Journalist and television personality Robert Novak died August 18. I think it’s time to do him the honor of taking his life’s work seriously.
I got to know Novak a bit in the late 1980s while writing a magazine profile of him, and another of his then-colleague John McLaughlin while researching a book on the history of punditry. I found myself immune to Novak’s charms–as he was to mine–but I don’t begrudge the fact that many people in Washington did not. Novak was an extremely popular figure within the capital; and while I extend his close friends and family my sincere sympathy, as a historian of journalism I worry that his myriad personal connections may have the effect of obscuring the historical record with regard to his actions. With that in mind, here are a few aspects of Mr. Novak’s career that have received short shrift during the past week:
§ While six journalists were approached by Bush officials to reveal Valerie Plame’s identity as an undercover CIA agent, only Novak did so. This even though Bill Harlow, the agency’s spokesman at the time, warned Novak, as he later testified, in the strongest possible terms that Plame’s name should not be made public lest it endanger the operations and people with whom she had been secretly associated. Though Novak refused to admit it in public, he gave up his source almost immediately to Patrick Fitzgerald’s investigation while other journalists–who did not out Plame–languished in jail and legal limbo. When, after the case ended, CNN finally prepared to ask Novak about his actions, he screamed “Bullshit!” on the air and stalked off the show before the questioning began. He never returned to the network that had paid him and promoted his analysis for more than two decades.
§ While Novak freely ignored the patriotic requests of his government when it suited him, he did not mind being used for the purpose of passing along its lies. During the Iran/Contra imbroglio, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams lied to Novak about US involvement in Central America’s civil wars, which paved the way for Abrams’s criminal conviction for lying to Congress. Yet Novak told me at the time that he “admired” Abrams, who was “lying for reasons of state” while “a lot of people were out to get him.” In another column, Novak admitted to lying to protect Watergate-era criminal Charles Colson in defense of Richard Nixon. Novak also burned sources when it suited his needs–as when he put their names in his 2007 memoir. So it should not have surprised his colleagues when he demanded that CBS News reveal the origin of George W. Bush’s alleged draft record despite the network’s pledge of secrecy to its sources.