Whether you like him or hate him, Robert Novak’s combination of insider dope, political pronouncements, and glowering TV presence have made him a Washington institution. So the announcement in July that he was suspending his newspaper column because of a brain tumor came as a jolt. What other journalist has been tearing up the town with so much relish for the past 51 years?
I spent some time with Novak five years ago for The Washingtonian, chronicling his journey from secular Jew to devout Catholic. Somewhat to my surprise, the scowling, sardonic columnist turned out to be a peach of a subject. He gave me plenty of time in spite of his killer schedule and seemed utterly candid. No subject was off limits.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was putting me on at times, making himself sound more misanthropic than he really was. I finally concluded that the pose — Scrooge in a three-piece suit — was manufactured to make him into a memorable TV personality, which it did. It also made him rich.
The last decade has dealt him some blows. Rowland Evans, his column-writing partner for 30 years — whom he eulogized as a brother — died in 2001. Novak’s opposition to the war in Iraq left him alienated from onetime friends like Bill Kristol and William Rusher. On top of that came the Plame affair, in which he revealed the identity of CIA analyst Valerie Plame Wilson — an episode he said cost him $160,000 in legal fees, spelled an end to his career at CNN, and subjected him and his family to threats.
Then, last summer, after hitting a pedestrian with his Corvette and suffering three seizures, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to a year to live.
Knowing how ill he was, it was with some trepidation that I asked to talk with him, but he readily agreed. I found him sitting in the living room of his comfortable apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the Capitol, thinner and a little frail after brain surgery and daily doses of radiation and experimental drugs.
Admirers will be glad to hear that he has not mellowed. He is as pugnacious as ever, although he expressed frustration at not being able to pick up the phone and report the way he used to. Even so, he says he’s planning a sequel to “The Prince of Darkness,” his 2007 autobiography, and looking forward to the day when he can get back to work.
Q: You’ve said your Catholicism was helping you deal with your illness.
A: Well, nobody wants to die. I certainly don’t. But all Christian faiths, and certainly Catholicism, hold that there’s an afterlife, that we are not just dust to dust. And that’s comforting, particularly now that I have an illness and there’s very little chance I will recover. A priest who visited me told me I’ve been given a chance to prepare myself. So I began to think about my life and what I’ve done right and not done right and to prepare myself for the last days. I’ve found that reassuring.
Q: Yet you’re going through this tremendously painful regimen. Given your diagnosis, is it worth it?
A: Look, it’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s worth it because I don’t want to die. I’m very, very tired, so there’s a great temptation to just give up. But that’s not my nature.
Q: Despite your ups and downs and your illnesses — this is your fourth cancer — you’ve been pretty lucky most of your life. Your mother spoiled you rotten. Your wife, Geraldine, practically cuts your meat. Your colleagues seem not just willing but happy to perform the most menial tasks for you. How does one get to be treated so royally?
A: It starts if you’re an only child. You’re told you’re wonderful, you can do no wrong. My mother always gave me the impression I was going to be something successful in the world. She didn’t know what, and she certainly wasn’t happy with the career path I took, but she never criticized me.
A person with a mother like that ends up with a great deal of confidence, which is a good thing to have if you’re going to be the kind of journalist I was. If you’re just going to report on car wrecks and interview the victims, you don’t need much confidence. But if you’re going to make proclamations on the state of the world, it helps to have confidence — even if that confidence is unwarranted.
Q: All your life you’ve been a workaholic whose only outside interest, you’ve said, was sports. Looking back, would you do anything differently?
A: I don’t think so. I have had so much fun in my life. I do like a few other things. I have season tickets to the Washington National Opera. I have season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre. I love to read history. I’ve been writing a novel in my head for years. It takes place during the Thirty Years’ War — I’m kind of a nut on the Thirty Years’ War. I love poetry. I love T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound.
So I think I’d do it about the same way except for my children. I think I paid too little attention to my two children when they were young. I’m very lucky — they’re both wonderful. In this crisis they’ve just been terrific.
Q: When you covered Capitol Hill in the 1950s, you were a quasi-regular at the after-hours soirees Senator Everett Dirksen used to hold in his office. Can you imagine a reporter being included in a gathering like that today?
A: No. The relationship between the press and politicians was far different. When Trent Lott read about Dirksen in my autobiography, he was flabbergasted. I am not even 100 percent sure he believed me, he was so astounded that a Senate Republican leader would invite a reporter to a closed gathering like that.
Q: The atmosphere in politics today is so bitterly partisan. What do you ascribe that to?
A: I don’t agree that partisanship is more bitter now. In the 19th century, the overriding issue was slavery, and there was no more partisan issue than slavery. Preston Brooks, a proslavery Democratic congressman from South Carolina, walked onto the Senate floor and beat Charles Sumner, the antislavery leader of the radical Republicans, almost to death with the metal end of his cane. Now, that was partisan.
During my first year in Washington when I was covering the Senate for the AP, Bob Kerr, a Democrat from Oklahoma, called Indiana Republican Homer Capehart a “rancid tub of ignorance.” So it’s no more partisan now — maybe less colorful. It may feel more partisan because it’s so much more transparent. There’s more TV, and the whole process is more open to the public.
Q: How do you assess the state of the Republican Party?
A: In 1957, when I came here, it was all but dead and had been dying for a long time. The Republicans were a permanent minority in Congress. They had never managed to put together an effective response to Roosevelt or his handling of the Depression.
The Republican Party was revived unexpectedly by somebody who was not even a Republican activist — William F. Buckley Jr. Suddenly you had members of Congress in both chambers taking positions, trying to put together programs of action.
The party found its voice in Barry Goldwater — a very ineffective voice, in my opinion. I thought he was limited as a political leader, but he was able to attract millions of people, and it changed the Republican Party.
Then came Ronald Reagan, and suddenly you had a response to Big Government and to liberals and a very effective politician leading it. Reagan took the torch from Goldwater, but nobody took the torch from Reagan.
So the Republican Party in the last few years looks very much like the party I encountered here in 1957. It has no responses, it doesn’t have programs, and it’s quite eager to just get by. Being a congressman in the minority is not all that bad if you are interested in a warm bed and a good salary.
Q: Do you see that changing?
A: I don’t know when they are going to work their way out of this crisis, but I’m sure they will. When you get two Republicans together, the first thing they say is “Who’s our future leader?” The answer is nobody knows.
The most interesting Republicans right now are a few young House members. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the best of them. Also Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jeb Hensarling of Texas. They are known in the House as right-wingers. I would describe them as reformers. They think there’s been too much corruption and waste. They are supply-siders. They are very upset with earmarks and very, very upset with the passive leadership we have today. I told them the current leadership reminds me of the get-along, go-along days I found when I got here, with House minority leader Bob Michel playing golf with House majority leader Tip O’Neill.
Q: You’ve had some unparalleled sources. How does one go about cultivating them?
A: What I’m going to say may come as a shock, because I’m not a terribly likable person, but you gotta get a source to like you. There’s very little that I or any other journalist can really do for a politician. A favorable column is not all that much, so there’s not much payback. It’s gotta be “I want to help Novak because I like him.” That may sound naive, but it’s true.
Senator Pat Moynihan was one of my great sources. I don’t believe he said, “Boy, if Novak writes this column, I’m going to really be in much better shape.” He thought I was an interesting guy and had interesting ideas, and he liked to talk about things with me.
Q: You mention the names of a lot of sources in “The Prince of Darkness,” which is practically a who’s who of everybody in government or politics over the past 50 years. Who were the most skillful leakers, the ones who really knew how to give good leak?
A: The word “leaker” has an ignominious ring. It connotes giving you something you shouldn’t have. I think I should have everything. So there are no leaks — there are sources.
When I’m feeling well, a source I talk to every day is Rick Hohlt. He is a lobbyist and fundraiser for Republican causes who was on Senator Richard Lugar’s staff years ago and is still close to him. He is very smart, and he knows more about what’s going on in Washington than anyone else. Unfortunately, he’s very discreet and doesn’t tell me everything. But every time I talk to him I learn something.
Q: Who else?
A: Richard Perle — he is a wonderful source. Probably the best source I ever had was a guy named John Carbaugh. He was a legislative assistant to Senator Jesse Helms for years and later became an international financial consultant; he’s dead now. He was an ideal source. Most sources, even the best, deal orally. They tell you something, give you tips, to see if you can check them out — which you have to do. But John would come into my office, documents in hand. He had incredible contacts, and occasionally he gave me highly classified documents. Where the hell he got them I don’t know.
Sources like to be taken out to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Will they give you the queen’s jewels for a lunch at Sans Souci — which no longer exists — or its successor? No, a lunch isn’t that important. But it’s a way of establishing intimacy.
I was just a Midwestern country boy when I came here. Rowly (Evans) was an elite Philadelphian. I didn’t realize how much a lunch was part of the whole source/reporter equation. Rowly learned that from Joseph and Stewart Alsop. If Rowly didn’t have a meal with a source, it was a bad day. Quite often he would have two sources for the same meal, usually breakfast.
Q: Who were the most dazzling politicians you watched over the past 50 years?
A: It almost sounds like a cliche, but John F. Kennedy was a dazzling politician because he had a dazzling personality. Personality is a huge thing in politics.
Q: How would you rate George Bush’s presidency?
A: Poor. I have said that the presidency is a leadership role; it’s not an administrative job. You can’t run the country — it’s too complicated. A leader’s role is to lead this diverse, cranky, difficult country and get the people moving in the same direction. George Bush has totally failed at that.
While I believe Roosevelt was overall a terrible president and prolonged the Depression by his policies, he was an excellent leader. People were down on the country, down on themselves, down on the government, and he picked them up.
Reagan was a great leader. I think Kennedy was terribly overrated, but he was a good leader. I don’t think George Bush even comprehends the demands of leadership. I went to see him when he was governor of Texas. I should have gotten a warning at the time. He expressed such contempt for Washington. If I were smarter, I would have seen huge trouble ahead from somebody who has that many negative feelings about the job.
The only president in my time I give a passing grade to is Reagan. I thought Nixon was the worst — a vicious little man. He never should have been president. The one I have the hardest time giving a grade to is Clinton. Did he have talent? Absolutely — he was a very accomplished man. But what did he do? I don’t think he accomplished anything. I think he was very good on the Cold War. But he seemed to be a man with limited horizons and ambitions.
Q: In your memoir, you describe an early meeting in the Oval Office with Reagan in which he quoted a couple of obscure 19th-century British free-trade advocates and some little-known modern Austrian economists. How underrated intellectually do you think Reagan was?
A: He was extremely underrated, particularly by the press. The press was very derisive. They were derisive of Eisenhower, too — they thought he was just another Army officer — but the attacks on Reagan were harsher. He was portrayed as stupid, uneducated, out of his element. I think he was very well educated and understood a lot of things. He was also very flexible in his policies — too flexible for my taste.
Q: How do you feel about Dick Cheney?
A: I think he’s the most forceful, effective vice president in history.
I like some of the things he’s done. I think he was instrumental in getting the tax cuts through, which I approve of. I’m at odds with his aggressive military policy, but he’s put a new dimension on the vice presidency that I don’t think will be continued and maybe shouldn’t be continued.
Q: You’ve seen a lot of secretaries of state. Who were the best?
A: It’s a very difficult job. You have to balance two constituencies — the presidency and the Foreign Service. Most don’t succeed very well in that. I think Dean Rusk, for example, was totally the president’s man. Colin Powell leaned heavily the other way, maybe too much, trying to protect the Foreign Service. As for making a great mark on history, I don’t think any of them cut a major swath.
The most effective in terms of interpersonal relations was Lawrence Eagleburger. He was not in the job for long, but he was quite good. Although I often criticized him, I thought George Shultz overall was an effective secretary of state. I think the least effective of all in my time was Al Haig, who never figured out what he was doing. He was a great source of Rowly’s and a pretty good source of mine, so that’s not the sine qua non when it comes to evaluating them.
I arrived in time to see the end of John Foster Dulles’ term as secretary of State. He was very powerful and decisive — he knew where he was going and had a world plan. Of all those I covered, he may have been the most effective. But he had a very bad press, which always means being treated badly by history.
Q: What about White House chiefs of staff?
A: I think the current chief of staff, Josh Bolten, is quite good in what seems to be a disastrous administration. He is very efficient — he keeps the tumult down to a minimum.
Q: Who do you think were the best legislators?
A: Legislators are funny. One of the best-equipped legislators was Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He really knew trade, taxes — he really knew the field. He was very smart and came across as a shrewd bargainer. But he never got anything done.
A more recent chair of the Ways and Means committee was Bill Thomas, who was considered by his colleagues to be the smartest guy in town. I think Bill considered himself the smartest guy in the world. But he was very meager in terms of accomplishments. It’s hard to get things passed.
If you go by accomplishments, the best was Lyndon Johnson. There’s not even a close second in terms of getting bills passed. The reason: He was a trader, and he never took no for an answer. He could bargain into the night.
I am always amused when I watch Harry Reid come out on television and bemoan the fact that he had devised a unanimous-consent agreement but the evil Republicans violated it, so he couldn’t get a unanimous-consent agreement. I compare that with Johnson, who never gave up. Sometimes when there was an impasse, I’d be sitting in the press section and see him retreat to the cloakroom. A little later, he’d come back with a couple of senators and they’d have an agreement. He was unique.
Q: What about Newt Gingrich?
A: I thought he was a failure as speaker and a great success as a political manager in getting a Republican majority in the House. It’s amazing to see how much influence he still has and how popular he is in the Republican Party.
Q: What changes have you seen in Washington as a place to live?
A: It’s a totally different town than it used to be. It is much less dingy. It’s got slick restaurants. But the big difference between 2008 and 1957 is money. Washington is much more like New York in being a money town. If you wanted to make $150,000 a year out of law school back then, you didn’t go to Washington, but you do now. The giant law-and-lobbying firms have markedly changed the climate.
If a retired congressman isn’t making 300 grand a year out of Congress, his wife is going to complain. I had a conversation with a congressman who left Congress under a cloud. I asked him how he’s doing. He said, “Six figures.”
Q: You’ve described yourself as a hero worshiper in a field that doesn’t have many heroes. Who were your heroes?
A: To be a hero — my hero — the person has to be in the process of risking his life or his livelihood or his way of life for a principle. That’s hard to find in the political world. I’ve talked about the great Czech distance runner Emil Zapotek, the greatest distance runner of all time, who ended up working in a uranium mine because he supported the 1968 uprising. He was a great hero of mine — an athlete who changed his whole life for principle.
I admire a lot of people on the Hill, but are they heroes? I wouldn’t say so.
I think about Pat Moynihan, who I liked and admired. He was very smart, a very nice man, and wrote all his books himself in longhand. But whenever there was a choice between political expedience and principle, he’d choose political expediency. I don’t criticize him for it; he was a politician.
Q: You’ve had a chance to look back on your life and think about what you’ve done that was good and what was bad. What stands out?
A: Looking back, I tried to find out what the politicians were up to, which is a difficult job. I find that politicians as a class are up to no good. Sometimes they accidentally do the right thing. When I started out, I didn’t have any agenda or tablet of principles at all. But in the course of writing about things and getting exclusive information, I might have helped certain causes. I might have helped the tax-cutting cause, which I’m very much in favor of. That takes away from my mantra that I’m just a simple reporter reporting the facts, doesn’t it?
When we started the column, Rowly and I were neutral on abortion, maybe leaning toward pro-choice. I began to read, think about it, and by the time I embraced Catholicism, I was adamantly against abortion. I’m happy that I moved in that direction.
Rowly once gave me a very elegant description of what it was we were doing. He said we were trying to intercept the lines of communication. Looking back on my life, I regret I was so determined to do that. I ended up writing a lot of political trivia, which really made my reputation. I think when people stop me now and say they miss my column, what they’re talking about is the behind-the-scenes trivia — the kind of thing that made me acceptable to people who disagreed with me. But I think I would have been better off to write about tax cuts and abortion and less about inside politics.
Q: Only those issues or others?
A: I was very negative about the invasion of Iraq. That’s another subject I should have written more about, explained more. I thought the war was unjustified. But my stand led to a Novak-hates-his-country piece in the National Review, which caused me a lot of grief and cut me off at the White House. I should have explained more about why I took the position I did. I probably should have written more about foreign policy in general. If I told you I accomplished some huge feat, it wouldn’t be true. But I’m not ashamed of what I’ve written. I stand by it.
Q: Let’s talk about the Valerie Plame affair, which caused you so much grief. If you had it to do over again, would you reveal who she was?
A: If you read my book, you find a certain ambivalence there. Journalistically, I thought it was an important story because it explained why the CIA would send Joe Wilson — a former Clinton White House aide with no track record in intelligence and no experience in Niger — on a fact-finding mission to Africa. From a personal point of view, I said in the book I probably should have ignored what I’d been told about Mrs. Wilson.
Now I’m much less ambivalent. I’d go full speed ahead because of the hateful and beastly way in which my left-wing critics in the press and Congress tried to make a political affair out of it and tried to ruin me. My response now is this: The hell with you. They didn’t ruin me. I have my faith, my family, and a good life. A lot of people love me — or like me. So they failed. I would do the same thing over again because I don’t think I hurt Valerie Plame whatsoever.
Q: You saw up close what it’s like to be the subject of so many news stories. Has this changed the way you view the journalistic profession?
A: I thought the journalistic community was terrible to me — even members of the Gridiron Club, which is supposed to be a band of brothers and sisters. I thought one of the worst columns written on the Plame affair was by William Safire. He wrote a stupid column saying I should reveal the name of my source. He wanted to get his colleague at The New York Times, Judy Miller, off the hook with the prosecutors. He didn’t know, as I knew, that my source, Richard Armitage, had long before identified himself to the FBI and the Justice Department. But my attorneys advised me to keep silent about the whole affair.
Q: Having thrown a lot of darts throughout your career and then being on the receiving end, did you ever stop to think how your columns might have made other people feel?
A: No. (Laughs.) That’s not my nature.
Q: What, if anything, has your illness taught you about friendship?
A: Surprisingly, I found that solicitous care for me crossed party lines. It has nothing to do with ideology, politics, or philosophy. There are really good friends who are quick to offer help, ask to come over and see me. Some people I thought were friends have never gotten in touch with me.
People react differently. Donnie Graham wrote me a nice letter. He said this was the first time since he was 15 that the Evans and Novak column was not in the Post. I thought that was very nice of him.
Q: What’s the most helpful thing someone can say to a person who’s gravely ill?
A: There’s not much you can say. A lot of people say: “You’re a tough guy and a fighter. You’re gonna beat this.” Well, I don’t know if I will beat it. Being tough and a fighter have nothing to do with it. I guess the most helpful thing they can say, if they’re a man or woman of faith, is to tell me they’re praying for me.
This article was first published in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian magazine (www.washingtonian.com).
Copyright 2008 by Washington Magazine, Inc. used by permission.