Light from the Prince of Darkness

Posted: Jul 30, 2007 12:01 AM
Light from the Prince of Darkness

Good reporters are usually great storytellers because they have lots of stories to tell. Great reporters like Robert Novak can write great memoirs. I finished "The Prince of Darkness," his memoir of 50 years of collecting Washington stories, on the way to a barbecue where young and aspiring twenty- and thirtysomethings from the Hill, the White House and the Washington news bureaus were gathered to enjoy a summer's day and to engage in what all Washingtonians do most of the time -- talk shop. Bob Novak's book quickly became the buzz.

Bette Davis's famous line in "All About Eve," warning friend and foe to "fasten your seatbelt, it's going to be a bumpy night," could have been the theme of this memoir. Bob Novak has had lots of bumpy nights, and he made the nights of the people he wrote about even bumpier. Here are the nuts and bolts of how Washington works -- and sometimes doesn't.

That's why this is such a fascinating and instructive read for young and aspiring power players -- and for those who marry them. This is where they can get a little understanding of the patience and determination required to cover and live in the inner sanctums of power. As a reporter, columnist and television pundit, Novak illuminates the territory with a bright and often garish light. It's not pretty, but it's real enough. There's true smarts and true grit, and tales of making friends of enemies -- and sometimes of making enemies of friends -- in the frenzied pursuit of knowledge, the currency of power in Washington.

There's lots here drawn from the front pages, including details of how Valerie Plame achieved her 15 minutes of fame. He was at the heart of what he calls "a trivial incident exaggerated into a scandal by the Left and its outriders in the new media." Trivial or not, he shows it as a textbook illustration of how to make a lot out of not very much.

For all of his abrasiveness in settling scores, he shows an unexpected humility behind the scenes in his taking the private measure of public men. Policy-makers and his colleagues of print and tube will be most interested in his descriptions of the hot connections of domestic and foreign policy, but equally fascinating are his own shadowy fears and failures otherwise shrouded in darkness. These include his regrets that he wasn't around much for his young children because he didn't think they were very interesting. Now there's the understated pride in the accomplishments of his adult son and daughter. His daughter worked for Vice President Dan Quayle and later for her father, joining the family business of columny. He fantasized that she would return to work for him after she married, but after four babies, "I'm still waiting."

The memoir offers a glimpse of the burdens a family must bear living with a Washington power player, particularly the burden of his wife, Geraldine, whose patience and forbearance made his career possible. When he learned that his wife was pregnant with their first child at the midpoint of a four-week reporting trip to South America, he was undecided about what to do. She had suffered one miscarriage and he thought it wise for them to return home, but he still had two weeks of scheduled appointments ahead. She preferred to stay with him despite acute morning sickness and questionable available medical care. He recognizes her incredibly generous gesture as emblematic of their relationship: He was "selfish"; she was "self-sacrificing."

Of the daughter born months later, who grew up to share his obsession with politics, he says, "I like to think she was influenced by her prenatal travels through South America, a riot in Buenos Aires, and the thin air of the Bolivian Andes." The mellower Novak, now 76, says with a grandfather's knowing grin: "My children love me and my grandchildren really love me."

Mr. Novak read deeply as an undergraduate, and it shows. He identifies with a character in Dante's "Inferno." Bertrans de Born was a medieval nobleman who raided and burned castles and generally wreaked havoc and ruin. In death, Dante consigns him to stand sentry at the gates of Purgatory, his severed head in hand, commemorating his life as a stirrer of strife: "Stirring up strife seemed to me a proper role for a journalist."

This is a self-centered, self-serving memoir, as memoirs inevitably are, often no kinder to himself than to the men he has written about for 50 years. It can be read as a caution to future power seekers, warning that they will have to weigh the price of strife, success and influence in Washington against love, friendship and the consolations of family. Buyer, beware.