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.
§ Novak also ceaselessly promoted the lies of the “Swift Boat Veterans” about John Kerry, both on television and in an admiring review of their movement bible Unfit for Command. He did so without revealing that his son, Alex, was in charge of the book’s publicity or that the book’s publisher, Regnery, was owned by the very same person whose company, Eagle Publishing, distributes the $297-per-year “Evans-Novak Political Report.”
§ Long before the Washington Post tried it, Novak profited personally by inviting high-profile sources to give off-the-record briefings to CEOs and wealthy individuals who paid exorbitant fees for the privilege of their presence. Journalists were barred from these meetings, which featured top government sources discussing the financial implications of their policy decisions.
§ Novak engaged in sexual as well as political McCarthyism. In one column, he and his partner, Rowland Evans, ominously referred to “the alleged homosexuality of one Democrat who might move up the succession ladder.” The Republican National Committee was waging a parallel (and equally dishonest) whispering campaign against Tom Foley, the presumptive Speaker of the House, that relied heavily on phrases like “out of the liberal closet.” When I asked Novak about this at the time, he went off the record to blame it entirely on Evans, insisting he had not even read the column before it appeared. He then went back on the record to defend the attack before returning to what was then his favorite topic: passing along rumors about John McLaughlin, then in the process of settling a sexual harassment claim by one of his young female underlings.
§ Novak, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, hated Israel with a ferocity extremely rare in American public life. He titled one Bethlehem-based column “Worse Than Apartheid” and lauded Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud as a “freedom fighter.” Alone in the punditocracy, he promoted Louis Farrakhan. In December 2002 he wrote, “The greatest U.S. assistance to Israel would be to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime…and [this] is a major reason U.S. forces today are assembling for war.” It should come as no surprise, given these views, that Novak was a supporter of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential candidacy.
I never got the chance to ask Novak about any of his recent actions. He dropped out of a joint C-SPAN appearance we had long scheduled, and when he learned he was to debate me at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the Plame investigation, he withdrew at the last minute, causing the event’s cancellation at considerable expense to our hosts, despite signed contracts and full payment made in advance. (The debate was eventually rescheduled with Tucker Carlson taking his place.)
Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, says of Novak that this is a man who served as “a beacon of truth and light” in American politics. The Weekly Standard‘s Fred Barnes adds, “It’s not too much to call Novak journalism’s last honest man in Washington.” Forgive me, but I fear that statements like these say far more about the present moral and intellectual state of our insider Washington establishment than they do about the life and work of Robert Novak.