Commentary Magazine


Topic: Robert Novak

LIVE BLOG: When Conservative Journo-Activists Lose It

Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, once Robert Novak’s deputy, writes on Twitter: “Conservatives, if Toomey loses, Reid and Murkowski win, this is a bad night.” This is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane: A 65 seat pickup by the GOP in the House and six or seven seats in the Senate is a bad night?

Timothy Carney of the Washington Examiner, once Robert Novak’s deputy, writes on Twitter: “Conservatives, if Toomey loses, Reid and Murkowski win, this is a bad night.” This is, not to put too fine a point on it, insane: A 65 seat pickup by the GOP in the House and six or seven seats in the Senate is a bad night?

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One Out Of Two

Robert Novak spots two signals from the McCain camp: they will come out blazing about Barack Obama’s odd associations(Bill Ayers specifically) and they aren’t going to spend time on “health care mandates and home foreclosures.”

As to the first, this may come as a relief to conservatives who were dismayed that McCain seemed queasy about taking on his foe on issues which it turns out the public cares about. Noteworthy in its absence, however, is any mention of Reverend Wright. One wonders then if we will face some Byzantine rules about which anti-American, hate mangers are fair game and which are not.

The second, if an accurate representation of the McCain camp thinking, is potentially disastrous. There seems no surer formula for electoral calamity than for him than to live up to the Democrats’ favorite cartoonish portrait of an out-of-touch and indifferent Republican. By ignoring two top issues on most voters’ minds–health care and economic insecurity–he will surely forfeit whatever chances he has to pull in independent voters and even some of those disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters.

McCain’s hopes lie not replaying George H.W. Bush, who was dinged as oblivious to the recession (which in retrospect was mild) and bored with a domestic agenda, but in a reform-minded vision which offers some real alternatives to Barack Obama’s standard-fare liberalism. While some might like to encourage his natural predilection to ignore domestic matters, it is one entreaty he should ignore.

Robert Novak spots two signals from the McCain camp: they will come out blazing about Barack Obama’s odd associations(Bill Ayers specifically) and they aren’t going to spend time on “health care mandates and home foreclosures.”

As to the first, this may come as a relief to conservatives who were dismayed that McCain seemed queasy about taking on his foe on issues which it turns out the public cares about. Noteworthy in its absence, however, is any mention of Reverend Wright. One wonders then if we will face some Byzantine rules about which anti-American, hate mangers are fair game and which are not.

The second, if an accurate representation of the McCain camp thinking, is potentially disastrous. There seems no surer formula for electoral calamity than for him than to live up to the Democrats’ favorite cartoonish portrait of an out-of-touch and indifferent Republican. By ignoring two top issues on most voters’ minds–health care and economic insecurity–he will surely forfeit whatever chances he has to pull in independent voters and even some of those disaffected Hillary Clinton supporters.

McCain’s hopes lie not replaying George H.W. Bush, who was dinged as oblivious to the recession (which in retrospect was mild) and bored with a domestic agenda, but in a reform-minded vision which offers some real alternatives to Barack Obama’s standard-fare liberalism. While some might like to encourage his natural predilection to ignore domestic matters, it is one entreaty he should ignore.

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Bookshelf

• 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 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.

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• 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 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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Are You Kidding Me?

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

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The Thompson Candidacy

How serious a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination is Fred Thompson?

Apparently quite serious indeed. Last week GOP insider pundit Robert Novak assured readers that Thompson isn’t just toying with running—he will declare his candidacy early next month. This rumor has generated outsized buzz, including a highly negative column by George Will. But a great many conservatives, dissatisfied with a field in which none of the three leading contenders is a down-the-line conservative, seem to be fans.

The former Senator’s most salient attribute is his persona. He has a large, comforting, commanding presence that Hollywood directors have seen fit to cast as an admiral, the director of the CIA, and even the President. His slow drawl, big eyes, and wrinkles make him the very image of the respected Southern lawyer. He is an excellent communicator, sympathetic, easy to watch, and never grating (which is not true of, say, Rudy). Some go so far as to call his qualities “Reaganesque.”

But what about substance?

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How serious a candidate for the GOP presidential nomination is Fred Thompson?

Apparently quite serious indeed. Last week GOP insider pundit Robert Novak assured readers that Thompson isn’t just toying with running—he will declare his candidacy early next month. This rumor has generated outsized buzz, including a highly negative column by George Will. But a great many conservatives, dissatisfied with a field in which none of the three leading contenders is a down-the-line conservative, seem to be fans.

The former Senator’s most salient attribute is his persona. He has a large, comforting, commanding presence that Hollywood directors have seen fit to cast as an admiral, the director of the CIA, and even the President. His slow drawl, big eyes, and wrinkles make him the very image of the respected Southern lawyer. He is an excellent communicator, sympathetic, easy to watch, and never grating (which is not true of, say, Rudy). Some go so far as to call his qualities “Reaganesque.”

But what about substance?

Thompson frequently fills in for ABC radio host Paul Harvey, and gives short “position paper” talks on issues. If recent ones are a guide, he is pro-defense, committed to winning in Iraq, opposed to civilization-wide surrender to Islamofascism, pro-immigration enforcement, and an economic conservative. It is worth noting, however, that these are only his stated positions. In his Senate years he supported McCain-Feingold on campaign-finance reform and lacked the political skill to turn the Chinagate hearings (which he chaired) into a substantive exposition of Bill Clinton’s arms-for-cash chicanery.

Thompson certainly has as much political experience as anyone from either party in this year’s not overly experienced crop. He served eight years as a U.S. Senator but has been in government and around politics much longer than that. His resume includes an early stint as a deputy U.S. attorney in his native Tennessee, after which he ran Howard Baker’s 1972 Senate campaign. He came to Washington to serve as co-chief counsel of the Senate Watergate Committee. He worked as a lobbyist for 18 years, and began his acting career accidentally enough in 1987, when the director of a movie about one of Thompson’s cases couldn’t find someone to play him, and so asked him to audition. After leaving the Senate in 2003, he joined the cast of the popular legal drama Law and Order.

Can Thompson catch up with the field money-wise, having missed the first quarter of fundraising? He is said to be able to raise “Hollywood money” (though Hollywood GOP money is a new concept). Thompson is not by any means known as a hard worker–and raising more than $1 million a week is hard work. His already-high name recognition, though, could offset the need for advertising dollars. Jumping in late also has the potential advantage of saving him from overexposure. John McCain is already suffering from this malady, having been the candidate-in-waiting since the end of the 2000 primaries. And Thompson polled high in March, beating Hillary in a Rasmussen match-up by a margin of 44 percent to 43 percent, and came in third in the Republican field (ahead of Romney) in a recent Gallup poll.

Last month the evangelical leader and talk-show host James Dobson announced that he won’t support Thompson. Dobson doesn’t think the former Senator is a real Christian, never having heard him discuss his Christian beliefs publicly. This won’t hurt, since no one meets Dobson’s test this year—and polls show Rudy Giuliani, a social libertarian who respondents feel is tough enough to stare down the nation’s very real enemies, running first. What may hurt Thompson, quite reasonably, is the fact that he has no executive experience.

Ten months out from the first primary, the GOP field remains fluid, as Republicans wait to see how the candidates fare over a very long campaign season. Thompson could easily end up on the ticket—but it’s not likely to be in the top slot.

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Short Takes

Back during the cold war, there was a joke about the New York Times that I believe antedated the coining of the term “political correctness.” A U.S.-Soviet exchange of nuclear missiles occurs and the next morning’s Times headline reads:

“Third World War Breaks Out: Minorities and Women to Suffer Most.”

As if determined not to allow parody to outdo self-parody, the Times on Sunday (April 1, appropriately) ran this headline: “Poorest Nations Will Bear Brunt as World Warms.” For my part, I would settle for being able to rely on the accuracy of the paper’s version of yesterday’s events, never mind tomorrow’s.

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Back during the cold war, there was a joke about the New York Times that I believe antedated the coining of the term “political correctness.” A U.S.-Soviet exchange of nuclear missiles occurs and the next morning’s Times headline reads:

“Third World War Breaks Out: Minorities and Women to Suffer Most.”

As if determined not to allow parody to outdo self-parody, the Times on Sunday (April 1, appropriately) ran this headline: “Poorest Nations Will Bear Brunt as World Warms.” For my part, I would settle for being able to rely on the accuracy of the paper’s version of yesterday’s events, never mind tomorrow’s.

* * *

Besides, isn’t warmth good for poor people whose utility bills are often onerous and who, in less developed countries, burn a lot of stuff for heat, producing smoke that creates, ah, global warming? Apparently, I have this all wrong, because on Monday, the Washington Post ran this headline: “Russia Sees Ill Effects of ‘General Winter’s’ Retreat.” That’s right. Russia will be worse off if it gets warmer. After all, if Napoleon tries to occupy the country again, there will be nothing to stop him (except that French troops seem to have lost some of their fearsomeness since his day). Plus, there will be no more excuse for vodka with breakfast (except, perhaps, that your president is Putin).

* * *

I am in receipt of an invitation from the president of the famous Oxford Union, asking if I would come to that apex of British scholarship to debate the motion: “This house regrets the founding of the United States of America.” Well, duh! We won that war. You lost. Of course you regret it.

* * *

Also in Monday’s Washington Post Robert Novak touts the presidential candidacy of Fred Thompson. Novak writes: “Sophisticated social conservative activists tell me . . . their appreciation of him stems not from his eight years as a U.S. senator from Tennessee but from his role as Manhattan district attorney on the TV series ‘Law and Order.’” Who are the unsophisticated activists supporting—Barney?

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Hillary, the Metro Republicans, and 2008

Is Hillary inevitable? Another day, another answer: Robert Novak says no. Her fundraising is slipping a little, due in equal parts to Barack Obama’s fresh face and to the distaste many Democrats feel about her prospective coronation. And, of course, the anti-war Democratic primary base in New Hampshire really, really hates that she voted for the war and won’t repudiate her vote. This raises the interesting question for Hillary-hating war supporters on the Right: who to root for should it turn out that she really is the farthest rightward Democratic candidate in an election in which Democrats are presumed by many strategists to have the advantage.

Meanwhile, Noemie Emery, a Weekly Standard writer who has an amazing ability to put her finger on the political pulse, has a piece in the current issue making the argument that in this election cycle, the GOP is evolving in a significant way, with its urban/ethnic/non-”country” candidates John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney:

None hails from the South, none looks or sounds country, none is conspicuous for traditional piety, and none is linked closely to social conservatives. At the same time, none is exactly at odds with social conservatives either. None is a moderate, in the sense of being a centrist on anything or wary of conservatives; rather, each is a strong conservative on many key issues, while having a dissident streak on a few.

Upshot? These candidates have the potential to override the current locked-in-place map of red vs. blue states. (Which is why Rudy was in California this past weekend . . .)

Is Hillary inevitable? Another day, another answer: Robert Novak says no. Her fundraising is slipping a little, due in equal parts to Barack Obama’s fresh face and to the distaste many Democrats feel about her prospective coronation. And, of course, the anti-war Democratic primary base in New Hampshire really, really hates that she voted for the war and won’t repudiate her vote. This raises the interesting question for Hillary-hating war supporters on the Right: who to root for should it turn out that she really is the farthest rightward Democratic candidate in an election in which Democrats are presumed by many strategists to have the advantage.

Meanwhile, Noemie Emery, a Weekly Standard writer who has an amazing ability to put her finger on the political pulse, has a piece in the current issue making the argument that in this election cycle, the GOP is evolving in a significant way, with its urban/ethnic/non-”country” candidates John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney:

None hails from the South, none looks or sounds country, none is conspicuous for traditional piety, and none is linked closely to social conservatives. At the same time, none is exactly at odds with social conservatives either. None is a moderate, in the sense of being a centrist on anything or wary of conservatives; rather, each is a strong conservative on many key issues, while having a dissident streak on a few.

Upshot? These candidates have the potential to override the current locked-in-place map of red vs. blue states. (Which is why Rudy was in California this past weekend . . .)

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