The Novak Project: Clean Up Spectator

These are difficult times at The American Spectator , rough-riding journal of the rabid right. The conservative monthly and its parent foundation are anticipating the scrutiny of Federal authorities because of their role in the so-called “Arkansas Project”–the four-year, $2.4 million effort to undermine President Bill Clinton funded by Pittsburgh heir Richard Mellon Scaife. Allegations that a Spectator employee may have passed money to key Whitewater witness David Hale are now the focus of a struggle between independent counsel Kenneth Starr and the Justice Department over who should investigate those charges.

Amid these mind-bending controversies, the magazine has lost its longtime publisher and at least two board members of the Spectator foundation, as well as several veteran writers.

But there is hope, in the unlikely form of Robert Novak, the conservative syndicated columnist and CNN personality. Recently, Mr. Novak rushed to the rescue by joining the Spectator board.

Beyond confirming his new post, Mr. Novak wouldn’t say much. “They wanted a journalist on the board. I think the magazine has made mistakes and is in trouble, and I think it’s a valuable magazine and I wanted to save it.”

Asked to be specific about those “mistakes,” Mr. Novak barked, “I’m not going to get into that.” But when pressed, he added: “How about the Arkansas Project?”

He brushed aside any further questions, but his mention of the Arkansas Project was an interesting turnabout. Mr. Novak, after all, was among those who rushed to The Spectator ‘s defense after the allegations concerning Mr. Hale first surfaced.

In columns and a television appearance ripping the Justice Department for giving credence to the Hale charges, he ridiculed the woman who made them, Caryn Mann, as a “fortuneteller” who had claimed to know where Jimmy Hoffa is buried. (Mr. Novak, whose mission is to improve The Spectator ‘s reporting, never bothered to interview Ms. Mann.)

Just how much Mr. Novak actually knows about the Arkansas Project is not clear. He seemed only dimly aware that The Spectator had paid a private detective to investigate the personal life of his CNN colleague, senior correspondent John Camp. Evidently, Mr. Camp had aroused The Spectator ‘s fury by filing a skeptical piece about the hoary tale of Clinton-sanctioned cocaine smuggling at a small Arkansas airport.

Apparently hoping to discredit Mr. Camp, The Spectator ‘s detective dug up his divorce records and called his ex-wife. She had nothing bad to say about him–but somehow personal data about Mr. Camp ended up in the files of the House Banking Committee, which had investigated and eventually dismissed the cocaine-smuggling fabrication.

“I think I read about that,” Mr. Novak said about the Spectator probe of Mr. Camp, which was exposed in the Internet magazine Salon . “I don’t know if that’s true.” But if it is? “It would bother me. My going on the board in no way condones everything they’ve done or defends it.”

Meanwhile, the wise-ass Spectator has suddenly gone introspective. For the past several months, according to publisher Terry Eastland, a board committee has been examining the Arkansas Project in hope of untangling its secretive finances. While Mr. Eastland has told various news organizations that he has so far found no evidence of payments to Mr. Hale, he has not yet indicated whether the internal audit is complete.

Meanwhile, the magazine’s June issue contains a kind of institutional confession about the Arkansas Project by John Corry, the former New York Times cultural reporter who now writes a column called Presswatch for The Spectator . Between denials of wrongdoing and insults hurled at Salon , Mr. Corry pauses in his column to concede that mistakes were made. In a clever effort to spread blame, he mentions that the project’s funds “did not remain in the editorial offices of The Spectator ,” but were disbursed by Virginia lawyer Stephen Boynton–who conducted “most of the Whitewater research in Arkansas” along with Spectator board member David Henderson.

Declaring himself The Spectator ‘s “ombudsman,” a position for which he feels qualified “because of some 40 years in journalism,” Mr. Corry writes: “Even if the stories in Salon were junk, it must be admitted that the Arkansas Project was flawed.” He says Messrs. Boynton and Henderson were “diligent and hard-working, but they left the Arkansas Project open to criticism.” Exactly how they did so Mr. Corry doesn’t tell, except to note that they “hired a private investigator” whose “presence was ill-advised.” This is the same gumshoe, of course, who tried to discredit Mr. Camp, the CNN reporter. (Incidentally, The Spectator ‘s records show that Mr. Corry himself received a $5,000 article fee from the Arkansas Project.)

The blunt-spoken Mr. Novak has joined the magazine to prevent future excesses of this kind. He seemed to realize that when all the facts about the Arkansas Project are revealed, he may come to regret accepting The Spectator ‘s invitation. “It was not,” he said, “an easy decision to make.”

The Novak Project: Clean Up Spectator