If the Valerie Plame case has changed Washington – burning formerly anonymous sources, torching formerly high-flying careers – it’s becoming clearer the man who sparked the firestorm may not have emerged unsinged after all.
As he sat down with The Observer in his D.C. office suite last week, Robert Novak was still a bit guarded.
“I’m not going to tell you my darkest secrets,” he warned.
But he finally seemed completely at ease talking about the impact the most famous column he’s ever written has had on the the city, and on himself.
He started writing his memoirs in 2003 – around the time the Plame story broke – although the process actually began in earnest months before he realized how big an impact the affair might have on his legacy.
“I started writing because I’m old,” he said. “I wanted to tell my story while I was still cogent. While I could still remember what happened. … I’m worth a few million – I didn’t have to write this book. I just always knew I would do it, and I knew now was the time.”
But despite his denials, it’s clear the lingering Plame fallout, coupled with his advancing years, played a big role in his motivation to release his memoirs now.
“There’s no question if you walked out of here and I dropped dead, my obit would probably have [the Plame affair] in the lede," he said. "I don’t have too many years left, so that’s probably what it’ll be. The idea that that’s my legacy is unfortunate, but that’s the way it turned out.”
Perched in an armchair in a tiny, windowless study in his D.C. office suite – just down the hall from Newsweek’s Washington bureau and block from the White House – a shirt-sleeved Mr. Novak said he “didn’t do anything wrong” in revealing the name of the former C.I.A. operative.
His floor is littered with old typewriters, relics from an earlier phase of his career. Rows of angelic-looking grandchildren beamed from photos on the bookcase lining the wall behind him.
“People just jumped to conclusions – a couple of years ago, most of the stories they wrote about me were pretty punk. But I don’t blame them; I wasn’t talking, so they had to make stuff up. And they did… People are lazy now, and they write off of Nexis. If a fact is wrong in one story, then it’s wrong everywhere. … I broke no laws. [The Plame column] was good journalism” that became, because of passions over the war, a sort of political Rorschach test.
This week, Bob Novak is fully emerging from bunker mode for the first time since the leak investigation began – answering questions that have been circling him ever since the former C.I.A. agent’s name appeared in his column four years ago this month.
Later today, he’ll discuss his new memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, on "Meet the Press," and a book-pegged Q&A in The New York Times Magazine hit doorsteps this morning.
He just taped two C-Span specials (including an hour-long sit-down with Brian). Later this week, he’ll start making the cable show rounds, including a sitdown with his old "Crossfire" colleague and fellow CNN exile Tucker Carlson, and chats with FOX’s "Hannity & Colmes," and CNBC’s Larry Kudlow.
It’s a familiar milieu for the veteran journalist. Starting in the Reagan years, Mr. Novak was the Law & Order of political talk-television; if you turned on your TV any given day of the week, you had a decent shot of seeing him onscreen. For a quarter-century, his home base was CNN; the network's TV fortunes and his rose and fell almost in sync.
Since his bitter divorce from the network two years ago, at the height of the Plame controversy (following a dramatic on-air tiff with one-time source James Carville) he’s entered friendlier ideological territory, signing on with FOX News. But over the past few months, even those appearances have been tapering off. The journalism world, said Mr. Novak, has begun to change in ways he’s baffled by. He believes the appetite for the sort of scoop-driven analysis he’s trafficked in since the Eisenhower administration may be disappearing.
“All the programming I really liked on CNN, most of the shows I was on, they’re all gone," he said. "'The Situation Room' doesn’t have the same quality as what it replaced. The present executives don’t care about politics – they care about Paris Hilton. It’s the same at FOX. They get very invested in all these stories I’m just not interested in at all. That poor girl in Aruba – what was her name? Yes, Natalee Holloway. There’s a war on, and that’s what gets put on the air?”
But the self-described workaholic isn’t exactly disappointed. Mr. Novak the journalist may express outrage over the latest network developments; Mr. Novak the senior citizen admits he’s feeling just a bit relieved.
“I would certainly never want to go back to the schedule I was doing," he said. "I’m 76 years old.”
And then: “Of course, nobody’s asking me.”
There are other signs Mr. Novak, still powerful, may be starting to lose–or is it relinquish?–some of the unique power he’s wielded in Washington since he first teamed up with Rowland Evans in the early 60's.
Every year, Mr. Novak hosts pricey insider lunches popular with Washington insiders, featuring big names like the Speaker of the House, or a senior presidential advisor. This spring, political superstars stayed off the dais, and ticket sales lagged. It was the Washington equivalent of the Stones failing to sell out an arena show, and the blogosphere took notice.
“Mr. Novak’s a little less popular this year than he has been in any other year in his long history of being a raging prick,” wrote Wonkette editor Alex Pareene, mocking the slow sales. “While in olden days he could count on the brightest stars of both parties to attend his box social, this year he’s got… Newt 'Gringo' Gingrich. And some GOP pollster.”
Mr. Novak told The Observer that he’ll probably never retire.
“I may die at my desk… I’ll stick it out as long as I can function," he said. "Probably a few more years.”
But in the course of a half-hour interview, he mentioned his own mortality, mostly offhandedly and unprompted, several times.
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.)
In a recent interview he repeated, with a smile, the characterization of McLaughlin he gave PBS’s Ben Wattenberg a few weeks ago: “The closest thing on this planet to pure evil.”
He’s no longer in contact with most of his former TV colleagues, though he still works with Al Hunt and Margaret Carlson on Bloomberg broadcast projects.
Mr. Novak said he still doesn’t care what any of them think about the Plame case – and he isn’t trying to change their minds with his account. “One thing is a matter of age – at a certain age, it just doesn’t matter what people think of you.”
Still, he admits he reads his own press.
“Well, yeah. I shouldn’t, but I do.”
And a quick check of the comment thread attached to one of his recent stories on the Washington Post Web site unsettled him; he included a sample of particularly unnerving hate mail in his book.
Some of his insider fans – on both sides of the aisle – are equally passionate.
“Deep down he has a heart of pure mush,” said longtime friend and fellow conservative Mr. Wattenberg. “He has a more complicated personality than meets the eye. Part of what he does is shtick. We all have to project a personality, and this is a character he’s playing. There’s a little showbiz in all of us – I think he just embraces that side of himself a little more. But he’s just a lovely human being.”
It’s a softer version of the classic Washington take on Bob Novak, which allegedly originated with Michael Kinsley: “Beneath the asshole is a very decent guy, and beneath the very decent guy is an asshole.”
It’s difficult to tell whether or how Mr. Novak’s "Prince of Darkness” image will be affected by his tendency to point to the “inner peace” that has followed his late-life conversion from non-practicing Jew to Catholic. But even Mr. Novak’s spiritual quests have been controversial in some quarters.
“I think Deb Solomon (his interviewer for today's Times Magazine) was really bothered by this – it was how she asked me about it, and kept coming back to it," he said. "I’m used to that kind of reaction. A lot of people resent my confession, especially Jews and fallen-away Catholics. It really makes them crazy … even though, yes, I still consider myself Jewish. Socially, ethnically, culturally. That will never change.”
According to a throwaway line late in his book, Jews displeased with his religious evolution include many members of his own family.
That minor personal controversy is a pale echo of the raging professional drama that has accompanied Mr. Novak for decades.
“… I have been a stirrer up of strife – for half a century,” he writes in Prince of Darkness. “But I was not merely causing trouble for trouble’s sake.
"I’d like to think I emulated Bertrans de Born in stirring up strife but not in wreaking havoc," he writes a little later, referring to a medieval monk and schismatic, "so that I will avoid an eternity in purgatory with my head in my hand.
"At least I hope so.”