Veteran Washington reporter Robert Novak doesn’t regret publishing the name of an alleged covert CIA agent that led to the imprisonment of Lewis “Scooter” Libby.
“Judging it on the merits, I would still write the story,” Novak writes matter-of-factly in his newly-released memoir, The Prince of Darkness. “There never was a question about its news value or its accuracy.”
Novak has spent his 50 year career as a hard-charging political reporter making trouble and honing a journalistic philosophy based on, as he writes, telling “the world things people do not want me to reveal.”
The first and last chapters of the book, titled after a nickname given to Novak in 1964 by the Washington Post’s John J. Lindsay, are devoted to explaining Novak’s decision to publish former CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name in a July 2003 column. The piece questioned why the CIA sent her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, on a fact-finding mission Niger to find information about an Iraqi uranium purchase. Novak explained the decision to send Wilson, a former Clinton White House aide with “no track record in intelligence and with no experience in Niger since being posted there as a very junior Foreign Service officer in 1976-78” to the region demonstrated “at least incompetence within the CIA and at most a poisonous hostility there to George W. Bush.”
Sandwiched between the two Valerie Plame chapters is a rollicking history of Novak’s life as a reporter in which many sources are revealed for the first time. Among them is Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove. Novak wrote Rove “was a grade A-plus source.”
In a phone interview, Novak said Rove readily gave him information. “He thought I was a conservative and I was sympathetic to many of the things, not all the things though, that the president was doing.” Novak noted his access to Rove was cut off once the administration was charged with outing a covert CIA agent.
“I was sympathetic certainly to the tax cuts and the economic policy, the administration’s policies on a lot of other issues,” Novak said. “I admired the President’s pro-life position and his position on stem cell research. Rove knew that I disapproved of a lot of other things, notably the intervention in Iraq, but he thought that I would give a fair shake to handling this.”
Novak’s long-standing stance against the war in Iraq was a cause of a bitter rift between him and the National Review that caused him to quit writing for the magazine after producing articles, book reviews and cover stories for 30 years.
In a March 2003 National Review cover story, “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” Canadian journalist and former Bush speechwriter David Frum identified Novak as a member of anti-war “paleoconservatives” that Frum concluded “are thinking about defeat, and wishing for it, and they will take pleasure when it happens.” The piece stated, “[Paleoconservatives] began by hating the neo-conservatives. They came to hate their party and this President. They have finished by hating their country.”
“That was an attack that really shocked me because I had a very warm relationship with National Review,” Novak said. “I had written for them for many years, and just without warning to be attacked and put in company as so-called paleoconservatives was just not only shocking but absurd. How I could be called a paleoconservative when I’m free-trade, I’m pro-immigration, I’m a globalist, I am all those things, and internationalist - how that fit into the paleoconservative thing just because I was not for using America military power to spread democracy around the world?”
Novak said there might have been a “personal aspect” to the former speechwriter’s attack, originating from a column Novak wrote in February 2002. Novak reported that although “self identification of language by a presidential ghost is strictly forbidden,” Frum’s wife had been bragging that her husband had coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” in the President’s 2002 State of the Union Address.” Novak investigated her claim and found out that Frum had instead wanted to use the phrase “Axis of Hate.” That phrase was then revised by Chief speechwriter Michael Gerson to become “Axis of Evil.” Two weeks after publication of Novak’s column, Frum resigned from the White House and later accused Novak of libel.
Of his anti-war position and Frum’s attack, Novak said “I think the broader question was the neo-conservatives, some of whom were very close to me at one time, finally decided after 9/11 that my criticism and the long-time criticism of a lot of Israeli policies was too much to bear, and of course the opposition to the intervention in Iraq was part of that pattern.”
In the tell-all book, Novak takes great delight in recounting some tales embarrassing to higher ranking politicos than Frum. “One of my favorites is when I guided [former President] Lyndon Johnson, when he was Majority Leader, into a taxi to take him home,” Novak said. “He got drunk at the Press Club. That’s one of my favorite stories I enjoy. Another story I enjoy was when Jimmy Carter lied. I thought Jimmy Carter was the biggest liar we had as president. And a guy who says he’ll never tell a lie to you – you had to be pretty careful about anyway.”
Novak doesn’t limit himself to just telling the stories that reflect well on his career, though. “I pat myself on the back on a lot of columns I thought were good,” he said. “But, I talk about columns that were really bad.”
“One time I was suckered by Chuck Colson, the Nixon aide, into saying he was going to sue Time for libel, which was a stupid thing to write because you should never write a story about someone threatening to sue for libel,” Novak said. “You should only write it when they do sue for libel.”
Novak continued, “And I say that my failure – my greatest failure as a reporter and columnist is sometimes I was so eager for an exclusive story that I sometimes made some bad judgments and that was one of them.”
He no longer does business over long, drunken meals at the San Souci where he had a standing lunch invitation for many years, or keeps up his old $1,000 a day gambling habit, but has maintained a steady pace of producing hard-hitting columns with the same fervor as he has since 1954.
“There’s just an awful-lot of things happening on Capitol Hill that nobody writes about,” he said. “And it gives me something to put in my column.”