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The Conservative Betrayed

After a while it didn’t anymore.


Novak attended the University of Illinois, then worked in Omaha and Indianapolis for the Associated Press, which brought him to Washington in 1957 to cover stories of local interest to midwestern papers. He was a careful, aggressive, hard worker, and was soon handling major stories. Competition for talent was heavy in Washington in the Fifties, and soon he was hired by The Wall Street Journal, a top-of-the line bureau.

The money was not much. In 1957 the AP paid him $125 a week, about $9,000 a year in 2006 dollars, he reckons, and the Journal started him at $160. Unlike most journalists, Novak is not shy about discussing money. He seems to think that people believe he has made a fortune and is at pains to dispel the notion. The best year of his entire career, he says, was 2004 when his adjusted gross income was $1.2 million. In 2006 he made “a lot less.” The greater part of his income in these years came from various cable TV jobs; at one time he was making $625,000 a year from his work for CNN. His present financial worth is “in the high single-digit millions,” he says.

The partnership with Evans began in 1963. Evans, whom Novak barely knew at the time, covered the Capitol for the New York Herald-Tribune. Its editor wanted him to write an “inside-Washington” column six days a week. This would have been a killing job for a single reporter, and Evans invited Novak to share it.

They were an unlikely team. Evans was a classic white-shoe type: inherited income, Philadelphia Main Line, prep school, Yale, social pal of the Kennedys. He was a naturally genial clubman who, unlike Novak, found time to attend parties, play squash, and go horseback riding on weekends. It was easy to imagine Evans as a figure walking out of The Great Gatsby. Nine years older than Novak, he was a World War II veteran. On the Monday morning after Pearl Harbor, Novak writes, he joined “a long line of patriotic Yalies” waiting to enlist in the Marines, “survived the fierce combat” of the Pacific island campaigns, made sergeant, and came home in 1944 with malaria and a medical discharge.

Novak’s portrait of Evans is the most affectionate in his book, aside from passages about his wife and family. Rowly, as everyone called him (it rhymed with “holy”), began as a Franklin Roosevelt Democrat, probably inheriting the views of his father who, Novak says, “may have been the only New Deal Democrat riding the Main Line.” The young Evans covered the Senate like a club member at ease among his peers, addressing the most senior grandees by their first names. To Rowly even the august Senator Richard Russell was “Dick.” Novak recalls Rowly lunching in the Senate Dining Room one day with John F. Kennedy when Harry F. Byrd Sr. of Virginia, a senator of Olympian grandeur, passed by. “‘Harry, how are you?’ asked Rowly.” JFK was astounded. When Byrd left, he said: “You call him, ‘Harry?’ I’ve never heard anybody call him by his first name.”

The Evans & Novak column endured for thirty years and became simply the Novak column when Rowly retired in 1993. Evans had done most of the international travel for their foreign policy columns, but, as with Novak, it was the small chaff of day-to-day Washington politics that fascinated him.

Columns like theirs, which are expected to deliver something original or at least faintly newsworthy five days a week, require ceaseless toil. The big political news story is instantly gobbled down by the mainstream press. The columnist is like a prospector panning for gold; a lot of pebbles and sand have to be sifted, and the nugget is sometimes tiny. Much Evans & Novak reporting inevitably seemed trivial or simply mystifying to readers with no interest in Washington politics. To political junkies, however, the column was catnip.

No matter how slow the political season, in Washington there is always a low-voltage flow of political activity which can be detected by tirelessly working the telephones and cultivating human sources of information—always called just plain “sources.” Novak’s book is at its most entertaining and revealing when he is writing about his sources, many of whom he identifies.

Journalists are not supposed to do that, and by doing it here Novak will probably disturb people who fret about ethics. Journalists assume more or less instinctively that they are supposed to endure judicial torment and even prison rather than peach on people who, “off the record,” give them material that governments and other big institutions want concealed from the public.

There are obvious and persuasive reasons for sheltering sources from exposure, but they are not so persuasive when the informants are merely trafficking in the daily tittle-tattle of Washington, which constitutes most political news. Reporters are rarely sure what “off the record” really means, and people at the top of the news business are divided about when it is ethically right to defy a court order to reveal their sources.

Novak does not dwell very seriously on this debate. The decisive test, he says, should be whether, after many years, exposure may still be damaging. In his view, death settles the matter. And so the privilege finally ended for former Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri. Thirty-five years ago in conversation with Novak about George McGovern’s prospects for winning the Democratic presidential nomination, Eagleton said, “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot…. Once middle America—Catholic Middle America, in particular—find this out, he’s dead.”

In his column Novak attributed the remark only to a “liberal Senator,” and McGovern’s opponents used it to attack him as a “Triple-A” candidate, supporting “Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid.” McGovern won the nomination anyhow, and for his vice-presidential running mate chose, of course—Eagleton, who was then dropped after it turned out he’d concealed his treatment, by electric shock, for nervous problems. Eagleton still insisted on his privilege thirty years later when Novak asked permission to use the story in his memoir. Eagleton replied that “it was off the record, and I still consider it that way.” He died last March at the age of seventy-seven, Novak writes, “relieving me of the need to conceal his identity.”


The cavalcade of Novak sources, many still alive, contains few startling faces. There are senators past and present, House members powerful and obscure, and political handymen who carry water for the great and the near-great, but mostly the wannabe-great. Karl Rove is here. (“I never had enjoyed such a good source inside the White House,” Novak says.) The affable Senator Trent Lott, of course. Former Senator and Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Congressman Vin Weber. And a thirty-one-year-old named John Carbaugh, highly valued by Novak (“might have been the best source I ever had”), who sometimes turned up bearing documents; once he brought a top secret paper outlining American policy for defending Germany against Soviet military invasion.

In 1977 Carbaugh was on Senator Jesse Helms’s Capitol payroll, “knew everybody in the right wing of American politics, and had his hands on multiple clandestine operations,” Novak writes.

He ran a secret organization called the Madison Group (that met at Washington’s luxurious Madison Hotel), consisting of conservatives who plotted initiatives in Congress and the executive branch. He could be found most mornings at breakfast in the Hay Adams dining room whispering to somebody. It was me about once a week.

An equally bizarre source was the political strategist Dick Morris, reputed to be “a scoundrel who did not believe in anything,” who in 1996 turned up on Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign team. Though Morris was said to be inaccessible to reporters, “I reached him easily” and had “my most productive relationship with any Clinton aide,” Novak writes. Morris quickly became a source without information after newspapers published pictures of him entertaining a prostitute in his hotel room.

Managing political sources is a subtle art. It requires the ability to recognize the source’s motive for talking, which is sometimes sinister, often devious, commonly self-serving, and rarely innocent. Novak’s only entrant in the innocent category is Robert Matsui, a California Democratic congressman, who provided inside reports on his colleagues’ activities as Speaker Jim Wright was being railroaded out of office. Matsui “did not leak to me out of self-protection…or ideological motives,” Novak writes. “He just seemed to want me to get it straight.”

Many sources hope to ingratiate themselves with a columnist and have the favor repaid with some glowing publicity—or, as with Evans and Novak, protection when they erred. Novak suggests that someone who declined to become a source risked becoming one of what he calls their “targets.” He is candid in describing the price he could exact for silence:

Bob Haldeman was treated more harshly because he refused any connection with me. He made himself more of a target than he had to be by refusing to be a source.

Alexander Haig was “protected frankly as a longtime source of Rowly’s,” therefore treated “more gently than other apostates” in the Reagan administration. David Gergen, a master of Washington survival arts who scarcely knew Novak, came to his office with a briefcase of material that “gave me a terrific Evans & Novak column”: a batch of working papers on Reagan’s 1981 tax-reduction message soon to be delivered to Congress. Novak thinks Gergen “was working the source-or-target model with me. Gergen never really became my source, but he was not my target either—which I believe was his intent.”

Some sources just enjoy hanging out and talking shop with reporters. Two of Novak’s favorites were Melvin Laird, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin, and Robert Strauss, a Democratic political wise man from Texas. The column’s steady rain of compliments on Laird and Strauss over the years made it obvious to all Washington that they were major contributors, and Novak now acknowledges his gratitude, and adds one more compliment. Laird, he states, was the authentic Republican mastermind in the House of Representatives, and Gerald Ford little more than an empty showpiece. (It was Ford, not Laird, who ended up as president, but never mind.)

There is an implicit understanding between source and reporter that they are using each other. Sometimes the source is using the columnist simply to have a good meal on someone else’s expense account. This must have been a constant peril for Novak, a tireless luncher who used the fashionable Sans Souci restaurant’s food and drink to loosen tongues. He still has sour memories of a high-level Nixon man thirty years ago who “downed three double bourbons on the rocks before lunch and sipped a single bourbon during the meal, telling me nothing unintended in the process.”

Lyndon Johnson’s mastery of the Byzantine maneuver made him dangerous for any reporter who thought he had a White House “exclusive,” as Evans and Novak did when they entertained Bill Moyers at dinner in the winter of 1963. Moyers, then very close to Johnson, “could not wait to enter the Evans dining room for the meal before he sent his message.” They were certain that the Moyers message came straight from Johnson. Their next column began, “The leading prospect for the Vice-Presidential nomination in President Johnson’s own mind is Sargent Shriver….”

LBJ had no intention of choosing Shriver; it would have seriously irritated Mayor Richard Daley, the Democratic master of Chicago. Hubert Humphrey was probably always his choice. So why was Moyers sent to plant a misleading story? Novak is now “convinced” that Johnson was sending a message to Robert F. Kennedy: “Under no conditions will you be my running mate.”


Novak closes his story in an uncharacteristically sensitive vein. Conservatism’s evolution since he came to it in Goldwater’s time has brought the so-called neoconservatives to power under George W. Bush, whose foreign policy they created. It also produced a new generation of young gunslingers with the usual urge to show the old guys that their day has passed.

Novak is clearly one of the old guys, as he realized on a March day in 2003 when National Review, conservatism’s intellectual journal, published an article calling him a “paleoconservative,” a word summoning up images of fossils and dinosaurs. Novak believes it was intended to carry even nastier implications, that the author meant to associate him with other “paleos,” a couple of whom “embraced anti-Semitic views that I abhorred.”

The author was David Frum, who had spent a year as a White House speechwriter, resigned, and written a book about it. There had been a comic-opera quarrel about whether it was Frum or another ghost who had thought of reviving the word “axis,” originally applied to the German-Italian alliance in World War II, for use in a Bush speech, and who had said it should be “axis of hate,” and who had countered with “axis of evil,” and so forth. A Novak column had dilated on this foolishness, apparently chafing Frum, and later Novak reviewed Frum’s memoir most uncharitably in American Conservative.

Frum’s National Review attack was obviously “payback,” Novak says, which seems possible, writers being aesthetically sensitive people. At the heart of the matter, however, was a dispute about the neocons’ support for the Iraq war, their great and defining achievement in the Bush administration. Both Evans and Novak had always been dovish on Middle East policy, and Novak had opposed the present Iraq war from its inception. This distinguished him from the right-wing media claque, exemplified by but hardly confined to the Fox News group, which loyally followed the White House line long after public support for the war began to shrink.

Novak had often taken independent positions when he found White House policy at odds with his own principles. He sometimes writes as if he were a major political power: “I was in sympathy with Bush’s conservative principles, and strongly supportive of his tax cuts…[but] I opposed the president on his education and prescription drug programs and was deeply concerned about his military intervention in Iraq.”

In 2003 as Bush began the war in Iraq the National Review launched an attack of its own against conservative dissenters. Shades of Moscow! The old party faithful suddenly accused of failure to think in harmony with the new—it evoked unconservative memories of Stalin purging the old Bolsheviks.

The thrust of Frum’s article is indicated by its title: “Unpatriotic Conservatives: A War Against America.” Its targets were the “paleoconservatives,” who included Novak. Powerful prose flowed unrestrained:

They are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure if it happens. They began by hating the neo-conservatives. They came to hate their party and this president. They have finished by hating their country.

Novak turned to longstanding conservative friends for support and found very little. His old pal William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, said he had not heard of the Frum article but would check and call back. He didn’t. Novak says they have not talked since.

He heard that Rich Lowry, the National Review‘s young new editor, “tried but failed” to change the article by separating him from the “paleos,” but he cannot believe that Lowry lacked the power to do whatever he chose with the piece. Bill Buckley sent Novak “a nice e-mail” saying that though they disagreed on “the animating spirit and strategic analysis” behind the Iraq war, he regarded Novak as “a great conservative figure.” William Rusher, the magazine’s retired publisher, wrote a column essentially reading him out of the movement.

And so it went. “National Review‘s complicity deeply grieved me,” Novak writes. “This was Bill Buckley’s vehicle that created the modern conservative movement.” Novak had been reading it and writing for it for decades, and now the new boys had caught up with him for not backing their war in the desert, and he was old, out of fashion, and hurting, and “it was,” he says, “burning a hole in my heart.”

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