February 1, 2010

"The Prince of Darkness"

I recently read The Prince of Darkness, the 2007 autobiography of the late Washington reporter and TV commentator Robert D. Novak, who died last August. It's a quite distinctive memoir that nicely conveys Novak's love of ferreting out individual facts -- it's a book that will prove useful to future historians of politics and the press in understanding how reporters got scoops and what their incentives were -- and his aversion to the kind of Big Picture synthesizing that's the norm in an autobiography.

It's the opposite of Dreams from My Father: Novak realizes the reader is mostly interested in accounts of what the big names he met over the years (from JFK through GWB) were really like, and limits himself to giving his side of various historical events he was involved in, such as the Valerie Plame affair, and recounting data about himself that is useful in understanding the media.

Although he dislikes summing up, Novak is candid that getting a scoop (and Novak probably got more Washington scoops, large and small, than anybody) depends upon serving the self-interest of whoever is doing the leaking. (Lead and Gold has more about Novak's book here.) Still, knowledge is better than ignorance.

For example, Novak reports how much money he made at various points in his life: e.g., when he works for the AP in Omaha in 1954, he made $68 per week. In a characteristic touch that I've never seen in any other autobiography, Novak almost always adjusts his income for inflation. That mythological-sounding $68 per week turns out to be the rather more prosaic equivalent of "$512 in 2006 purchasing power."

On the last page, Novak writes:
Memoirists often are explicit in reporting their skimpy salaries in their early years and become reticent when monetary success comes. Breaking that pattern, I will disclose that my adjusted gross income for 2004 reached a high of $1.2 million.

The dyspeptic Novak's general impressions are few but worth recounting. After leaving sportswriting, the first major politician he ever met as a political reporter, the governor of Nebraska, turned out to be "considerably less impressive than the athletic coaches who up until then had been my most intimate news sources. But so were nearly all the legislators. This first impression of the political class did not change appreciably in a half century of sustained contact. ... I did not find the caliber of politicians in Washington generally any higher than what I had encountered in Indianapolis and Lincoln."

The President who seems to have impressed the conservative journalist the most for general caliber is one he liked little politically: Bill Clinton. Strikingly, Novak's blunt opinions extended to himself. He recounts sitting next to Clinton for four hours at a Gridiron Club dinner during the Monica Lewinsky year. Clinton deftly talked to Novak about his passion, college basketball, but mostly talked to the guest on his other side, conservative press baron Conrad Black (who later went to jail over his finances), about Black's interest, FDR. Novak modestly writes:
That night, these two strong, complicated men enjoyed themselves talking about another strong complicated man. Beyond that, I think Clinton and Black liked each other because they both were intelligent, reckless, charismatic risk-takers. I simply was not in their class.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

37 comments:

bn said...

"Novak is candid that getting a scoop (and Novak probably got more Washington scoops, large and small, than anybody) depends upon serving the self-interest of whoever is doing the leaking."

Michael Kinsley, Novak's sometimes sparring partner on Crossfire, noted something similar: you get better access to news the closer you are to the powerful (and of course you get closer the more you can do for them). Kinsley largely went the other way though and avoided the powerful because he was afraid it would ruin his objectivity.

Anonymous said...

Does he talk about his family's conversion to Christianity [or at least popery]?

Glossy said...

"It's the opposite of Dreams from My Father: Novak realizes the reader is mostly interested in accounts of what the big names he met over the years (from JFK through GWB) were really like, and limits himself to giving his side of various historical events he was involved in..."

That reminded me of a cool quote by Evelyn Waugh:

"Don't give your opinions about Art and the Purpose of Life. They are of little interest and, anyway, you can't express them. Don't analyze yourself. Give the relevant facts and let your readers make their own judgments. Stick to your story. It is not the most important subject in history but it is one about which you are uniquely qualified to speak."

Reviewing World within World, the autobiography of Stephen Spender, in The Tablet (5 May 1951)

Plame Game said...

Wonderful book by the Daffy Duck of American Journalism. He shall be missed.

Anonymous said...

Novak was an interesting guy. It was great television when Novak barked "f*** you!" and walked off the set of live broadcast CNN.

Hey, that is a perfectly reasonable way to wrap up any brutally honest discussion of politics. That sort of thing goes on behind closed doors on Capitol Hill all the time. Just ask Sen. McCain.

If the CNN prolefeed editors had a brain - and, of course, they do not - then they would've let Novak go beserk like that on a regular basis.

But even if they didn't have the courage to keep him on the network... they should've let Novak stream an honest R-rated foul mouthed political show on the CNN website.

So what if the guy lost his temper for one show? Was it really such a big deal? If they had kept him on, then the ratings would've spiked for months in anticipation of him doing it again.

btw FOX is now tripling and even quadrupling the audience of CNN in primetime.

Puck said...

I thought Richard N. Pearle was "the prince of darkness."

Since I haven't read Novak's book yet, could you tell us why Novak had that title?

Ben Franklin said...

On pages 557 through 561, Novak details his efforts to create an endowed chair in Western Civilization and Culture at his alma mater the University of Illinois.

The fun part of this story is his attempt to get the then owner of his hometown paper, the Chicago Sun-Times to contribute half of the funding for the endowment. That meant getting Conrad Black involved and at first it seemed easy. Black agreed at right off to the deal, but then had Novak get the details ironed out by his subordinate David Radler.

Novak wrote and I quote:

“If I wanted Hollinger (Black) to help in funding the chair, I had better see the thoroughly unlikeable Mr. Radler. While Conrad Black was right of center politically, I found nothing conservative about David Radler. In any conversation, Radler quickly would get on my back about Israel. He was a fervent Zionist and thought it his duty to lecture me on the subject, though my column published in his newspaper seldom dealt with Israel now that Rowly [Novak’s partner Roland Evans] had retired.” End quote.

Conrad Black never came through on the funds for the endowment, so Novak funded it on his own. Novak noted that was a good thing in light of the jail time both Radler and Black later did as a result of allegations of looting their own company.

Anonymous said...

His memoirs, entitled Prince of Darkness: Fifty Years Reporting in Washington, were published in July 2007 by Crown Forum, a division of Random House. "Prince of Darkness" was a nickname given to Novak by his friend, reporter John Lindsay, because Lindsay "thought for a young man I took a very dim view of the prospects for our civilization," Novak said in an interview. Novak loved the nickname. He once dressed up as Darth Vader to a dinner with the the Gridiron Club, and he then sang a song about Dick Cheney as the character.

Anonymous said...

One of the best books on American politics and the media in years. As candid as we'd have any right to expect, such as acknowledging his too-close relationship with Jack Kemp. Lots of insights. Framing the book with the Plame case (the most insidy-est of all "inside-the-Beltway" scandals) was brilliant. Admired JFK and Reagan, hated Nixon, detested Bush senior, thought Carter a liar.

He does discuss his conversion to Catholicism.

Another huge benefit: he chronicles how mores have changed. So much smoking and drinking in the sixties and seventies. A wonder Novak lived as long as he did.

Anonymous said...

There are many interesting tidbits in Novak’s autobiography. The section on the Iraq war and David Frum’s role in reading anti-Iraq war paleo-cons out of the conservative movement is interesting. Unfortunately, Novak didn’t wish to defend those to his right who agreed with him, mainly to maintain his own acceptability with the MSM. But Novak reveals the bad acts of the Neocons in any event.

For example, Novak sought out Bill Kristol (editor of the Weekly Standard) for help in refuting Frum’s “unpatriotic conservatives” attack, which appeared in National Review. We learn that Novak and Kristol had a close professional relationship, with Kristol acting as a source for Novak, with regular phone calls between the two and not infrequent lunches. When Novak called Kristol for help, Kristol told Novak that he didn’t know anything about Frum’s “unpatriotic” essay, but would look into it. Kristol never did get back to Novak about Frum, and the two never spoke again. Novak implies that Kristol was lying to him when he claimed ignorance of Frum’s anti-paleo screed and it is impossible not to agree with that conclusion.

Within a couple of years, William Buckley, the ostensible owner of National Review, the magazine in which Frum’s defamatory defense of the war in Iraq appeared, would renounce the Iraq war as the result of Neocon hubris, motivated by an anti-conservative ideology.

Frum left National Review in order to blame powerless populist social conservatives for the disaster that resulted from following his own advice.

Henry Canaday said...

Gee, I can think of another reason why Clinton and Black would not want to chat casually with Novak. But in spite of the fact that he was quite smart and very successful, Novak was always pretty good at keeping a sense of doomed insecurity and a bitter chip on his shoulder.

I heard Novak speak at our Local Left Bookstore about a year ago. The LLB audience ate up all of his denigration of conservative politicians, like Goldwater, and cheerfully accepted his convenient excuses for silence during the investigation of the Plame affair, which silence happened to damage his, and their, political adversaries.

Tom Piatak said...

An excellent book. One of many things I learned from it was that George H. W. Bush knew of Souter's pro-Roe v Wade position before appointing him to the Supreme Court, which perfectly illustrates the general Republican cynicism on that issue.

Anonymous said...

As I recall, Novak devotes a full chapter to his conversion. Temperamentally, he was Catholic long before he was received into the Church.
Radler later turned on Black and testified against him in court. So much for 30 years of friendship.

"Always love your country-but never trust your government" Bob Novak

JoeShipman said...

Actually Black was railroaded; the Feds got the weasel Radler to lie about his ex-boss in accordance with their policy of always going for the biggest fish they can convict, indifferent to whether he is actually guilty.

Grumpy Old Man said...

It's a wonderful book, fully of specifics and detail. And one does get to know Novak.

ricpic said...

He sounds like a rather modest matter of fact guy. Not at all the "Prince of Darkness" the libs tagged him. And tagged him successfully given that for years, decades really, Robert Novak was twinned with Prince of Darkness in almost every televised or print reference made about him.

Anonymous said...

To Tom Piatak:

Actually, Novak’s book lays most of the blame for Souter on Warren Rudman, the Jewish Republican liberal from New Hampshire who pushed Souter with full knowledge of Souter’s leftism. Novak makes clear that it was ONLY Rudman who was pleased with Souter’s record, not Bush Sr. or even his chief of staff, Lebanese Catholic John Sununu, who as governor of New Hampshire had appointed Souter to the New Hampshire Supreme Court and also pushed Souter on Bush Sr.

Jim O said...

The best political memoir I've read. The best bits are the stuff he reveals about people who predeceased him. Novak took the view that assurances of confidentiality expired at death.

Anonymous said...

As a part of the TV punditry circus, I never paid attention to Novak beyond noticing that he looked like a Bond villian.

Both the left and neocons despised the man. I recall John Steward creating nothing pieces on the man just so he could use the word "Douchebag" like a deranged DailyKos kiddy. Novak's wiki article explain his run-ins with neocons like From and Kristol.

Novak seems a rare exception to the rule wrt journalists today. Too bad he passed.

Anonymous said...

Hello? Rudman certainly helped pushed Souter, but Bush made the appointment knowing full well Souter supported Roe v. Wade and was a liberal on many issues. This was in direct violation of his campaign promises and public statements.

Bush made the appointment not Rudman but I guess we're supposed to feel sorry for Bush because he was 'unhappy' about it.

Udolpho.com said...

Re: Souter, it seems that Republicans will "inadvertantly" appoint hardline Leftist justices to the court, but I am not aware of the reverse happening--a Democrat appointing a justice who turned out to be surprisingly conservative. Republicans need to make twice as many appointments just to balance out their terrible batting average.

James Kabala said...

The last Democratic justice to be more conservative than expected (not ultra-conservative, but he did dissent in Roe) was Byron White, appointed by JFK in 1962.

It says all you need to know about the feebleness of the Republican party that since 1967 there have been a mere three Democratic-appointed justices (and none at all from 1967 to 1993) and twelve Republican-appointed justices. (And perhaps the worst Republican appointee of all, William Brennan, was before that, appointed in 1956.)

Peter A said...

Souter is the very definition of a moderate Republican in the Taft/Eisenhower tradition - the sort of person who made this country great in the first place. The fact that Souter is reviled as a "leftist" says a lot about the modern Republican party and the way it has been hijacked.

Anonymous said...

Souter is the very definition of a moderate Republican in the Taft/Eisenhower tradition



LOL. Sure, Taft and Eisenhower were both reflexive down-the-line leftists.

The fact that Souter is reviled as a "leftist" says a lot about the modern Republican party and the way it has been hijacked.


Why do I get the impression that your idea of the center looks a lot like Barack Obama?

Anonymous said...

Bush made the appointment knowing full well Souter supported Roe v. Wade and was a liberal on many issues.



What's the evidence for this?

James Kabala said...

Peter A: That's media spin, but not reflected my his actual record, unless you believe Eisenhower and (even more implausibly) Taft would have favored abortion on demand (including partial birth abortion), a constitutional right to homosexual acts, unlimited eminent domain powers, and racial quotas.

Anonymous said...

The stuff about John McLaughlin is the funniest. Man, they hated one another.

I used to watch the McLaughlin Group in the 80s, and I know that Novak is not being totally truthful. He used to push all the buttons on McLaughlin to make him mad.

Anonymous said...

Souter is the very definition of a moderate Republican in the Taft/Eisenhower tradition - the sort of person who made this country great in the first place. The fact that Souter is reviled as a "leftist" says a lot about the modern Republican party and the way it has been hijacked.

Souter was for affirmative action.

Anonymous said...

We shall never see the likes of him again. The new crop of journalists are more into PC and/or nice teeth. Novak was a tough cookie among other tough cookies.

Anonymous said...

Reagan attempted to appoint Bork, but the Democrats defeated him. You can go back to Rehnquist’s elevation to Chief Justice and see how vicious the attacks were on him at that time, in particular by Howard Metzenbaum.

Reagan then appointed Anthony Kennedy (Irish Catholic), who would rule in the Lawrence v. Texas case that homosexual conduct MUST be legal, overturning a Byron White ruling from 1986 (Bowers v. Hardwick).

The Senate Judiciary committee composition is very telling. Until recently, there were no Catholics on the Republican side, only Protestants and one Mormon. On the Democrat side, there were no Protestants, only Catholics and Jews. The later two groups appear to view the law as a political football, and the SCOTUS to be used to impose a political agenda, and Obama clearly agrees with that.

Eisenhower stated that his worst two mistakes were Warren and Brennan. Brennan was a Democrat, and only got the appointment by mistake, a conservative colleague was too sick to give a speech and Brennan read it for him in public, giving the impression that he held conservative views. Eisenhower’s men wanted to appoint an ethnic Catholic, so the Irish Brennan got the nod.

But it isn’t just the individuals involved. The pressure on anyone appointed to move to the left is overwhelming, and only a very strong personality and intellect can resist it.

none of the above said...

I suspect one source of leftward pressure is all the bright young ivy league clerks who do so
much of the work for the justices. I suspect this is
especially important when the jystices' age catches up with them--both in terms of physical limitations and mental decline.

none of the above said...

Novaks quoted comment about the unimpressiveness of politicians is striking and important. Look at the swooning way many partisans talk about Obama now, and Bush earlier--assuming many good qualities to them on extremely thin evidence.

The reality is more mundane--Obama, Bush, Clinton, etc are just people. They're brighter than the average
American, but probably not than the average doctor, and certainly not than the average physicist. They're overwhelmed with decisions for which they haven't the knowledge or wisdom or training. Their clever plots mostly fail, their grand visions of the world are mostly nonsense, and their leadership is mostly either presiding over doing the obvious, or is leading us off a cliff.

Mr. Anon said...

"Peter A said...

Souter is the very definition of a moderate Republican in the Taft/Eisenhower tradition - the sort of person who made this country great in the first place. The fact that Souter is reviled as a "leftist" says a lot about the modern Republican party and the way it has been hijacked."

What you have written is ahistorical and complete nonsense. Taft was fervently anti-communist (not just anti-soviet, but opposed to communism in this country). He wouldn't have supported affirmative action, or the normalization of homosexuality, and he would today be considered a reactionary.

The pap that John Stewart peddles on the daily show is not real - you shouldn't believe it. Conservatives don't need advice from liberals on how to be conservative.

Anonymous said...

"The pap that John Stewart peddles on the daily show..."

Oooooohhh, but it makes him and other PC leftists feel sooooo gooooood to reveal how much they believe in fairness, goodness, and equality for all...wnile they live behind high walls and iron gates and send their kids to non-public schools. What shams.

David said...

>Novaks quoted comment about the unimpressiveness of politicians is striking and important.<

Yes, and it corroborates comments by other high-profile newsmen such as H.L. Mencken. Many of his friends were successful entrepreneurs (including physicians), and to read his accounts of presidential conventions from the early 1900s to 1948 is to agree with him that politicians are "buffoons."

Anonymous said...

On the Democrat side, there were no Protestants, only Catholics and Jews. The later two groups appear to view the law as a political football...

It's called legalism, and the people who founded this country in the 1770s had already been at war with it for 400 years.

Plus ├ža change and whatnot...

SGOTI said...

Well at least this thread made me go to the library and check out his bio!