Robert Novak was uncharacteristically self-deprecating in his assessment of the long-term influence his half-century of journalistic endeavor would have on the American conversation.
“Nobody will remember my newspaper columns or television appearances,” Novak said. “They won’t remember me for my writing. How many people remember Walter Lippmann?”
In fact, a good many Americans remember Lippmann, whose writing with regard to the “manufacture of consent” by powerful interests and a subservient press provided not just the title but an intellectual frame for one of the most influential media critiques of the twentieth century, Manufacturing Consent, by Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman.
Lippmann was a savvy social critic, who recognized decades before the political right turned its affections toward Sarah Palin that “Brains, you know, are suspect in the Republican Party.”
Lippmann was, as well, a wise critic of military adventurism, condemning the excesses of the cold war and warning Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam was a quagmire waiting to happen.
Said Lippmann with regard to those who called constantly for military interventions in distant lands: “The time has come to stop beating our heads against stone walls under the illusion that we have been appointed policeman to the human race.”
Though they were poles apart ideologically, that last line from Lippmann was one with which Novak heartily agreed.
That fact reminds us that Novak, like any great journalist, leaves a complicated legacy that is worthy of memory–even if it is not always worthy of praise.
Much will be written and said about Novak in these days after his death at age 78. His foibles will be recalled, especially his troublesome role in the whole Valerie Plame affair. Even if he never quite recognized why his intriguing with Dick Cheney’s henchmen raised so many hackles, Novak understood–with considerable sadness–that the Plame story would “forever be part of my public identity.”
Some of us also recall–and have a hard time forgiving–Novak’s role in what Saul Landau correctly described as the “organized right wing attack” on the memory of murdered Chilean diplomat and dissident Orlando Letelier.
But Novak believed, with some validity, that there was more to his legacy than the “prince of darkness” image he died with.
Observers of the “great game” of politics will note, as did American Conservative Union chair David Keene on Tuesday, the defining role that the writing of Novak and Rowland Evans–with their widely syndicated “Inside Report” column–played in the development of modern conservative thinking and the transformation of the Republican Party. Keene’s correct when he says that Novak and Evans “gave respectability and visibility to conservative ideas and positions in the 1970s, when they were mostly dismissed.”