Bob Novak is not one of the popular kids

The prickly right-wing columnist, covert-agent outer and all-around "Prince of Darkness" explains how he rose to the top of D.C.'s journalistic heap.

By Edward McClelland

Published July 17, 2007 10:58AM (EDT)

In his half-century as a Washington news hawk, Robert Novak has been an AP deskman, a political columnist, an author, a convention-circuit speaker, a "Meet the Press" panelist, and a cable TV pundit. According to his new memoir, "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington," there's only one item missing from his D.C. insider's résumé: He wasn't invited to enough Georgetown parties.

Shortly after launching his 30-year journalistic partnership with Rowland Evans, a polished Main Line patrician, Novak attended "a lovely al fresco sit down dinner party" at the home of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham.

"But the invitations soon ceased," he writes, because "I was not a dinner table raconteur ... I had a grim-visaged demeanor that led a friend to label me 'The Prince of Darkness' -- not because I was then a hard conservative but because of my unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization."

And now, at the end of his career, after igniting a scandal by publishing the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame, the Prince of Darkness is lamenting his supposed friendlessness in the two worlds where he once reigned: the conservative movement, and the news business.

It is an audacious conceit for a veteran D.C. insider to cast himself as an outsider, but that's what Bob Novak does for more than 600 pages in his new autobiography. "I am not a person who is easy for other people to like," he writes, but it's a boast, not a confession. "No stirrer-up of strife," he sniffs, "is ever very popular."

In reality, the Prince of Darkness is the past president of the Gridiron Club, journalistic Washington's version of Skull and Bones, has a certain sulfurous charm, and has long had plenty of what pass for "friends" in the corridors of power, even if those friends think he's an "asshole."

Novak's dyspeptic persona is familiar to anyone who watched his humorless, abrasive appearances on "The McLaughlin Group," "The Capital Gang" or "Crossfire." His critics labeled him a brooding outsider -- unattractive, unrefined, insecure about hailing from Joliet, Ill., a run-down industrial city near Chicago -- who took a reflexively contrarian stance against the liberalism in style among his Washington press corps peers. That was how Timothy Crouse portrayed him in "The Boys on the Bus," his famed study of the reporters following the Nixon-McGovern presidential campaign:

"Novak was standing off to himself. He was short and squat, with swarthy skin, dark gray hair, a slightly rumpled suit, and an apparently permanent scowl ... Some of the other reporters pointed him out and whispered about him almost as if he were a cop come to shush up a good party.

"'There's a real tight coil of bitterness in the guy,' said a magazine writer. 'So much of what he writes and talks about in private tends to reinforce one impression: he's against anything fashionable, anything slick -- and liberalism is slick in the circles he travels in. Maybe that's why he's down on it.'"

If that were true, it would place Novak in the same company as nerdy right-wing intellectuals like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Samuel Alito and Kenneth Starr -- homely, brainy Debate Club types who embraced conservatism as a form of revenge against the swinging '60s liberals. But Novak is both older and more genuinely conservative than any of those men. Novak's father, the superintendent of a gas production plant, taught him to despise the New Deal for "meddling with the system" that had allowed a son of poor Jewish immigrants to scratch his way into the middle class.

At the University of Illinois, Novak wrote his freshman English paper on Thomas Dewey's inevitable election as president, and got a strong taste of social rejection when he lost an election for sports editor of the campus paper. He seemed to relish it. ("At my own fraternity house, there was private rejoicing ... that I got what I deserved for my arrogance. The younger members detested me.")

At Illinois, Novak also began a long political journey -- from the center-right to the far right. Naively, he writes, he supported Dwight D. Eisenhower for president, when the true conservative was Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, a fighter for small government and low taxes. "I was on the wrong side," Novak concludes. The rest of his book is the story of how he spent a career chronicling -- and promoting -- the rise of his beloved conservative movement, and how that career finally foundered due to the very event that ended the right wing's national dominance: the war in Iraq.

A genuine stub-pencil, spiral-notebook reporter, Novak got his start with the Associated Press, covering the state legislatures in Nebraska and Indiana. The comer was soon called up to Washington, and in 1962, at age 31, he got his big break when Rowland Evans of the New York Herald-Tribune asked him to partner up in a six-day-a-week political column that would always contain "exclusive information not previously published -- whether a scoop or a tidbit."

Much was made of their Mutt-and-Jeff act -- posh Evans, gathering news at society parties; bulldog Novak, with a telephone pressed to his ear -- and they became masters of background quotes from "senior administration officials."

Soon, Evans & Novak was the most influential political dope sheet in Washington, and politicians dealt with Novak whether they liked him or not. He was off on a garrulous round of scotch and steak meetings with congressmen and cabinet secretaries. They often dined at Sans Souci, a French restaurant also favored by old Washington hands Art Buchwald and Edward Bennett Williams. Novak was finally on the inside. He made enemies of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Edmund Muskie, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, but he outlasted them, becoming a D.C. institution.

(Novak still has some scoops in him. In early 1972, he quoted an anonymous Democratic senator saying George McGovern's presidential campaign was doomed because the candidate favored "amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot." Thomas Eagleton -- who later in 1972 was briefly McGovern's running mate -- died in March, so in this book, Novak can finally reveal him as the source.)

As the country moved right, Novak moved with it. The "news" in his columns was often GOP talking points, anonymously sourced. He became increasingly devoted to Ronald Reagan and supply-side economics. One reason: The kid from Joliet was getting rich. Novak is scrupulous about revealing his income and the costs of his lunches at Sans Souci. Helpfully, he converts every figure into 2007 dollars, so the modern reader can appreciate how well he was doing.

Novak also became more religious. Raised as a non-observant Jew, he had considered himself agnostic until discovering Whittaker Chambers' "Witness," which challenged readers to choose between God and communism. At that time, he was a young Army officer, facing deployment to Korea, "praying that I would perform bravely and I would survive." Many years later, he was introduced to Father C. John McCloskey, "a politically and theologically conservative Opus Dei priest," who gradually guided him toward baptism. (For someone supposedly so unpopular, his conversion ceremony at a Washington church in 1998 was lousy with political and media celebrities.)

As a reporter, Novak admits a fatal weakness for the scoop. In the past it had led him to rely on information peddled by the likes of Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent and Opus Dei member who turned out to be a Soviet mole. Four years ago, it was one of Novak's cherished senior administration officials who lured him into the biggest fiasco of his career: the Plame affair.

On July 8, 2003, Novak was unexpectedly granted an interview with Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Two days before, Novak had encountered war critic Joseph Wilson in the green room of "Meet the Press" (his first impression: "What an asshole"), and heard Wilson assert that Bush was wrong when he claimed that Iraq had sought uranium from Niger. When Novak met with Armitage, he asked, "Why would the CIA send Joseph Wilson, not an expert in nuclear proliferation and with no intelligence experience, on the mission to Niger?"

"Well," Armitage replied, "you know his wife works at the CIA, and she suggested he be sent to Niger."

Novak looked up Wilson's wife in Who's Who, and printed her name in his column. The Plame affair occupies the first and final chapters of "The Prince of Darkness." As he recalls the fallout, some of his old outsider's bitterness resurfaces. Suddenly, Novak was besieged by enemies on the right and the left. Once again, nobody liked Bob Novak.

At the outset of the Bush administration, Novak had gold-plated access, especially to Karl Rove. But his opposition to the Iraq war and his criticism of Israel -- the latter a career-long theme of his column -- soured the relationship, until troublemaker Novak was disinvited from Bush's luncheons for conservative journalists. In the chapter "Attacking Iraq and Attacking Novak," he broods over a National Review attack by David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter who scorned him as an "unpatriotic conservative."

At the same time, Novak claims, his journalistic colleagues gave him no support when special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald pressured him to reveal the sources of the Plame leak. (They did laugh, however, when he mocked the leak furor onstage in a skit at the Gridiron Club's annual dinner in 2004.)

"The reason was that in my case my sources were officials in the hated Bush administration who had given me information concerning a vocal critic of that administration," he writes. "The blood of ideological solidarity was stronger than the water of journalistic togetherness."

In the end, Novak 'fessed to Fitz, reasoning that the special prosecutor already knew the source of the leaks, and that a legal fight might result in a Supreme Court decision eroding reporter-source confidentiality.

That wasn't the end of Novak's troubles. During the 2004 presidential campaign, CNN's "Crossfire" booked Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." Stewart pleaded for "civilized discourse" and called the hosts "partisan hacks." Novak wasn't on that broadcast -- he was in the hospital, recovering from a hip replacement -- but he's convinced he was the target of Stewart's rant. He describes the comedian as a "left-wing ideologue" out to get President Bush, "Crossfire in general and me in particular because of the CIA leak case."

Novak had been with CNN since its inception in 1980, but within a year, he was off the air. "Crossfire" was canceled, and when Novak appeared on its replacement, "Strategy Session," he blew up at co-host James Carville. During an argument about Florida Senate candidate Katherine Harris, Carville accused Novak of sucking up to the Wall Street Journal.

"Two-and-one-half years of coping with Carville's ad hominem attacks welled up in me. 'Well, I think that's bullshit,' I said. 'And I hate that. Just let it go.' I removed my microphone and stalked off the set." (He left, conveniently, before host Ed Henry could ask him on-air about the Plame leak.)

Novak is now a commentator for Fox News -- where, he notes, he doesn't have to debate left-wingers -- and he still has his syndicated column. At 76, Novak still wants to stir up strife. He stirred up plenty when he named Valerie Plame, but it really did cost him something. About $625,000 in salary from CNN, as he notes, meaning that he no longer earns nearly as much money as the $1.2 million he cleared in 2004. And there's the $160,000 in legal fees. He remains, however, flush in the real currency of his trade. He still has sources inside the White House, still eats breakfast with Republican senators in the Senate Dining Room, and can still read his Chicago-based column in the Washington Post. He has no plans to retire.

Edward McClelland

Edward McClelland is the author of "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

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