The Right Wing’s Prince of Gonzo

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The “Prince of Darkness”—aka Robert Novak—who died this week of a brain tumor, was the Hunter Thompson of the right, albeit with predictable differences. Thompson, like Rimbaud, espoused a total disordering of all the senses—with materials as varied as ayahuasca, LSD, cocaine and tequila whereas Novak stuck to booze. Thompson blew his brains out, whereas Novak fell prey to the Enemy Within—not Communism against which he inveighed for decades in the Cold War, but a brain tumor. Thompson was a gent from Louisville; Novak was a middle-class Lithuanian Jew from Illinois who joined the Catholic Church in the 1990s out of what he described as spiritual hunger, as surprising an admission from this brawler as discovering Mother Teresa shooting craps in Las Vegas. Thompson burned out long before his ashes were fired out of a gun in Aspen. Novak went on slugging, decade after decade until the tumor took him down. Just like the Right overall, Novak went the distance, whereas the counterculture hung up the Out of Business sign sometime in the ’90s, finished off by identity politics and general self-satisfaction. But what both Thompson and Novak understood was that journalism is drama, with themselves playing a leading role.

When I got to America in the early 1970s, the supposed barricade between “factual” as opposed to “opinion” journalism was still in respectable shape in the overground press. The “facts” marched down the news columns, resplendent in the uniform of “balanced reporting” and “objectivity.” The liberal columnists were uniformly dull, with the occasional exception of Russell Baker. The only rays of light and amusement were offered by Jack Anderson, a muckraker who had taken over the old liberal Drew Pearson column, and by the conservative political columns of Evans and Novak.

Wherever he may have originally hailed from, Rowley Evans came on as a registered member of the East Coast elites, a lion of the Georgetown salons. Novak was the blue-collar ethnic. Together, they were a formidable team, primarily because they worked extremely hard and regularly broke big stories in the column they sent out six days a week. Their book on Lyndon Johnson remains to this day an impressive monument to diligent journalism. More of a Democrat in the early days, Novak was a friend of LBJ’s. One’s impression was that Novak shouldered most of the stab-and-gouge duties of domestic politics, whereas Evans handled foreign affairs. Virtually unique in American journalism both mainstream and alternative, Evans and Novak offered trenchant criticisms of Israel’s conduct and support for the Palestinians, an example of courage about which Novak’s obituarists this week have remained mostly silent.

They wore their right-wing passions on their sleeves. The liberals and the left were flayed on a regular basis in vicious diatribes fuelled by leaks and lies from the FBI and CIA. The columns were often very thuggish. It was Novak who got McGovern’s first vice-presidential choice, Tom Eagleton, to confide to him off the record that McGovern was for “abortion, amnesty and the legalization of pot.” Headlined as “abortion, amnesty and acid,” the line was extremely damaging to McGovern and helped sink his candidacy in 1972.

But their greatest strength as newsbreakers is that they were conduits of choice for combatants in the Republican civil wars that raged in those days between the so-called “moderate” Rockefeller wing and the Reaganite wing of the Republican Party. Their columns displayed these contests with vibrant drama, replete with “secret meetings,” “late-night phone calls” and the like. Novak was extremely competitive. When journalists were asked to leave one meeting, Novak noticed on his way out that the New York Times reporter Chris Lydon had somehow escaped notice and was about to get a scoop. Novak got Lydon evicted and the enraged Lydon promptly decked him.

I saw Novak in action on the campaign trail in the mid to late 1970s when he was an ardent partisan of Reagan against Gerald Ford and then Bush. It was when he picked up the nickname, The Prince of Darkness polishing up his persona as saturnine misanthrope, sailing towards stardom as a roughhouser of the right on CNN. He would snarl out his questions, voice vibrant with incredulity at the evasive responses.

But Novak was not Pure Yahoo like talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh and his epigones. Limbaugh has always been a standard-issue, utterly cynical opportunist. Novak had a strong libertarian streak and once the war on Communism was won, became isolationist in instinct, opposing the Iraq War and supporting Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas.

Novak’s obituarists have almost uniformly dwelled on the “stain” that the Plame affair supposedly left on Novak’s reputation. Vice President Dick Cheney used Novak as a conduit to disclose that Valerie Plame was a CIA employee, the inference being that her status was the reason why her husband, Joe Wilson, had been sent to Niger, whence he sent back a report on uranium smuggling discomfiting to Bush and Cheney’s war plans.

But as Robert Lowe, the great 19th century editor of the London Times, once wrote, it is the duty of newspapers to obtain the intelligence of the news and instantly communicate this to the readers. What Novak’s prissy colleagues and competitors never liked about him and Evans (who died in 2001) was that they made obvious what most journalists preferred to conceal, that their information came from self-interested sources, using the press—in this case, Novak—to fight their bureaucratic wars. Particularly ludicrous was the spectacle of the liberal-left in periodicals like The Nation solemnly deploring Novak’s leaking of Plame’s name as somehow “compromising national security,” as if The Nation magazine in the 1960s had not been a trailblazer in exposing the activities of the CIA. In short, the Plame disclosure was one of Novak’s finest hours.

Novak wrote many hateful things, but I never found him hateful in the manner of Limbaugh. Novak plied his trade con amore, had passionate opinions, many of them athwart the mainstream—and strove to promote them—all highly estimable characteristics in our business.


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