Prince of Darkness

August 18th, 2009 at 5:57 am David Frum | 4 Comments |

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Robert Novak wrote Prince of Darkness (according to his publicity materials) to vindicate himself and to settle scores. Among those scores are one with former diplomat Joe Wilson, and another with me.

Even from Novak’s own point of view, however, it would have been better if he had left those scores unsettled and this book unpublished. I am not sure I have ever read a memoir that so artlessly presents so damning a self-portrait. The title is unintentionally unironic: The man revealed in these pages is indeed a dark soul.

I’ll leave my own part in this story to the final installment of this multi-part review. Fascinating as that episode is to me, most readers will be more interested by all that comes before.

Let’s instead start with the Wilson-Plame case.

It was of course Novak who revealed that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the CIA. Novak was acting on a tip from Richard Armitage, confirmed by Karl Rove. Novak’s column triggered a national scandal – and a special counsel investigation to discover the identity of the leaker.

The investigation poisoned the mood in Washington, consumed the attention of the administration, imposed enormous legal costs on all concerned, ended by convicting Scooter Libby – and very nearly reaching Karl Rove as well.

Through the uproar, there were two men who above all others had the power to bring things to an end by revealing the truth: Armitage and Novak.

Had either Armitage or Novak stepped forward at any point to tell the truth, the whole story would have fizzled away (as indeed it has since done). Valerie Plame was outed not because of some administration vendetta against a critic, but by idle gossip between two men who opposed the Iraq war every bit as much as Joe Wilson did.

Yet neither man did step forward. They kept silent and exposed others to danger in order to protect themselves.

Novak attempts to present his silence as a principled defense of journalistic ethics. “I viewed what Armitage told me to be just as privileged as if he had made me swear a blood oath.” (p. 5) “[S]uch a surrender would mean the end of my reporter’s career.” (p. 613.)

But that explanation does not bear scrutiny. Novak quickly gave up the names of his sources to Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald. Novak’s first contact with the FBI on the Plame matter occurred on Oct. 7, 2003. By Jan. 13, 2004, he had confessed all to Fitzgerald. By February 2004, he was answering questions before the grand jury.

It’s hard to blame him for his surrender. The law was clearly against him: He had no right to refuse to answer Fitzgerald’s questions. At 72 and in poor health, he had every reason to hesitate to subject himself to the kind of martyrdom accepted by, say, Judith Miller. As Novak himself jokingly acknowledges at several points through this narrative, physical courage has never been one of his merits.

On the other hand, at the time he divulged Armitage’s name, Novak did not know that Armitage had already confessed to Fitzgerald. To the best of Novak’s knowledge, he was exposing a source to possible criminal prosecution in order to protect himself.

More troubling still: Having decided to blow his source to Fitzgerald to protect himself, what possible justification could Novak have for concealing his actions from the general public? Why did he not bring the whole painful matter to an end by telling the public what he had already told the prosecutors? Although Novak frequently invoked journalistic ethics, on page 6 he acknowledges another motive: “I cooperated fully with [Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald]. At the special prosecutor’s request and on my lawyers’ advice, I kept silent about this – a silence that subjected me to much abuse.”

Abuse is of course unpleasant. But jail is worse. So Novak talked when talking offered him a route to safety, and he held silent when self-preservation dictated silence. If these are ethics, they are mighty convenient ethics.

But really – what does one expect?

As Novak tells it, his life in Washington has been one long series of transactions. He lightens his criticism of one-time nemesis James A. Baker after Baker agreed to quit disparaging the accuracy of Novak’s reporting (389) – a deal that “bothered” him but that he honored all the same.

Novak exempted Karl Rove from all criticism for 20 years. However, “relatively mild criticism of him in my column appeared after he cut me off in the autumn of 2003.” (572)

Novak pays lavish court to Conrad Black – even assigning him the seat of honor beside President Clinton at the 1998 Gridiron dinner. Then in the fall of 1998 he asked Black to contribute $625,000 to fund a chair in Novak’s honor at the University of Illinois. When rebuffed, Novak turned savagely against Black, vilifying him (561) as a looter and a thief.

The method is described most candidly on pp 188-189. Novak often wrote harshly about Nixon aide HR Haldeman. In his posthumously published diaries, Haldeman fretted over this maltreatment. Novak wonders why Haldeman

never considered the simple expedient … of answering one of my phone calls and maybe inviting one of us [that is, Novak or his late partner Rowland Evans] to lunch in his West Wing office.

Am I suggesting a news source could buy off Novak with a hamburger in the White House? No …. 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. **

I have often heard attributed to Novak the aphorism, “I have no friends: I have only sources and targets.” The quip does not appear in Prince of Darkness. The spirit behind the quip, however, pervades the book’s pages.

And why not? Washington is a city of transactions, and information is a tradeable commodity. Novak’s sources were engaged in transactions every bit as much as Novak himself. These exchanges often yielded real value for Novak’s readers and the American public. At their best, Evans and Novak were great reporters, among the greatest Washington has ever seen. Quality information does not walk in the door unasked, certainly not on a thrice weekly schedule.

Yet on the evidence of this book, Novak chafes against his own rules. With him, everything must be paid for. Yet from the other side of the ledger, he demands unqualified loyalty, generosity, devotion from those around him

Novak tells a vicious and (I can attest) utterly distorted story about my friend Mona Charen to punish her for what he regards as insufficient forehead-knuckling toward him. Novak likewise badmouths his CNN colleague Tucker Carlson for the offense of failing to flatter him in print.

What Carlson really thought of me then was made clear by a brief description in his 2003 mini-memoir, Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites:

Bob Novak, a seventy-year-old columnist who had been doing the show off and on since the early 1980s. (580)

Novak’s complaint against Tucker for leaving out the adjectives reminds me of the punchline to an old Soviet joke: “Comrade, never be the first to stop applauding.”

Novak denounces Bill Kristol, Kate O’Beirne, Bill Buckley, and many others for failing to take his part in his quarrels – a selfless action of a kind he never once records himself performing for anybody else.

As an occasional employer of interns myself, I have to admit that I was shocked to read this story (384) about another friend of mine, John Fund, now of the Wall Street Journal. In 1981, Novak was diagnosed with spinal meningitis and had to reduce his working hours.

The solution was to hire a full-time reporter. … [Evans and he] quickly agreed the reporter would be John Fund, who in 1981 as a University of California student at Davis was the best intern we ever had. … I called Fund in Davis, where I thought he was graduating in June. John informed me that he still had a quarter to go but could come work for us in September. I told him that was too late, that it was now or never: leave college without a degree, or permanently give up a chance to work for us. He left college.

I should add that John did eventually complete his degree.

And then finally there is this, on pp. 130-132.

In November 1964, Novak and his wife Geraldine took a four-week trip to South America. Geraldine soon fell ill. It became apparent that she was pregnant. The Novaks decided to continue with the trip, heading finally to the ultra-high latitudes of Bolivia, where Geraldine fell more seriously ill than ever before.

The Bolivian doctor who came to our hotel room …. Told us this was no place for a pregnant woman and Mrs. Novak had better leave La Paz on the next flight to save her baby. I told him I had important meetings here. Well then, he said, send Mrs. Novak down to the Peruvian capital of Lima immediately so that she could be near sea level while Mr. Novak finished his business in the mountains. …

I had a breakfast meeting two mornings later with the president of Bolivia, my only scheduled visit with a head of state during the four-week trip. Air Force Major General Rene Barrientos had just seized power in a military coup, the familiar Latin American process that President Kennedy had labeled unacceptable. I was anxious to hear the new Bolivian military dictator’s views.

We had three options. First, cancel the appointment and leave immediately. Second, send Geraldine to Lima while I kept my date. Third, keep our schedule and pray no harm came to Geraldine and our unborn baby.

You’ll never guess which they pick.

Robert Novak harbors many grievances and resentments. It bothers him that he has not been invited to a White House state dinner since 1964. (p. 126) He still seethes over negative reviews of his 1981 book, The Reagan Revolution (373). He has never forgiven Hamilton Jordan (300), David Stockman (376), and Newt Gingrich (555), among many, many others who (he feels) slighted him in some way or another. He positively hates former colleagues John McLaughlin, Michael Kinsley, and Tom Braden, and Chris Matthews.

And yet of all the many angry outbursts in this long, angry book, the very angriest of all are directed at me (589-594, 612).

Novak’s ire was provoked by an article I wrote for April 7, 2003 NATIONAL REVIEW in April 2003, under the title “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” You can read it here.

The article is often described as an attack on critics of the Iraq war. In fact, the article opened by welcoming disagreement on the Iraq war as “reasonable, indeed valuable.”

It continued: “There is more than one way to wage the war on terror, and thoughtful people will naturally disagree about how best to do it.”

To drive home the point, the very same issue of NR that contained my article on antiwar conservatives also contained a lavishly positive column by me about a new book by Heather Mac Donald – Heather of course being a noted Iraq skeptic. The “war” I was talking about in “Unpatriotic Conservatives” was not Iraq. It was the larger war on terror.

What startled and dismayed me in 2003 was not that there existed conservatives who disagreed with George Bush’s policies. I didn’t agree with them all myself. What startled and dismayed me was that there conservatives who had reacted to 9/11 by arguing that the US had brought the 9/11 attacks upon itself – and that in this new war forced upon the US, it was the US not the terrorists that was in the wrong. A future editor of the American Conservative magazine favorably quoted Malcolm X bare days after the 9/11 attacks,

The chickens have come home to roost.

Robert Novak feels himself ill-used by inclusion in the company of these antiwar conservatives, some of whom, he now writes, he abhors as extremists and antisemites. And yet it is also true that his first reaction to the attack – written on September 12, the very day after the attack, while Ground Zero still burned – was this:

the hatred toward the U.S. by the terrorists is an extension of its hatred of Israel rather than world dominion. … Stratfor.com, the private intelligence company, reported Tuesday: “The big winner today, intentionally or not, is the state of Israel.” Whatever distance Bush wanted between U.S. and Israeli policy, it was eliminated by terror. … The United States and Israel are brought ever closer in a way that cannot improve long-term U.S. policy objectives.

“Intentionally or not”? What the hell was that trying to imply? The US hated by terrorists only as an “extension” of their hatred of Israel? Where did that absurdity come from? And let’s note please that all of this was said, not in opposition to the Iraq war, but in the course of objecting to the Afghan campaign as well. As Novak wrote the following week:

The CIA, in its present state, is viewed by its Capitol Hill overseers as incapable of targeting bin Laden. That leads to an irresistible impulse to satisfy Americans by pulverizing Afghanistan.

“Pulverizing Afghanistan”? You would expect to hear a phrase like that perhaps from Noam Chomsky or Michael Moore or Robert Fisk – not from a man who bills himself as Washington’s leading conservative news columnist.

In his eagerness to deny any congruity of interest between the US and Israel, Novak endorsed in his Dec. 26, 2002, column the claim by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah that Hezbollah had never attacked Americans, effacing the memory of Seaman Robert Stethem of TWA 847, the 241 Marines killed at the Beirut barracks, 60 US embassy employees in Beirut, and the victims of the Khobar Towers bombing.

Novak was wrong to say these things: intellectually wrong and morally wrong. If he did not like the company to which these words joined him, he should never have entered it.

I am struck that even after all this time to reflect, Novak still cannot understand (577) why anyone would see anything shocking in his immediate instinct to divert moral responsibility for the 9/11 murders away from the murderers. I confess: I cannot understand how he cannot understand.

But I suppose Robert Novak and I were fated always to misunderstand one another.

In Prince of Darkness, Novak describes inviting me to lunch after I joined the White House staff. I declined, because of the White House rule against unauthorized contact with the media – a rule (I discover from Novak’s pages) that I was virtually alone in obeying.

Invited a second time, this time rather more menacingly (see Haldeman, HR, above), I accepted with permission from my superiors. In Prince of Darkness, Novak denounces my performance at lunch as useless. I can understand his frustration: I didn’t leak him anything. I was again following White House rules – again (I discover) almost uniquely. For what it’s worth, I should add: As the rules required, I paid for my own lunch.

Novak disgustedly suggests that I was holding back on him for a book of my own. In fact, at the time of our lunch, it never occurred to me that I would ever write about the Bush White House. I was (as I told him) dissatisfied in my work. I was (as I did not tell him) worried about the trend and direction of administration policy. But I strongly supported the goals and intentions of the administration and I respected its expectations of confidentiality. I assumed then that when I left the White House, I would look for work in a wholly new direction, either in business or a midlife return to the practice of law. Indeed, the ultimate screaming irony of my relationship with Bob Novak is that I very much doubt that I would ever have written the book that became The Right Man but for Novak’s malice.

Here is what happened:

When I declined to act as a Novak source, I became (in accordance with the Novak code) a Novak target. Not an important target, but a target all the same. So on my last day in the White House, Novak used his regular CNN afternoon slot to broadcast a claim that I had been fired from my job. As he noted at the time, and as he acknowledges again in Prince of Darkness, the White House had told him that his theory was false. He broadcast anyway, acknowledging the White House’s denials, but highlighting his own “suspicions” that I had in fact been given the heave-ho.

These days of course dramatic comings and goings at the Bush White House barely rate page 9 of most American newspapers. But in March 2002, the Bush White House remained a black box, tightly sealed against prying eyes. News that a former aide had been cashiered sent pulses racing in every news room in America. Might he be disgruntled? Bitter? Ready to tell all?

As I described in The Right Man , I suddenly found myself plunged into a sandstorm of a Washington mini-tempest: reporters standing on my doorstep, NBC 20/20 on the phone, mournful glances from the teachers at my children’s school. And of course publishers banging on the door. It was at once so bizarre and so comical that for the first time it seemed to me that, yes, perhaps after all, I did have a story that was legitimately mine to tell.

Novak calls me a “liar” and a “cheat,” among other hard names. I think his own account demonstrates that any dishonesty or dishonor in our acquaintanceship originated in a very different corner from my own. And when I did finally write the book provoked by Novak’s disregard for truth, I tried to do something that I am sure seemed very odd to him: to give readers the most vivid possible sense of what it was like to work in the Bush White House – while keeping honor with my colleagues by protecting their privacy and legitimate expectations of secrecy.

One final comment, minor but perhaps revealing even so. Many years ago, my mother-in-law taught a course in journalism at a Toronto college. It was her practice to flunk any assignment that contained a misspelled name or an erroneous date – it being her theory that if a reporter could not get the basic details right, that reporter had failed in his work.

If the passages in Prince of Darkness about me are anything to go by, Robert Novak would never have passed my mother-in-law’s course.

He reports for example that we met for lunch at the Hay Adams Hotel on Sept. 19, 2001. The one and only lunch we have ever shared occurred on November 12, 2001, at the Oval Room.

He reports that I started work as a White House speechwriter in March 2001. I started in January 2001.

He reports that I live in Georgetown. I live 3 miles away in a very different neighborhood, a fact not unfamiliar to Novak since (as he has written elsewhere) he has been a guest to dinner there.

So as I turn the last pages of this long book, I am left to wonder – if Novak could not get these easily ascertainable details right, what else in this lengthy memoir is wrong?

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Johnnnymac66

    I’ve lived all of my 51 years in Chicago. I learned world politics by reading Gigi Geyer, Evans & Novak, George Will, and many, many others. I learned Chicago politics by reading Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and many others.
    For me, the tipping point with Evans came when he “outted” Valerie Plame, a crime I believe was treasonous. I wrote him and told him exactly that, and was not surprised when I received no response.
    From that point on, I’d glance at his columns, but never again believed anything in them.
    When Hunter Thompson would inject himself into the stories he was writing, it was funny. Outting an undercover CIA operative because of a personal grudge wasn’t at all funny.
    I still believe Robert Evans committed treason against the United States.

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Novak comes off as a sort of American, Jewish-cum-Catholic verson of Evelyn Waugh: nasty, vindictive and palpably self loathing. But he wasn’t unpatriotic. Moreover, he was correct about the War on Terror and Iraq. Compare his foreign policy views to David Frum’s, and then tell me: who comes out looking better on the geopolitics of the past decade?

  • WaStateUrbanGOPer

    Oh, and by the way Frum, you’d fail your mother-in-law’s course, too: it’s ABC 20/20, not “NBC 20/20.”

  • lolapowers

    Mr Frum, I so wholeheartedly agree with you, Novak was indeed a dark soul !

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