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Robert Novak’s Memoir

Terry Teachout wrote this post in August 2007.

Say what you will about Robert Novak—and some contributors to COMMENTARY have said plenty—he remains one of America’s most important newspaper columnists. In addition, Novak is also one of the last of a dying breed of opinionmongers whose columns are reported rather than merely spun out of the parchment-thin air of their prejudices (which doesn’t mean he’s not prejudiced!). Thus, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, despite its monstrous length and penny-plain prose style, is significant by definition, just as a candid memoir by Walter Lippmann or Drew Pearson would have been similarly significant. Henceforth anyone who writes about journalism in postwar Washington will have to cite The Prince of Darkness as a primary source, just as anyone who reads it will learn from it—though certain of its revelations are, like those of most memoirists, unintended.

One of the things that has already struck many reviewers of The Prince of Darkness is the way in which its author has coddled his resentments throughout the course of a long, busy life. It seems to me noteworthy that a man as successful as Novak should still be capable of writing with such raw resentment of having been passed over as sports editor of his college newspaper, or that he should go out of his way repeatedly to make glowering mention of his unpopularity in Washington. Some anonymous wag once called John O’Hara “the master of the fancied slight.” I doubt that many of Novak’s slights are fancied, but they give much the same impression when consumed in bulk.

Fortunately, there are more compelling autobiographical revelations to be gleaned from The Prince of Darkness. It is hugely interesting, for instance, to read of how a youthful reading of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness turned a moderate-to-liberal Republican into the hardest of anti-Communists, or how a secular Jew should have felt moved to embrace Roman Catholicism late in life. Most interesting of all, though, is the black cynicism with which Novak writes of the politicians among whom he has moved for virtually the whole of his adult life. A few escape his contempt—he was impressed, for instance, by the depth of Ronald Reagan’s reading in the history of economics—but for the most part he views them as shallow power-seekers who use everyone around them, and are themselves used in turn.

A handful of Washington journalists have written of the inhabitants of their milieu with comparable candor, most notably Meg Greenfield in Washington, her posthumous memoir: “These are people who don’t seem to live in the world so much as to inhabit some point on graph paper, whose coordinates are (sideways) the political spectrum and (up and down) the latest overnight poll figures.” But Novak’s honesty about the mutual manipulativeness of his relationships with the politicians he has covered exceeds anything I have hitherto seen in print. Among other things, he acknowledges that he’s more likely to trash you in print if you won’t talk to him off the record:

Am I suggesting a news source could buy off Novak with a hamburger in the White House? No government official or politician can secure immunity from a reporter by helping him out. Even my most important sources—such as Mel Laird and Wilbur Mills—were not immune from an occasional dig. Still, Bob Haldeman was treated more harshly because he refused any connection with me. He made himself more of a target than he had to be by refusing to be a source.

Even more revealing is Novak’s description of his relationship with Karl Rove:

What you did not find in my columns was criticism of Karl Rove. I don’t believe I would have found much to criticize him about even if he had not been a source, but reporters—much less columnists—do not attack their sources. . . . In four decades of talking to presidential aides, I never had enjoyed such a good source inside the White House. Rove obviously thought I was useful for his purposes, too. Such symbiotic relationships, built on self-interest, are the rule in high-level Washington journalism.

Perhaps I’m not enough of a cynic to appreciate fully Novak’s point of view—I’ve spent little time in Washington and less, thank God, in the company of politicians—but even so, I find that last sentence chillingly bleak. Imagine spending a half-century working in a town where the naked pursuit of self-interest governs all your personal relationships! Seen in that lurid light, the title of The Prince of Darkness, though it is Novak’s well-known nickname, ended up putting me in mind of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis’s fictional portrayal of the ceaseless backstabbing engaged in by Satan’s staff of tempters. Small wonder that Novak finally got religion. No doubt a day came when he looked around him and found himself echoing the terrible words of Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistophilis: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it.”


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