Bob Novak’s One True Love

There are many great stories in Robert Novak’s The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington. My favorite involves “acid, amnesty and abortion.”

The snappy, alliterative phrase was as devastating to Democratic presidential George McGovern in 1972 as “I voted for it before I voted against it” was to Senator John Kerry 32 years later.

It originated in a Novak column, albeit in a slightly different form. The column was reporting on Democrats who feared a McGovern candidacy would alienate blue-collar voters.

“The people don’t know that McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and the legalization of pot,” according to one anonymous “liberal senator” Novak quoted.

Some charged at the time that the quote was made up. Novak resisted calls to reveal his source. Until now that is. His memoir identifies the source as the late Missouri Senator Thomas Eagleton. This was the same man who was briefly McGovern’s pick for running mate in ’72.

Eagleton proved a major embarrassment to McGovern when it was revealed he had undergone electro-shock therapy. One can only wonder what might have happened if this other shoe had dropped as well.

Such stories are peppered throughout Novak’s engaging book. The Prince of Darkness amounts to a fascinating revisionist history of the last half-century of Washington, told by a man who seems to have been present for every major event and known every major figure personally. He’s like Forrest Gump’s smarter, grouchier cousin.

Novak’s own story is fairly straightforward. Growing up in Joliet, Illinois, he gravitated to journalism while still in high school. Initially he hoped to be a sports writer, but moved into politics instead. He made his name first at the Associated Press and later with the Wall Street Journal.

In late 1962 journalist Rowland Evans invited him to be his partner in a syndicated news column. He’s still at it today.

While typically identified as conservative commentator, Novak has in fact always been a journalist first, more interested in getting the inside story than explaining the way things ought to be. If a politician takes offense, even a friendly one, well, that’s just too bad.

Describing one 1984 debate with Walter Mondale, a column called Ronald Reagan’s performance: “devastating for the President … because it showed him stumbling and ineffective, raising the age issue that Democrats wanted to raise.”

Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich and Bushes 41 and 43 have all also felt similar lashes from his columns.

Novak belongs to an older tradition of opinionated reporting done by figures like Walter Lippman, Jack Anderson, and Joe Alsop. And if you are wondering, who the heck are those guys? Well, that gives you a sense of how long Novak has been at the game.

That tradition also explains how — long after most younger columnists ran out of things to say — Novak’s column remains vital, even necessary, reading. At 76, he still breaks news.

The same can be said of his memoir. Virtually every chapter has some fascinating detail or insight not found in the most other histories of the period.

For example, you may already know that Ronald Reagan thought Sandra Day O’Connor would be a pro-life vote on the Supreme Court. But did you know that the Justice Department attorney who vetted and okayed her was named Kenneth Starr?

Novak also reports that Walter Mondale’s first choice for a running mate in 1984 was Diane Feinstein, then mayor of San Francisco. She was dropped, Novak says, because the campaign feared her husband, a wealthy banker, would not pass a background check.

So what did they do instead? Mondale picked Geraldine Ferraro, only to discover that she had failed to include her husband’s income in her congressional financial disclosure forms. Oops.

His personal stories are pretty good too. The night he first met future Capital Gang co-host Mark Shields, the two got into a rip-roaring drunken argument.

“(I asserted) that Mark was in the (Ed) Muskie campaign only because he wanted to ride in limos and enjoy other perquisites of political power. Mark shouted back that this constituted an assault on his integrity, and I shouted back that I intended it as such,” he recounts. His accounts of his time as a panelist for McLaughlin Group are great fun too. (Apparently everyone on the program hated host John McLaughlin.)

Novak’s path hasn’t been easy. Novak has spent the last 45 years in a perpetual hustle to meet his deadlines. He’s also accumulated enemies overtime “like barnacles” as he puts it.

When his column on Joseph Wilson sparked the Plamegate controversy, it’s no secret that many reporters viewed it as an overdue comeuppance for the crusty rightwinger. Former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser called him “a disgrace to journalism” to his face.

He has several falling outs with his conservative friends too. He cut off ties to the National Review after a cover story included him with a bunch of “unpatriotic conservatives.” He has not spoken to Bill Kristol since 2003, he says.

Novak weathered these storms as he has others but as the book rolls to a conclusion one does begin to wonder how much longer he can keep it going. Novak has had four cancer scares and two broken hips, among other health problems. Memoirs such as this are usually preludes to retirement.

Then again it is clear that reporting on Washington is his first and truest love. I suspect these two be together for a while yet.

Sean Higgins is a reporter living in the Washington, D.C. area.

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