owner of Regnery should have been disclosed in the columns he wrote promoting the Swift Boat Veterans group. “You want me to draw conclusions,” he said, “and you can draw your own conclusions.”
Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.More Mary Jacoby.