”Journalists like to give the impression they develop exclusive stories through exhaustive investigation and research,” Robert D. Novak writes in his 2007 memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.
But that’s not how it worked for political columnist Novak, who died of brain cancer today at his suburban Washington home. While he would be the first to admit that digging well after well after well might unleash an occasional gusher of news, the brand of insider journalism he practiced depended on building relationships with the powerful and the connected, and he makes no bones about it in his book. For a half-century, Novak worked like a wheat thresher, feeding and grooming his sources until they gave him the harvest of news—or he beat it out of them.
The news didn’t have to be big or even memorable to earn placement in the column he wrote with Rowland Evans and then later under his own byline. It just had to be something nobody else had. In his book, Novak declared that an insider tidbit from 1986 about a close vote at the Federal Reserve Board that reflected poorly on Fed Chairman Paul Volcker was regarded by the financial community as the “greatest scoop” of his career. As David Margolick wrote in Vanity Fair four years ago, there’s no danger that anybody will ever publish an anthology of Novak’s work.
Novak was candid in his memoir about how he tirelessly worked his sources—Cabinet members, presidential speechwriters, members of Congress, White House staffers, legislative aides. He partook of lunch after lunch at Sans Souci or other pricey Washington restaurants to talk up sources and potential sources and, most importantly, to see and be seen by other members of the elite. He joyfully confesses in his book that he gave notables the choice of being either his source or his target. Alexander Haig was treated kindly because he leaked to Evans. H.R. Haldeman earned poor treatment for refusing to feed the column.
Karl Rove, friendly with Novak if not a friend of his, made light of the columnist’s strong-armed news-gathering strategies by wearing a “I’m a Source, Not a Target” button to a June 2003 Washington party celebrating Novak’s 40th year as a syndicated columnist.
Although Novak’s incessant championing of supply-side economics and his conservative persona on CNN’s Crossfire and Capital Gang typecast him as purveyor of right-wing brain vomit, Novak’s politics were more nuanced than those of the average Fox News Channel commentator. He was a dove on both Iraq wars and expressed misgivings about the Afghanistan invasion. He supported liberal immigration, called for a global economy, and backed free trade. He gave Gerald Ford hell during his presidency, later calling him “ill equipped for the job” in his book, and he carved out a critical-of-Israel position that sharply deviated from the conservative line.
So hungry was Novak for scoops and even scooplets that he sometimes failed to understand the greater meaning of what ended up in his notebook. The most memorable example of Novak’s rush-to-publish style is the July 14, 2003, column that blew Valerie Plame’s cover. Novak detractors insist at the time that he deliberately exposed her to punish her husband for dissenting from Bush administration policies. But knowing what we now know about Novak’s Plame conversation with source Richard Armitage, it’s evident that he wasn’t targeting anybody with his column—at least, not this time. Viewed in a more generous context, the Plame piece reads like so much of his work—a jumble of great reporting desperately in need of a smart editor.
There was meanness and toughness in Novak’s work and in his personal style, and depending on your sensibilities, this cruelty either drew you to the man or repulsed you. Novak didn’t have a chip on his shoulder—he was all chip, as willing to shred his friends as he was his enemies: He’s the sort of guy who would have been perfect to teach anger-mismanagement classes. He famously decked a much younger heckler in 2004, he picked fights with the left by calling I.F. Stone a communist spy, and he earned the label “douche bag of liberty” from Jon Stewart for his coverage of the Swift Boaters’ critique of John Kerry.
Journalism used to be filled with guys like Robert D. Novak, sociopathic obsessives who would happily break their mother’s back to get a story and who would sooner throw themselves off a cliff than retire to the racetrack or work as a lecturer at a journalism school. As WashingtonPost reporter Marjorie Williams observed in a 1988 piece, Evans and Novak were practitioners of “a form of journalism unlike anyone else’s—fact-based and ax-grinding at once, simultaneously far-ranging and arcane. Deliberately melding their styles and even their ideologies, they have broken news and possibly careers.”
The Novak scowl wasn’t an act. He truly didn’t care what people said about him. Even in death, this last of the breed is impervious to his critics.
This piece draws on my 2007 review of The Prince of Darkness. What’s your favorite Novak moment? When he walked off the CNN set in fury? Send nominations to email@example.com. Listen to my pitiful fury on my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
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