Long before he gave us the Valerie Plame Affair, veteran syndicated political columnist and TV pundit Robert Novak was causing trouble for powerful people and covering the biggest stories in Washington, D.C. His new book, “Prince of Darkness,” is a candid memoir of his personal life and his 50-year career as an insider who not only made news with his journalism but had close encounters with presidents Johnson, Kennedy and Reagan. Novak, a conservative whose column regularly appears in the Trib, was in New York City when I talked to him on Monday by telephone:
Q: Who is the book aimed at and what does it say about how politics and journalism work together in Washington?
A: I think I have two audiences. One audience -- a very small audience, which won’t make the book a very big seller -- is the principal audience, and that is people who are in the game: politicians, political consultants, journalists, people involved in the political process. It will show some things that they didn’t realize happened and some things -- after all, I’m pretty old -- that they weren’t around for.
The second audience is people who are interested in public affairs, interested in the great game of politics and don’t know anything about it. I try to reveal some of the mystery about how a journalist works to show them what great fun I had doing it but also the problems -- the mistakes I made, the successes I’ve had and the interaction between the people in government and journalists. I try to peel away some of the mystery and dispense with some of the evasions and untruths that I’m afraid people in my trade have spread about the way they actually function.
Q: Is there anything really juicy in this book that others might not want you to reveal?
A: The reason I think I’m called “The Prince of Darkness” is not that I am evil but that I say uncomfortable things and make people uncomfortable and am highly critical. I think I’m much more critical of public figures than perhaps they are used to. For example, Gerald Ford got tremendous kudos when he died in his eulogies. I’m pretty tough on Gerald Ford as a poor and incompetent president. I’m even tougher on Nixon and Carter. Johnson is starting to come back, too, and I’m pretty tough on him.
There also are some things in the book that people don’t know. For years, people said I made up a quote about a liberal senator saying of George McGovern that he was going to be in big trouble -- as he was -- when middle America, particularly Catholic middle America, discovers that he is for amnesty, abortion and the legalization of marijuana, which people turned into the “Triple-A Candidate: Amnesty, Abortion and Acid.”
They said I made that up but finally I was able to say after the person died that it was really (Missouri Sen.) Thomas Eagleton, his sometime running mate, who had said that about him to me. That’s going to make some people mad. Some of the things I say about (Reagan adviser and U.N. Ambassador) Jeane Kirkpatrick -- who I called selfish and arrogant in refusing to give me permission to use a quote where I was being sued for liable -- friends of hers may not like either.
Q: If there had been no Valerie Plame affair, how would you have started the book?
A: That’s a great question. I would have started the book with an incident where I found out that Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a consulate at the State Department, had given a speech to ambassadors in Europe in which he said the organic union of the Soviet Union and satellite states was permanent and we ought to strengthen that union rather than try to undermine it. It was just a terrible thing to say for the anti-communists and the ethnic Americans.
And then in the second presidential debate with Jimmy Carter, after being told for months that he had to repudiate the Sonnenfeldt quote ... President Ford got it completely wrong. He committed what I called “a policy spoonerism.” Instead of saying that we didn’t recognize Soviet control of Eastern Europe, he said they don’t have any control of Eastern Europe -- they don’t control Poland. A lot of people think that quote lost Ford the election. That’s the way I would have started the book. Not as exciting maybe as Valerie Plame but important.
Q: Is there any great lesson from the Valerie Plame affair or was it really just another typical Washington scandal?
A: I think the latter. I think the lesson is that when you take an issue and you get a lot of the news media and the politicians and other people insisting it’s something more than what it is, it takes on a life of its own. People don’t really want to know the facts. They don’t want to know that I was against the war in Iraq. They don’t want to know that deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage, who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity to me, was against the war -- so it couldn’t have been a plot to discredit war critics. They don’t want those facts. There was ... a wire story the other day that came out which said that Karl Rove was my principal source. I think what it shows is that people -- particularly the news media -- will turn a fact into something that it’s really not in order to serve an ideological purpose.
Q: Were there any scoops or revelations that were too hot to put into your book?
A: If you read in the small type, in the author’s note at the end of the book, I said that my original manuscript, if it had been printed as a book, God forbid, would have run 1,400 pages. The book is certainly big enough -- over 600 pages -- and people ask me, “What’s in those 800 other pages?” Well, there are no great revelations. It’s more of the same; more anecdotes and some analysis and details. I’ve had a long life and a long career. I’m very thankful for that and I thought I’d just write everything I wanted to write and cut it later. That added about a year to the preparation time for the book but that’s the way I did it.
Q: You say that stirring up strife is the proper role for a journalist ... A: Well, my role, anyway.
Q: OK. Is there too much or too little strife being stirred up in D.C. these days?
A: I’m going to say something that most people would disagree with: I’m going to say too little strife because there’s too much conventional thinking, too much group-think among journalists in Washington. Certainly they stir up strife on criticism of the Bush administration. But there are a lot of things going on in Congress, and I don’t think there is a very good job being done of stirring up strife there. My late partner, Rowland Evans, more elegant than I, said once that what we do is intercept the lines of communication between politicians. I don’t think there is enough of that being done.
Q: You were interested in both making news by digging up scoops for your column and advocating a political point of view, which was a decidedly nonliberal point of view. Were you being as fair and balanced a journalist as you should have been?
A: I think so. Obviously, the things that I was interested in I tended more to write about than other matters. But I still will write things that will seem to go against the grain of things that I stand for. A lot of times I get calls from people associated with this White House and they say, “Why are you being so rough on 'em? Aren’t you hurting the cause?” Well, it’s not my cause. My cause is the country and I want the president to succeed. But I’m not on his staff. And I’m not a yes man for him. So I think I have been fair and balanced in that respect. Does it mean that I’m going to write things that take the argument that tax cuts are bad and that we need more government? No, I’m not going to do that. But if the president does badly, as he often does, and I get exclusive information on it, I write about it.
Q: How do you describe your politics?
A: I consider myself a conservative. I say so in the book. I say I’ve moved farther to the right. I am for a limited government, and I made clear in the book that I am for limited government in our international adventures, spilling the blood of our young people and our fortune. I think that’s a conservative position. I’m obviously a conservative in limited government. But also I think it’s a conservative position to be for free trade and liberal on immigration. I don’t like government restrictions. A lot of people think those are not conservative positions but I think they are.
Q: You had a gloomy attitude as a young reporter -- and that’s where the original nickname “Prince of Darkness” came from -- but it’s hard to believe that you have become less gloomy in the last 20 or 30 years in D.C.
A: Well, believe it or not, I have (laughs). There are two things: One is the supply-side agenda, which I didn’t understand the need for and I never expected to happen. I believe it’s been a blessing for our economy and has prevented the kind of chronic economic slumps that we had all through the Eisenhower administration.
The other thing that has made me less gloomy is the destruction of the Soviet Union. People talk about Russia today going back to the Soviet Union. That’s not the Soviet Union. The winning of the Cold War is just something I didn’t expect to see. As I said in the book, in the second chapter, I read “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers when I was a young Army officer and it really changed my mind. Chambers was very gloomy. He said when he switched from communism to anti-communism, he thought he had switched from the winning side to the losing side. That was the view I took. But I think, too, that the fact that I have become a Catholic convert has made me less gloomy, less fearful and more faithful.
Q: As a Catholic, that means you’re looking to the real, real, long run, right?
A: That’s correct.
Q: What was your greatest scoop?
A: I think my greatest scoop was when I went to China in 1978 and reported on the “Democracy Wall” rebellion and got the interview with (China’s top ruler) Deng Xiaoping.
Q: Who was your greatest source?
A: Probably the guy who gave me the most documents was a conservative operative named John Carbaugh, a former staffer for Sen. Jesse Helms. He didn’t just give me tips; he gave me documents.
Q: Of all the people you’ve dealt with, does anyone stand out as "most principled"? Not so much as a source or as a wise guy, but someone who thought more like you did and wasn’t changed or seduced by the power?
A: That’s an excellent question and it’s hard to come up with an answer, because “principle” is not a common commodity among politicians. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I think that is a fact. I believe in term limits because I can think of a lot of people who started off as very principled but they kind of fell off in a short amount of time. But somebody I think was very principled and always convincing -- and I disagreed with him on his domestic policy and all his issues -- was Sen. Henry M. Jackson, “Scoop” Jackson, of Washington. He was what they called a “Cold War liberal.” He was a strong anti-communist, strong on national defense, a very great battler against excessive arms-control treaties. And of course he was a liberal domestically and never wavered from that. I think he would have made a great Democratic president, but he never made it.
Q: How does the older, wiser “Prince of Darkness” see the future of the country?
A: Well, my future on this Earth is limited (laughs). I’m 76 years old. From my standpoint, I see the long Republican realignment ending and going into a period of Democratic supremacy. I think there will be a lot of mistakes and a lot of bad things done. But I do believe the American people are really up to making the best of their politicians.
When I am given a chance to address college students, I always tell them, “Always love your country but never trust your government.” I believe that. And I believe that is the view the American people take and that’s why I think we’ll still be the shining city on the hill.