Much of Washington is having a grand time tittering about Robert Novak's potty mouth. But they're missing the big picture.
Here are the facts. On a recent CNN broadcast, Novak was paired with James Carville for an "Inside Politics" discussion. Nothing new there. In a boring, but heated, discussion about the Florida Senate race, Carville attacked Novak's integrity saying, "He's got to show these right-wingers that he's got backbone. The Wall Street Journal editorial page is watching. You show 'em you're tough!"
Nothing really new there either. That's how Carville argues about most things. It's a tactic he honed working for Bill Clinton, where the response to every inconvenient fact or viewpoint was to attack he motives of those offering them.
What was new, however, was Novak's response, "I think that's [male bovine you-know-what] and I hate that." He then walked off the set.
Novak's outburst was unprofessional and he apologized for it. CNN has suspended him indefinitely.
The anchor moderating the "debate," Ed Henry, was quick to claim that Novak's outburst was a ploy to avoid answering a question about his role in the Valerie Plame controversy. The press loved this interpretation, giving it wide play, in part because Carville pushed it.
This strikes me as plain batty. Novak has appeared on television hundreds of times since the Plame controversy started, and he's been on CNN for more than a quarter-century. He's notoriously fond of being on television. The idea that Novak would risk his TV gig and his reputation for fear of having to say "no comment" for the 8 billionth time is absurd. Besides, he was told before he went on-air that he was going to be asked about Plame. Why not just refuse to go on?
And for Carville to buy into this nonsense is like a guy with horrifically bad breath assuming that someone walked away from an argument because he didn't know how to rebut his points.
This all illuminates the rot in cable news political discourse. I had a contract with CNN for about four years, which meant I was obliged to be on call for the usual five-minute mini-debates that are a staple on all the news networks. Before that, I committed similar punditry on Fox and MSNBC. On all the networks, but I think particularly on CNN, there's a habit of pairing opinion journalists with "political consultants" - i.e., party mouthpieces and activists.