Press Box

Novak, Russert, and the Washington Protection Racket

Novak and his partner in logrolling, Tim Russert.

Tim Russert (right) with Robert Novak on Meet the Press

While Tim Russert lived and breathed, one of his biggest fans in the Washington press corps was columnist Robert D. Novak. Between 1994, when Russert was already ensconced in the Meet the Press big chair, and last March, Novak’s column made at least three dozen references to Russert, and none was critical, as best as I can discern.

Novak—who has always painted with a limited palette—describes Russert “grilling” Bill Richardson (June 3, 2007), John Kerry (April 22, 2004), John Edwards (June 20, 2003), John Edwards again (same grilling, different column, May 9, 2002), and Al Gore (Sept. 18, 2000). He repeatedly described Russert as a “tough” questioner of George W. Bush (Feb. 12, 2004), John Edwards (Jan. 12, 2003), and Al Gore (Oct. 22, 2000) and as an “interrogator” of Michael Chertoff (Sept. 8, 2005), Nancy Pelosi (June 6, 2004), and Richard Gephardt (May 8, 2003).

Russert returned the love, making Novak a frequentMeet the Press invitee, even though during most of that interval Novak had his own CNN shows. In 2003, Russert told the Chicago Sun-Times that Novak was “the hardest working reporter in Washington.”

The two knew how to work a story together. On Dec. 27, 2007, Novak wrote in his column that John McCain had “admitted” to him that his votes against Bush’s tax cuts were a mistake. In his Jan. 6, 2008, Meet the Press interview with John McCain, Russert quoted back from the Novak column to pin the candidate down. From McCain’s nonanswer, Novak squeezed out a Jan. 14 column, citing Russert citing him.

In his Russert-tribute column today, Novak explains the nature of their logrolling relationship.

“Russert from the start … was an extraordinary source for me,” he writes. By “from the start,” Novak means since 1977, when Russert came to Washington as part of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s staff. Novak writes of meeting Russert for drinks in Manhattan in 1982, when Russert pulled from his briefcase a batch of opposition research that would ultimately demolish a Republican who planned to run against Moynihan that year.

In a recklessly honest passage, the conservative Novak attributes the “peculiar pro-Cuomo slant” of his column to Russert’s move to liberal Gov. Mario Cuomo’s staff. In other words, Novak fesses to spinning positive columns about a politician whose politics he despised in return for good material from his friend Tim.

In Washington, such behavior is tantamount to running a protection racket, a charge that has long been aimed at Novak. In his 2007 autobiography, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, Novak writes about giving Washington players the opportunity to be either his source or his target. Here’s the way I condensed the Novak method in my review of the book:

[Novak’s writing partner Rowland] Evans and Novak were gentle with Alexander Haig because he was a longtime Evans source. Nixon’s chief of staff, H. R. 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.” When David Gergen—not someone simpatico with Novak—leaks to him in 1981 from the Reagan White House, Novak figures it out. “I think Gergen, the ultimate Washington survivor, was working the source-or-target model with me. Gergen never really became my source, but he was not my target either—which I believe was his intent.”

In Novak-land, Russert had to be a valued, protected source. When Russert crossed the narrow boulevard that separates politics from media to join NBC News, he continued to make payments to Novak. The two spoke on the telephone “two or three times a month,” Novak writes. “[W]e exchanged political information, and I usually was the recipient.”

I can’t find a Novak column that names Russert as a source, so the nature of the material Russert provided to Novak is unknown except that it appears to have been anonymous, the usual form of payment in the Washington protection racket. Here’s how Novak characterizes the information his pal gave him:

He supplied for use in my column news tidbits he could not use. During my half century of journalism, he was the only colleague who was a source.

Sharing information with another reporter is completely kosher. I do it daily, almost hourly, as do many journalists. But the Novak-Russert relationship poses a couple of questions. Why couldn’t Russert use the tidbits? Was the information tainted? Was it information about Democratic Party powers that former Democratic operative Russert couldn’t use? Nobody in Washington, not even saints, gives away something for nothing. Why was it in Russert’s interest to steer a decade-and-a-half worth of information to Novak for almost no payoff except to see the information used? Was Russert protecting himself by feeding Novak, or did Novak owe him and feel obliged to use the information?

Speaking at the Russert memorial service yesterday, Al Hunt—Novak’s former colleague on Capital Gang—praised Russert as a journalistic angel who practiced “the oldest virtues and verities in the profession: preparation, integrity, fairness, accountability.”

That may be true, but this week, the real Russert scoop belongs to Novak. His Tim was a bit of a devil. His “skill” at opposition research “propelled him to the top ranks of television interviewers.” Russert’s long service as an anonymous source to Novak, aka the prince of darkness, requires further explanation.


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