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The Conservative Betrayed

1.

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 of spinal meningitis and tells how advanced medical technology and excellent doctors helped him overcome three bouts of cancer (lung, prostate, kidney). He has also broken his hip and ankle and has suffered from asthma. A brief failed marriage during his twenties is examined and causes of the failure analyzed (cultural incompatibility, she an Indianapolis debutante and Junior Leaguer, he a “spoiled only child, very difficult to live with”).

Throughout this vast stream of information, public and private, we also follow his religious evolution. The grandchild of Jewish immigrants from tsarist Russia and Lithuania, he is far gone in agnosticism by college age, ventures among the Unitarians in his twenties, then apparently ceases to ponder religion until he discovers Catholicism. His conversion, at the age of sixty-seven, is reported in detail, including some tart exchanges with Jewish relatives. Thorough here as in all else, he does not omit Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s joking remark after the ceremony: “Well, Novak is now a Catholic. The question is: When will he become a Christian?”

Liberals, as well as his friend Moynihan, he says, may have thought that Catholicism would lead him “to favor redistribution of income and oppose capital punishment,” but such changes in his politics “were not to happen.” Such folderol is the stuff of liberalism, and Novak is a conservative, proud of it, and eager to spread the gospel.

His devotion has been severely tested in his old age by the neoconservatives, who are furious about his opposition to the Iraq war and would happily see him expelled from the lodge. Still, his loyalty to the faith remains undiminished. His book often feels like a seminar on supply-side economic theory and the virtues of withered government.

Novak is not content to be merely a political columnist, or an inside-Washington columnist; he is a conservative columnist—“a notoriously conservative columnist,” he states. There have always been conservative columnists—having grown up on Hearst newspapers, I was in college before discovering there could be any other kind—but in the 1940s and 1950s they were not like today’s messianic bunch. They were sturdy, dependable, clock-punching workmen, reliably delivering their assaults on New Deal “crackpots” and labor unions year after year with what, looking back on it, could only have been weary patience. In their time, conservatism had been so crushed for so long that they must have carried a sense of futility in their bone marrow.

What a change Goldwater, Reagan, and Karl Rove have worked. Richard Nixon deserves credit, too. His constant laments that the press was in thrall to liberals created pressure on newspapers to furnish more outspoken conservative content. The New York Times and The Washington Post responded by hiring two former Republican political operatives, William Safire and George Will, as Op-Ed columnists.

It was Reagan’s election, however, that opened the golden age. Reagan made conservatism not just successful again, but also fashionable. Once mocked as “mossbacks” and “troglodytes,” conservative journalists were now welcome everywhere, especially on around-the-clock cable news channels desperate for ways to fill their idle hours. Lecture-circuit demand for conservative journalists famous for fiery rhetoric often provided large supplements to traditionally austere newspaper salaries.

The new conservative journalists were high-spirited and zealous for battle. Their eagerness to become unabashed political warriors coincided with journalism’s transformation into “media,” a slippery word that usually means “television,” which usually means “the entertainment business.” With television even politics could be entertaining if staged as a good brawl. Suddenly there were careers and money to be had for journalists ready to put on makeup, abandon objectivity, and duke it out rhetorically on camera with colleagues of opposing political persuasions.

In short, Novak at midlife found himself playing a right-winger on TV. At first it did not demand much theatrical fakery. Although he had started out, he says, slightly left of center and voted for Kennedy in 1960, by 1964 he had been moved toward the ideas generated by William F. Buckley, The National Review, and the Goldwater campaign. It was 1972, eight years before the Reagan victory, when he took his stand on the right.

The occasion was an academic seminar on the mass media at which he presented a paper taking what was to become the basic Nixon-Agnew view of the press as captive of liberalism—“ideologized into a part of the liberal establishment,” he said. Washington reporters, he said, were basically tools of the Democratic Party, polluting the news with liberal bias, and young journalists were compelled to knuckle to liberal dogma if they hoped to get ahead. With this, Novak says, he departed “the mainstream of Washington journalism,” having “broken a tribal taboo in publicly criticizing colleagues.”

Television appearances inevitably began to turn him into a “personality,” and “personalities” tend to lose their grip on journalistic discipline, not to mention the real world. Once converted into a “personality,” a journalist ceases simply “appearing” on TV and begins “performing.” In the 1980s Novak was performing on a variety of programs, chiefly for CNN, and noticed that performance demands were influencing his political thought. Before television, he writes, his conservatism was based mainly on an enthusiasm for tax-cutting, desire for more vigorous antiCommunist foreign policies, and dislike of big government.

Required to “perform” as a political advocate on the show Crossfire,

I found myself engaged on issues I seldom wrote about: capital punishment, gay rights, abortion, and gun control. I was never asked to take any position I opposed, but the process had the effect of hardening my positions. I was ever more becoming a right-wing ideologue.

Novak’s present political views suggest a yearning for the Gilded Age. Among presidents, he prefers William McKinley to Theodore Roosevelt, the pioneer of twentieth-century progressivism. McKinley, elected in 1896, represents a time when income was tax-free and government never interfered with a corporation’s urge to do as it pleased, and often went out of its way to assist. To Novak the entire twentieth century must seem like a political catastrophe.

Public perception of him as a conservative political personality brought the furies howling down on him during the Valerie Plame affair, in which agents of the Bush administration were widely suspected of using Novak to do a political well-poisoning. The essence of the suspicion was that the Bush people, seeking to punish a retired diplomat who had challenged their justification for the Iraq war, leaked to Novak the fact that his wife worked for the CIA and Novak published it.

What really happened and why is a dark tale of bureaucratic knife play between the Rumsfeld-Cheney-neocon faction, which was drumming up the Iraq war, and a CIA that sullenly opposed it. Novak’s role was small and incidental. He learned of Valerie Plame’s CIA connection from Richard Armitage of the State Department, which had been shut out of decision-making about the war. (Novak himself had opposed the war and was becoming a target of the neocons.)

To Novak the column seemed not very important; nor did he think disclosure of Plame’s identity of any consequence since she was not working under cover. He now describes it as “a trivial incident” that was “exaggerated into a scandal by the Left and its outriders in the news media.” Its impact on his life and his career was not trivial. It was a brutal lesson in what agony may befall a reporter who goes crusading as a political ideologue.

Novak, widely recognized in his media persona as Mister Right-Winger, found himself widely denounced as a flunky delivering vengeance on behalf of a right-wing government cabal. Liberal journalists “despised me for being a conservative,” he says, and general support or dislike for him “usually was a function of ideology.” Shouting crowds called him “Traitor!” in the streets of New York and his CNN employer was faced with morally upright inquisitors demanding to know why CNN continued to employ him.

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