Over the years, he’s survived a medical textbook’s worth of maladies, including a brush with meningitis, multiple bouts with cancer, and two fractured hips. The second break came on the campaign trail in 2004 – a traumatic incident still fresh in his mind (last week, he relayed again the harrowing scene he also describes in his memoir – when he crawled naked and alone on his hotel room floor, blinded with pain, to summon help). Now, for the first time since Kennedy-Nixon, he’s entering a presidential campaign season without plans to cover it full-time.
A few weeks ago, he marked five decades in Washington with a wistful column recalling his arrival in the city in 1957, and bemoaning the changes since. But not all of his recent strolls down memory lane have been draped in such gauzy-eyed nostalgia.
Despite his denials, his new book offers a painstaking accounting of 50 years worth of personal and professional feuds – an advanced exercise in below-the-Beltway score-settling. (The first draft weighed in at 1,400 pages before being slashed to a less-brutal – if still bloody – 600-plus.) It begins – as did this interview – with his anger over the Valerie Plame affair.
“I really resented the treatment I got” from many media superstars, he said.
And in the bookk: “The blood of ideological solidarity was stronger than the water of journalistic togetherness,” he writes. “Bill Safire came out of retirement to write this – just this mindless column that took me to task," he said. "A ridiculous piece of work. And of course he’s friends with Judy Miller – he took her to the Correspondents’ Dinner. I saw them together, and I went to him and said hi. Didn’t say anything, though. No point in whining.”
With patrician reporting partner Rowland Evans by his side, Mr. Novak completed his rise from AP regional reporter and Wall Street Journal Senate correspondent to Washington journalism superpower, developing an unparalleled network of sources through sheer will-power and dogged shoe-leather reporting.
Despite his increasing conservatism, he found willing contributors on both sides of the aisle.
His column may have been the source of the controversial “acid, amnesty and abortion” tag that helped sink George McGovern’s 1972 presidential bid – but the source of that anonymous quote was none other than the South Dakota senator’s one-time running mate, Thomas Eagleton.
Everyone talked to Mr. Novak.
Mr. Safire isn’t the only press figure to come up short in his recent estimation.
“Do you think you’d be a blogger if you started out today?” The Observer wanted to know.
“I don’t think so," he said. "Bloggers, it seems to me, don’t really care what the facts are.”)
Of the Associated Press when he started, and today: “I’m glad I started there … but the AP is different than it used to be," he said. "Not as closely edited. Facts, language make it in that – I wouldn’t have dreamed of using when I worked there.” And the employees at his other alma mater, The Journal, don't fare much better. Asked whether the Dow Jones union's contempt for the Rupert Murdoch bid to take over the paper made any sense, he was dismissive:
“Not really. The union’s response – I love it – has just been completely absurd."
If Mr. Novak’s enemies take some fire in the book, some former friends and co-workers tend to fare even worse.
"Capital Gang" cast-offs like Mona Charen and early colleagues like John McLaughlin are in for particular scorn in Prince of Darkness. (Mr. Novak famously told the Jesuit-turned-political talk icon to “fuck off” at their last meeting, at the New York Times party in Boston during the 2004 Democratic National Convention.)