As a syndicated columnist, Robert Novak has specialized for the past forty-five years in the inside-Washington branch of political news reporting. To the casual newspaper reader it may seem a delightful job: expense-account lunches with movers and shakers, getting to know famous rascals, gleaning the secrets of mysterious “sources” whose identities must not be revealed.
Such a career might produce an ebullient memoir of life on the raffish side of American power, but ebullience is not Novak’s style, and he is not amused by raffishness among politicians. As displayed in The Prince of Darkness, his style is earnestness, his temperament is solemn, his judgments are unsoftened by mercy, and thoroughness is his habit.
The result is an exceedingly long book (662 pages) which never quite decides whether it wants to preach conservative politics, entertain with high-level gossip, reveal tricks of the journalistic trade, or settle old scores with blunt insult. Thus Al Gore, who refused to carry out his end of a deal after Novak had done him a favor, is “a phony,” and the late Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neill, former speaker of the House whose memoir contained “the worst lie about [Novak and his partner Rowland Evans] ever committed to print by a public figure,” was not only “mean-spirited” but also “soft on Communist penetration of the Western Hemisphere” and “brutal” to fellow Democrats. Robert McNamara, the former secretary of defense, was “overbearing and hypocritical” in his first interview and ever after, thus gaining special distinction: “Of many political personalities I have disliked during a half century in Washington, I would place McNamara on top.”
Presidents are treated with a candor common in reporters’ private conversation but rare in print. Nixon was “a poor president and a bad man who inflicted grave damage on his party and his country,” Novak writes. In 1968, by contriving to have Thieu’s government in South Vietnam boycott the Paris peace talks announced by LBJ, Novak suspects, Nixon “got away with the most successful dirty trick of his career.” Carter, caught fibbing eight years after leaving office about why he hadn’t responded to a social invitation, “was still lying about matters large and small.”
He puts the boot into the famous (Henry Kissinger, James A. Baker, Robert Dole) and the forgotten alike. Jeb Magruder, a hapless member of the Nixon Watergate gang, who deliberately planted a misleading story in Novak’s column thirty-five years ago, is repaid with an anecdote painting him as a small-bore expense-account swindler.
While dispensing rough justice to politicians who have displeased him, Novak does not spare himself from critical examination. His book periodically turns somber while he confesses his vices, none of them notably depraved. We learn about his drinking (once prodigious, now modest), his gambling (heavy betting on sports), his smoking (four packs a day when young, none since), and his failures at parenthood (“so engrossed in my work that I had paid little attention to my children”).
He describes his nearly fatal onset …