THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS: 50 YEARS REPORTING
By Robert D. Novak
Crown Forum, $29.95,
672 pages, illus.
REVIEWED BY STEPHEN GOODE
On the next-to-last page of his page-turning and very readable autobiography, “The Prince of Darkness,” Robert D. Novak writes that his original manuscript for the memoir would have become a 1,400-page book.
That’s too big for any book these days, of course, so Mr. Novak, with the aid of a few friendly editors, cut it down by more than half to its present 672 pages. But so informative is the book, and so rich its story of Washington, D.C., over the past half-century, that many readers no doubt will long for more, and more than a few would probably have put up with 1,400 pages.
It’s not just that Mr. Novak had (and still has) great sources who provided him with the stories that made him one of the most reliable, and at the same time controversial, reporters in the nation’s capital. It’s also that he came to know well so many of the figures that have dominated our recent political history, from LBJ and Nelson Rockefeller right down to the two Bush presidents.
But this book is about more than political Washington and its vagaries. It’s the story of Mr. Novak’s move from being a centrist Republican (an Eisenhower man in the 1950s, rather than Taft supporter, he writes) into what he now calls a “hard” conservatism, believing in “limited government, economic freedom, and a strong, prudent America.”
It’s also about his family life: Growing up the only child of a close-knit Jewish family, his long and successful second marriage, and his daughter and son. And it’s about Mr. Novak’s late-in-life conversion to Roman Catholicism, a step that has meant much to him and which, he writes, “has put into perspective any petty personal deficiencies.”
Mr. Novak was born in 1931 in Joliet, Ill. His famous pugnacity (in this memoir, he records a couple of times where in anger he made use of his fists) may derive from an immigrant grandfather, who, Mr. Novak writes, died “of a heart attack after getting into a fight in a … tavern in 1946.”
That granddad was a Democrat, but Mr. Novak’s father, Maurice, was a Republican, “a low-level corporate executive and respected officer of local civic organizations.”
“As a small boy, I never heard a good word abut FDR over the dinner table,” Mr. Novak recalls.
At the University of Illinois, Mr. Novak received a strong grounding in the humanities, developing a fondness for the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound (in later years, he would meet Pound in the office of Rep. August Johansen, Michigan Republican, in Washington), and for the novels of William Faulkner.
It was while a student at the University of Illinois that Mr. Novak began his career as a journalist, as a cub sports reporter both for the student newspaper and for the Champaign News-Herald. He loved sports but was no athlete. “I attempted — and failed at — every sport imaginable,” he notes.
Mr. Novak served in the Army, and he doesn’t say much about it. But while waiting to be sent to the Korean War (he wasn’t), he read Whittaker Chambers’ 1952 “Witness,” which deepened his anticommunism and his fears for America.
Indeed, the name “Prince of Darkness” was later given him by his friend John Lindsay of The Washington Post (and later Newsweek), Mr. Novak says, not because of his hard conservatism, but because of his deep pessimism about the future and the West’s ability to overcome communism.
In the mid-1950s, Mr. Novak landed a job with the Associated Press, first in Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., and later in Indianapolis. He now covered politics, which he loved, and politicians, which he did not: His first and low “impression of the political class” he writes, “did not change appreciably in a half century of sustained contact.”
Then, in 1957, Mr. Novak joined the AP bureau in Washington. Much of his book traces his steady (and sometimes spectacular) rise among the reporters and punditry of the Capital City. From AP, he moved on to the Wall Street Journal and eventually the Chicago Sun-Times. On television, he became a familiar talking head on “Face the Nation,” “Crossfire,” “The McLaughlin Group” and other programs.
In 1962, Mr. Novak was “stunned,” he writes, to be asked by journalist Rowland Evans, who was part of the Georgetown elite (something Mr. Novak notes he never has been), to join Evans in a column. That column, the influential “Evans and Novak,” began its long run in 1963 in the Herald Tribune.
His “The Agony of the G.O.P.” (1964) began a series of books that Mr. Novak authored on current politics. By the early 21st century, his success translated into wealth — he recorded an income of $1.2 million in one recent year, an extraordinary figure for a reporter.
But much of the fun generated by Mr. Novak’s memoir doesn’t come from his own considerable success and controversy, but from the people he’s known and the stories he’s reported.
Mr. Novak notes that during his 50 years in Washington, he’s covered 10 presidents, from Eisenhower to George W. Bush. Eisenhower he did not know personally; the others, he has.
Here are a few of his evaluations, which have the ring of accuracy:
nMr. Novak regards JFK as a “failed” president, but adds: “He was the most attractive political personality that I have met, before or since: handsome, witty, charismatic, and very nice to me.”
nA lengthy interview with a Nixon insider led Mr. Novak to conclude that Nixon was a “make-believe tough guy.”
n”Jerry Ford, the nicest person to be president during my career, was ill-equipped for the job.”
n”Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes.”
nRonald Reagan “was a successful president because of tunnel vision that kept his gaze on big goals.”
Throughout this memoir, Mr. Novak is candid about his own shortcomings and failures.
When his reporting happened to be wrong, he admits it. Many of his harshest comments are directed against himself: For his at times excessive drinking, for example, and for his failure to be closer to his family than his ambition and career allowed.
“There were occasions when I, a forty-something, would go on a collegiate-style drinking binge,” he writes. And he expresses a “sadness for me” arising from the fact “that I had not become better acquainted with [his family], a regret my frenetic life had left so little time for my children.” That this is a common complaint of successful men both in Washington or elsewhere doesn’t diminish its sadness.
Mr. Novak writes at length about the controversy his opposition to the present war in Iraq has aroused among fellow conservatives. He discusses the recent Valerie Plame affair that found him the subject of great vituperation by the liberal press, on this occasion even more hypocritical than usual.
“The Prince of Darkness” is a good read, and far richer than a host of other Washington memoirs. Mr. Novak has aroused controversy (and no doubt will continue to do so), but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s also true that he’s a fine journalist who provides an essential service to his country.
Stephen Goode is a writer and critic in Milton, Del.