Robert Novak: Prince Of Twilight?

[Previously by Kevin Lamb: The Leftward Course Of Human Events]

The publication of The Bell Curve in the fall of 1994 created a major uproar in newsrooms in Washington and New York. The book was a big problem for many editors and journalists since they were unsure about—and largely unfamiliar with—the book's empirical claims. At Newsweek, where I worked as a library assistant, the book generated a buzz that led to awkward conversations and intense discussions. Everyone had an opinion about Herrnstein and Murray's controversial work.

Almost everyone, that is.

Leaving work one afternoon, having just picked up a copy of the book at Sidney Kramer's on I Street earlier that day, I encountered Robert Novak in the elevator. (The Evans and Novak office was in the same building, one floor above us.) Trying to strike up a conversation with the "Prince of Darkness", who is notoriously conversation-averse, I asked what he thought about The Bell Curve. "The race book", Novak replied dismissively, in his snippy Crossfire mode.

Novak's brush-off reply made clear that he didn't have any opinion about it and would just as soon not have any opinion about it.

This is typical. "Conservative" journalists inside the Beltway are rarified specimens. Most are highly detached from the issues that concern Middle America: Immigration, affirmative action, crime, job security, the stability of "safe" neighborhoods and "good" schools, and so on. What matters to this elite cadre aren't issues or ideas, but access to information (cultivating reliable sources for exclusives) and peer acceptability (avoiding rejection from fellow journalists, fatally often liberals). With the rise of politically correctness, this means an unprecedented level of conformity now holds sway over Establishment "Conservatives".

Any young "Conservative" who plans on making it in today's climate avoids excessive controversy and goes along with the cultural flow.

For years, Novak has cultivated an image of himself as an iconoclastic outsider in a profession dominated by leftists—a bold reporter combating the twin evils of liberalism and communism.

And to some extent, Novak is iconoclastic. But his pariah persona is largely a façade. Even though Novak deviates ideologically from the average Washington journalist, his successful career trajectory reveals an ambitious streak, common among journalists, that makes him much more cautious than rebellious. Paradoxically, despite his image, Novak epitomizes the insider.

Tellingly, one of Novak's gripes in his recently published autobiography The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington is not being invited often enough to official White House functions.

Similarly, I remember one Thursday afternoon while we were scrambling to finalize Human Events on deadline, my boss Editor-in-Chief Thomas Winter just up and left the office to get ready for that evening's White House "Holiday Party". He told us how much his wife enjoyed greeting the President and First Lady in the receiving line.

Acceptance is the life goal of Beltway conservatives—and not just of their wives.

Novak's personal reflections span nearly five decades as a reporter-columnist turned political commentator for CNN covering nine presidents, Congress, major national events, and foreign affairs—from Vietnam and Watergate to the Cold War and 9/11.

But as Novak writes, "I'd like to think that I emulated Bertrans de Born in stirring up strife but not in wreaking havoc…." In other words, avoid pushing the envelope. The perception that one harbors "extreme" views will not open many doors in this "go along, get along" culture.

Interspersed throughout the book are amusing anecdotes—for example, about his friend Pat Buchanan, whom he respects, and priest-turned-political commentator John McLaughlin, whom he disdains as a bullying cheapskate. Novak affects a self-deprecating demeanor and forthrightly divulges his own shortcomings and vices, including a fair number of mistakes and gaffes (which also occur in this book). He reveals a side rarely seen in public: his deeply personal religious conversion as a non-observant Jew to Roman Catholicism , a spiritual odyssey that alienated some friends and relatives; his heavy bouts of drinking; his seemingly-endless health problems, including cancer and spinal meningitis; his devotion to his family as an affectionate father and grandfather.

But this reflection in the rearview mirror offers some peculiar omissions and evasions. Novak's conservatism is devoid of any interest in social or cultural issues. He makes virtually no mention of immigration policy or the impact of rapid demographic changes on his country's future. (He was an outspoken supporter of the Kennedy-Bush Amnesty/ Immigration surge bill and predicted it would pass). His conservative convictions are confined to tax policy, free-market economics, containing communism and the growth of government.

This is a big difference between Pat Buchanan and Novak. Buchanan's last three books have addressed some of the most pressing issues facing America and the West, namely the cultural and ethnic replacement of the West with the Third World at home and American imperialism abroad.

Novak describes his friendship with Ian Smith, the former prime minister of Rhodesia. He admired Smith largely because white-ruled Rhodesia blocked Soviet-supported Marxists from getting a larger foothold in Southern Africa.  Of course, all of this came to end after Smith caved in to pressure by the British and U.S. governments and extended the vote to Rhodesia's majority of uneducated blacks. What happened, in Novak's view, was a foreign policy failure of the Carter administration. But what action did the Reagan administration take to reverse course?

And where in Novak's account is the courage to acknowledge what would inevitably result from the transition of Rhodesia to Zimbabwe under black majority rule: racial displacement and national decay? As if this wouldn't have happened had Mugabe not been a Marxist!

Novak also incorrectly reports that Smith continues to live in Zimbabwe. The former prime minister moved to Cape Town, South Africa two years ago and took up residence in a community of Rhodesian expatriates.

Especially when Novak's syndicated column was in partnership with the late Rowland Evans, the Middle East was one significant area of difference from their colleagues. Their criticism of Israel and Israeli influence over U.S. Mideast foreign policy made them walking targets for neoconservatives and assorted Israeli supporters.

Evans and Novak were particularly skeptical of the official explanation for the attack on the USS Liberty, a Navy intelligence ship that was fired upon in international waters by Israeli forces in 1967. Thirty-four American servicemen died and 173 others were wounded in the attack.  In a November 1991 column, Evans and Novak broke the news of an American eyewitness to the deliberate planning of the Israeli assault [Remembering the Liberty, Washington Post, November 6, 1991(Pay Archive)].

But, oddly, Novak's only mention of the Liberty incident in his 670-page tome is a passing reference to it in reminiscing about Rowland Evans' death.

"In both the column and the eulogy, I noted Rowly's brilliant reporting on Soviet arms control cheating, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty and its cover-up by the U.S. government. These were high points in the history of the Evans and Novak column in which I played little part."

Novak likewise makes only a glancing reference to the Middle East and Israel in general—also crediting Evans with all but a handful of their columns on the subject over the years.

Novak was clearly uneasy, although ultimately firm, when PBS host Charlie Rose cross-examined him on the subject of Israel in his recent interview (my emphases):

CHARLIE ROSE: Israel.

ROBERT NOVAK: Israel. We—the "Evans and Novak" columns—we ran hundreds of columns critical of Israel, all of them written by Rolly Evans. But I agreed with him. I`ve written a few columns on Israel since Rolly retired and I was writing the column myself, but not nearly as many. Rolly became very committed on the issue.

CHARLIE ROSE: OK, I want to talk about today.

ROBERT NOVAK: Today, I believe that—that—that Israel—it`s in Israel`s best interest to make an agreement in the Middle East. I`m very happy that the President is at least giving lip service to trying again to move toward a Middle East agreement. I think that`s been one of the great failings of this Administration. I`ve been to Israel each of the last two years. I think that the—that the time is ripe. The conditions are correct for a negotiated settlement. And—and it is—it will take an enormous amount of courage.

CHARLIE ROSE: There are people in the Israeli community who believe you`re anti-Israel.

ROBERT NOVAK: I`m not. I want Israel to survive. And I believe—I believe Israel is in an enormous amount of difficulty right now. It has a very weak government. I think they have—I think the—the war in Lebanon was a disaster. They thought they were going to crush Hezbollah, and they didn`t. So I believe it is time for peace, and I think there`s elements in the Palestinian community who feel the same way….

CHARLIE ROSE: Is it hard for a journalist to criticize Israel?

ROBERT NOVAK: Well, you suffer if you do. I think.

CHARLIE ROSE: Have you suffered?

ROBERT NOVAK: Oh, yes.

CHARLIE ROSE: How have you suffered?

ROBERT NOVAK: I lost papers because of it. Advertisers dropped their—threatened newspapers. They did drop the Evans and Novak column that—

CHARLIE ROSE: But the Evans and Novak column is history. I`m talking about today, today.

ROBERT NOVAK: But that is history. You say, is it hard to criticize Israel? Yes. And I have suffered because of it.

CHARLIE ROSE: Is that issue out in the open now more than it was?

ROBERT NOVAK: No. I think it`s still—

CHARLIE ROSE: The Israeli lobby has too much influence on American foreign policy?

ROBERT NOVAK: I think it has a lot of influence.

CHARLIE ROSE: Too much?

ROBERT NOVAK: Yes, I felt it has too much, and I believe that the—the—that the—both parties now are so committed to trying to get the Jewish community in support—it`s a very small community in numbers, but large in financial support and influence—that it`s very hard to take these positions. [Charlie Rose show, August 3, 2007 watch it]

One mini-saga that Novak devotes a full chapter to is David Frum's notorious April 2003 National Review cover story  Unpatriotic Conservatives which attacked Novak, Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, Llewellyn Rockwell, Thomas Fleming, Scott McConnell, Justin Raimondo, Joseph Sobran, Charley Reese, Jude Wanniski, Eric Margolis, and Taki Theodoracopulos for their opposition to the Iraq war and alleged anti-Americanism. (VDARE.Com had a cameo role, although it does not take a position on the war, for the irrelevant but inadvertently revealing reason it has published Professor Kevin MacDonald's work on Jewish political influences).

Novak really gets his dander up over Frum's salvo. He remains bitter that William F. Buckley's own magazine would—not so much publish Frum's attack—as not remove his name from the final draft. He writes:

"Frum had put me in strange company. Buchanan and Wanniski were the only people mentioned who were my friends though I was an acquaintance of McConnell, who once had edited my copy at the New York Post. I had never heard of Raimondo, Reese, or Margolis. Fleming was a historian whose brilliant critique of U.S. participation in World War I (The Illusion of Victory) I had reviewed favorably, but I had never met him or read his forty other books. I knew of Taki but thought of him as a millionaire jet-setter and clever essayist. I had met Francis and Sobran once or twice and had never met Rockwell at all; I considered those three to be ideological extremists whose views I did not embrace."

Of course, this is a remarkable confession of ignorance, indicative of the parochial nature of Beltway political journalism—especially as Novak confuses Thomas Fleming the historian with Thomas Fleming the redoubtable editor of Chronicles Magazine. (Which is embarrassing not only to Novak, but also to his son-in-law, Weekly Standard editor Christopher Caldwell, and the half dozen other individuals who are credited with reading the manuscript and should have recognized the error.)

Still, Novak confesses that the episode "was burning a hole in my heart". He felt dejected for having been so sharply criticized in Buckley's magazine, which had published his work for 30 years.

Why? Because he stood to lose what he worked so hard to achieve: his reputation and the recognition he cultivated over the years. Consider the Don Imus incident—on top of the world one day and unemployed the next.

Novak had suddenly found himself among undesirables—marginalized figures he considers (paradoxically taking Frum's word for it in their cases) to be "ideological extremists". Rather than take a principled conservative position, defending his right to doubt the Iraq invasion and challenge Frum and the neocons at National Review once and for all, as Paul Gottfried and others have, Novak is more concerned about salvaging his own reputation. (Frum has replied to Novak's book here: 1, 2, 3.

Reading Novak's autobiography, one is struck by what can best be described as "Beltwayitis"—the fixation of "inside-the-beltway" public figures on what grassroots conservatives out there in Americaland would consider at best trivial: notoriety, personality-engrossed gossip, GOP and Democrat intra-party intrigue, and the obsession over esoteric legislative matters.

Issues that conservatives—even elected public officials such as Rep. John Ashbrook (R-Ohio)—once took bold positions on, such as "civil rights," affirmative action, feminism, and forced busing , were characterized by an anti-egalitarianism that is largely absent from leading conservatives today.  Instead of opposing and working to reverse the cultural and racial balkanization that multicultural advocates have fostered on American society, today's "Conservative" establishment embraces "diversity" as a worthy national goal. Richard Weaver's admonition on conservative trends some 50 years ago, that conservatives would remain slightly to the right of an increasingly leftward cultural drift, has come to pass.

In a recent public forum, Professor Paul Gottfried commented on how the American conservative movement has been backsliding for the last 50 years. He slammed conservatives for embracing Martin Luther King, Jr. as a role model. Conservatives such as Novak once opposed making King's birthday a national holiday. Now they have caved—Human Events has gone from having a token article plugging King's alleged "conservative" credentials to featuring multiple, largely laudatory postings on its website.

Novak is no exception. He writes of an incident when he and Frank Barber, a political lieutenant of Sen. James Eastland, Mississippi's pro-segregation senator, were in a restaurant. Barber tried to prove that southern blacks didn't think much of King by asking a black waiter of his view. The waiter responded, "Well, gentlemens… I consider him a great man".

Novak concludes:

"Well into the 1970s and beyond as I pondered this incident, I saw it as helping me understand that Martin Luther King was a mythic figure for blacks. His professional, political, and personal shortcomings were subsumed in his ascension as symbolic leader of African-Americans, who demanded and deserved a national holiday for him. The people who opposed it, including me, were wrong."

This, of course, ignores accumulating evidence that educrats are using Martin Luther King Day as a vehicle for anti-white brainwashing.  And in fact this about-face on King by Novak and other conservatives has less to do with principle than a desire to avoid being labeled a "racist" for standing firm in pointing out his peccadilloes, plagiarism, and pro-Communist affiliations. Even if King has become a "mythic figure" for his ethnic constituents, does this mean conservatives should silence any criticism?

One peculiar omission from Novak's book is the scant mention of a program in which he served as an active participant for years: M. Stanton Evans's National Journalism Center, an internship program for aspiring conservative reporters and editors. The placement rate by Fred Mann, NJC's job-bank director, was exceptional, opening doors to many entry-level positions, not only around Washington but also numerous newspapers around the country. Although Evans and Novak utilized and frequently hired NJC interns, the only individual identified as such is his own daughter, who was hired after a brief stint at a Northern Virginia newspaper. He completely skips over his own NJC role.

As a young intern enrolled in the NJC's program during the fall of 1988, I remember distinctly Novak's Friday afternoon lecture to our group. He used the recent leaks coming out of the Bush-Dukakis presidential campaigns to expound upon different types of leaks and their journalist significance. He closed his talk by noting that there were different types of conservatives: free-market conservatives, neoconservatives, social conservatives, religious conservatives, and even (he said) "racial" conservatives.

On the evidence of The Prince of Darkness, Novak should have added another category to that list: politically-correct conservatives.

The "Prince of Darkness" is not the worst. But he is, at best, the Prince of Twilight.

Kevin Lamb (email him) is a former library assistant for Newsweek and managing editor of Human Events. He was also assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, which involved no contact with Novak. He is now the editor of The Occidental Quarterly.