It contains more useful information than any journalism textbook we have seen but don’t expect legendary reporter Robert Novak’s memoirs to become required reading in communications classes anytime soon. “I was too much of a right winger for most of America’s institutions,” Novak writes in The Prince of Darkness.
The title refers to a nickname that a colleague gave Novak early in his career as a comment on his trademark pessimism that has stuck for decades. When he does get on campus, Novak tells college students something they seldom hear: “Always love your country—but never trust your government!”
“That should not be misunderstood,” he explains. “I am not advocating civil disobedience, much less insurrection or rebellion.”
“What I am[italics in original] advocating is to not expect too much from government and be wary of its power, even the power of a democratic government in a free country.” That maxim draws interesting reactions.
The first time he passed that advice on at a commencement ceremony was in 1994 at the Bullis School in Potomac, Maryland. “After the ceremony when I was taking off my academic robe, a grim harridan approached me, identified herself as a George Washington University faculty member, and told me that comments such as mine had just led to the Oklahoma City bombing,” Novak remembers in his autobiography.
That would not be Novak’s last encounter with a nutty professor. University of Missouri professor Geneva Overholser blasted Novak in a New York Times op-ed for his alleged “ethical lapses” in “revealing” the CIA employment of Valerie Plame in his story on her career diplomat husband’s ties to the Democratic Party and dispute of President Bush’s famous State of the Union assertion, which was, “The British Government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”
Novak has repeatedly pointed out that:
1. Plame’s cover was blown a decade earlier than his revelation of her day job by Aldrich Ames, a career CIA agent convicted of espionage.
2. Her own husband, famed expert on Nigeria Joe Wilson, listed her by her covert name in his Who’s Who entry.
3. Plame was clearly not engaged in covert work at the time Novak first named her in a column, as confirmed by the House Intelligence Committee in a finding of fact by the then-Republican majority on the panel that the Democratic minority did not challenge.
“I met Overholser for the first time a year after the op-ed piece,” Novak recalls.
“It was about eleven thirty p. m. on Saturday March 12, 2005, at the Capitol Hilton, shortly after the annual white-tie dinner of the Gridiron Club had ended, as after-dinner drinking began.”
“I was having a drink at the Hearst reception when a woman approached at a rapid pace.”
“I don’t see how you can stand to see yourself in the mirror in the morning,” she told him. “You’re a disgrace to journalism.” It could be argued that Novak has demonstrated more fairness and accuracy in his columns than anything Overholser has read much less written.
Arguably, for half a century, Novak has broken the biggest stories in Washington, from the communist takeover of a United Auto Workers local to, yes, exposing partisan policy analysts working against America’s foreign policy while on the government payroll. And he has forecast election results with startling accuracy.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching him in action on many occasions.At a debate over whether to militarily intervene in Iraq in the Spring of 2002, he brought intervention advocates Richard Perle and Raul Gerecht up short by asking, “For my own information, since 1992, has Saddam Hussein committed one act of aggression against the United States or any of its [Iraq’s] neighbors.”
When the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, Novak did not become a
pushover for the new GOP majority. “Bob, your problem is that you’ve been on defense so long that you don’t know what to do when your team is on offense,” a Republican congressman told Novak at the time.
Novak smiled and said, “I’m not on your team.” Such encounters as the aforementioned are particularly noteworthy given the latter characterization of Novak as a Republican shill for the Bush Administration’s foreign policy.
Of L’ Affaire Plame, Novak writes, “I have not really suffered personally from the difficulties of 2003 and 2004 because they are less important that the love of my wife, my children and my grandchildren.” The longtime syndicated columnist should know that he is beloved by a very large circulation.
Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.