Of Scowls & Scribes

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

The acknowledgements of the passing of reporter Robert D. Novak last week were appropriately respectful, for the most part, albeit with an occasional backhand. For example, in his column in The Washington Post, Howard Kurtz, in the main, tried to give him his due.

Nevertheless, Kurtz offers a personal observation that, though rather superficial, I feel compelled to respond to. “I bumped into Novak occasionally at CNN where I host a weekly media program,” Kurtz remembered in the August 19, 2009 edition of The Post. “And although I’d like to report that he actually was a sweetheart—‘He’s a lot nicer than he ever comes across on the screen,’ longtime sparring partner Jack Germond told me last year—he often seemed to be scowling at someone.” (It’s too easy to surmise that he had just finished reading a Kurtz column.)

I bumped into Mr. Novak occasionally too—at least once a year for 20 years and often thrice annually when he would come to speak to interns at the National Journalism Center (NJC) where I was employed—and never saw him scowl. By way of contrast, I only saw Kurtz once, and he was scowling.

Here’s what led to the Style Section columnist’s grimace. Back in 1998, the Education and Research Institute (ERI), at the time the parent group of the NJC, hosted one of its Monday Club luncheons featuring Ann Coulter discussing her then-recent book, High Crimes and Misdemeanors: The Case Against Bill Clinton.

No, believe it or not, it wasn’t Ann who made Kurtz dyspeptic but ERI chairman M. Stanton Evans—author, columnist and wit extraordinaire. In those days, the first lady insisted on being known as Hillary Rodham Clinton, while her husband fought off subpoenas and depositions on matters overlapping the political and personal.

As AIM has reported, Clinton’s accusers usually had him dead to rights. In the presence of Kurtz, at that Washington, D. C. gathering, Stan began his introduction of Ann with the line, “To those of you from out of town, welcome to Rodham and Gomorrah.”

That’s what made the Kurtz visage go sour. Incidentally, Novak also addressed the Monday Club on another occasion using an opening routine he frequently used in the Clinton years. “I know that you brought me here to criticize the president and I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you,” he told the mostly conservative audience. “I think that the president is doing a fine job.”

“It’s her husband.”

Novak had come to that 1995 meeting to offer his thoughts on the incoming Republican Congress and its prospects for bringing about substantive change in government.

He said he would believe they are serious when they:

• Gave up their parking spaces; and

• Ended the “sweetness and light” of the appropriations process.

As history has shown, they did neither, jealously guarding their perks while busting the federal budget.

By the way, a question at that meeting led to another Novak scoop. One of the questioners remarked that the incumbent Republican Congress was retaining Democratic staffers on the majority side. Nearly as soon as he left the podium, Novak went to work confirming that item to a fare-thee-well.

And, while Novak may not have been sweet around CNN, avuncular is the only word to describe his approach to students, giving them a free education more valuable than the one they got in class. “Many of the stories I got credit for, anyone could have had but no one bothered to,” he told at least one group of NJC interns.

Effort played a large role in his success but so did motivation. “Last night, my wife and I drove to the baseball game in Baltimore and I was on the phone all the way up trying to get information on the coup to oust Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich,” Novak said at a seminar in the 1990s. “At one point, I turned to my wife and said, ‘You know, if they didn’t pay me, I’d do this for nothing.’”

Fortunately, he didn’t have to. In a 1989 seminar, in the first year of the administration of George Herbert Walker Bush, whom Novak did not care for, the columnist said to NJC interns, “You know, I usually tell interns that they are here in Washington at a very interesting time. Unfortunately, this time I can’t.”

“You are not in Washington at a very interesting time.” Lamentably, we are. Even more regrettably, Robert D. Novak is not here to chronicle it for us.

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.