An Interview With Robert Novak
On Friday of last week, I did a telephone interview with Robert Novak about his book, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington. What follows is the transcript of our interview (Note: This interview has been edited slightly to correct grammar and for brevity’s sake.)
John Hawkins: In your book, you described how Nixon, when he was Vice-President, walked in to appear on a telethon and unleashed a string of profanities and yet no one reported it. Today, just about anything and everything a politician does in public will be reported. Do you think that’s an improvement over the old standards?
Robert Novak: It’s really hard to say. I was a newspaper pool reporter for that incident. It was the day before the 1960 election in Detroit, for a telethon, and there were 4 (reporters) there and none of us reported it.
You had a lot more access in those days because the politicians knew we weren’t going to report everything, so we got a lot more information….On the other hand, maybe it would have been the right thing to do to tell the country some of the personality problems that Nixon had. But, if we did that, we wouldn’t have had the access.
Reporters don’t get much access to the politicians now. Barack Obama is notorious on the campaign trail for never seeing any reporters at all. It’s a difficult question.
John Hawkins: In the book, you talk about a couple of incidents where the Democrats rigged votes. In one district, you watched as they literally told people that they couldn’t vote anything other than a straight Democratic ticket.
Robert Novak: That was outside of Chicago, yes.
John Hawkins: You also said that without question, John F. Kennedy rigged the West Virginia Democratic primary in (1960), but that the Wall Street Journal killed the story. Do you think that sort of thing is still occurring with great regularity and do you wish the Journal had reported the story when it happened?
Robert Novak: In my opinion, they should have. They sent two reporters down to West Virginia for six weeks and they came back with a carefully documented story on voter fraud in West Virginia, buying votes, and how he beat Humphrey in the primary and therefore got the nomination. But, Ed Kilgore, the President of Dow Jones and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, a very conservative man, said it wasn’t the business of the Wall Street Journal to decide the nominee of the Democratic Party and he killed the story. That story didn’t come out for many, many years — 30-40 years. It was kept secret all that time.
Does it happen now? I don’t really know. I got a feeling it happens less often, but that incident was kept secret all those years until it was uncovered in an anti-Kennedy book by a liberal correspondent and I felt that I wasn’t bound to secrecy any more.
John Hawkins: There’s a lot of interesting material that you came across over the years, the sort of scoops that would be blaring sirens on the Drudge Report today, but they were hidden back then. We’ve talked about some of them, but another one that caught my eye was when you say you got pornographic bedroom transcripts of MLK with a woman, presumably not his wife, that had been recorded by the FBI. Obviously, you can’t be expected to give a blow by blow of that transcript, but can you tell us a little more about it?
Robert Novak: Yeah, I don’t know if those were legal or illegal tapes (and) I don’t know if (J. Edgar Hoover) got a judge to do them or not, but he was convinced that Communists were manipulating Martin Luther King. So, he decided he would bug his hotel rooms. But, instead of Communists, (laughs) he found a variety of women.
I read the transcripts of it and they were really, really raunchy stuff. But, I was not alone. These transcripts were all over town. People talked about them and whispered about them, but as far as I know, the transcripts were never published.
John Hawkins: Now in 1977, during the Carter administration, you seem to have implied in the book that Bill Sullivan, a FBI source of yours, was murdered. In fact, you said that he told you if he was killed in an “accidental shooting,” not to believe it. (Later), he was mistaken for a deer and shot to death. You think he was murdered and if so, by whom?
Robert Novak: ….That was in his retirement. He was fired by Hoover and he had an awful lot of enemies both on the Left and Right. He was the number three man in the FBI and a great source of mine.
I don’t know, I just tell the story as it is. He told me the last time I saw him — he had lunch at my house — he had been fired by Hoover and he was going into retirement — he said that, “Someday you will read that I have been killed in an accident, but don’t believe it, I’ve been murdered,” which was a shocking thing to say.
…Some years later, I read in the paper that he was out at dawn hunting in New Hampshire and a young man, a fellow hunter, with a long range rifle, killed him. He shot him in the neck, mistook him for a deer. The story was that the police investigated, said it was an accident, and Mr. Sullivan’s family, and the man who was ghostwriting his memoirs, accepted that.
I just tell you the story straight out. There’s a lot of strange things in the world that we never know the answer to.
John Hawkins: Nixon is now often portrayed as a conservative, but you note in the book that he considered “Buckleyites” to be a worse threat to the Republican party than John Birchers. Would you consider Nixon to be a conservative or even friendly to conservatives?
Robert Novak: No, I don’t believe he was a conservative at all. I don’t think he was ideological. He regarded all people as friends or enemies and he always regarded me as an enemy. He didn’t care what my ideology was. When he first met me, I was probably a liberal Republican and I became a conservative, non-Republican — just a conservative — and he didn’t care about the ideology. He was a big government person, he liked a lot of government, he kept all of the spending programs he inherited and expanded them…
The one conservative thing he did in his life, as a young congressman, which made his reputation, was that he believed the story of Whitaker Chambers. (Chambers) was a former Soviet spy who had defected. (He) fingered Alger Hiss, who was a totem of the liberal establishment, as a Soviet spy. I believe that if it hadn’t been for Nixon, the truth would never have come out, which resulted in Hiss going to prison in a perjury case. But, Nixon was not really a conservative.
John Hawkins: I have read your book cover to cover and it’s a fantastic read if you’re a political junky. One of the things that’s interesting about it is when you talk about the changes in the two parties. One thing that was particularly interesting was where you talked about how tax cuts used to be something pushed by liberals, not conservatives.
Robert Novak: That’s right (laughs).
John Hawkins: Now obviously Reagan had a lot to do with tax cuts becoming a conservative staple, but why did the Left move away from tax cuts?
Robert Novak: That’s a very interesting point because when John Kennedy came into office…the economy was in very bad shape. Eisenhower, for 8 years as a Republican President, had refused to cut taxes. We had 3 balanced budgets and 3 recessions during the Eisenhower years. Tax rates were just ruinously high.
(Kennedy) was convinced that to save the economy, he needed to cut taxes. He couldn’t get it through Congress, by the way. It had to wait until after he was assassinated and Johnson got it through Congress, but you still had many conservative Republicans saying, “We can’t cut taxes while the budget is in a deficit.”
You ask why did the Democrats change from that? I think what really changed them was that the whole tax cut proposal was adopted by the Republican Party with the Kemp-Roth Bill in 1978 and then really, big time, promoted by Reagan. Then when the Republicans took it over, Democrats just went in the opposite direction.
John Hawkins: In your book, you really go out of your way to emphasize how often Jimmy Carter lied about things…
Robert Novak: (Laughs)
John Hawkins: Do you think that Carter’s frequent lying and the fact that he seemed to get away with it, helped influence Bill Clinton to lie so often when he was President?
Robert Novak: Well, I think Bill Clinton was a minor league liar compared to Jimmy Carter. Carter would just lie for the sake of lying. He was absolutely incredible.
I put a lot of the cases in the book — I couldn’t put all of them in — but my two favorite cases are in the book. I had written a column detailing nine separate lies by Carter and he told another reporter that I had apologized to him for it. That was just an absolute lie.
Then many years after his presidency, my late partner, Rowly Evans and I had a party celebrating the 25th anniversary of our column and we invited all the Presidents and ex-Presidents to send letters. Nixon didn’t like us much, but he sent a nice letter. But, Carter told an aide that the last thing he would do was send any kind of greeting to those guys.
That year, in 1988, at the Democratic National Convention, there was a reception at the Carter Center in Atlanta and as my partner was going through the line — I told my partner not to do it — …(and he said to Carter), “Mr. President, how come you didn’t send us a message for our 25th anniversary?” He said, “Well Rowly, if I had known, I certainly would have sent it. It must have gotten lost in the mail.”
John Hawkins: (Laughs) You started the book with the Plame affair and obviously it has been in the news a lot over the last couple of years. You gave the impression in the book that you thought it was all nonsense. Would you say that’s correct and could you tell us what you think of Joe Wilson?
Robert Novak: Yeah, I think it’s complete nonsense. I think that she was not a secret agent. …They tried to promote her for this, tried to make a lot of money out of the (whole thing). I think Joe Wilson is an operator, he tried to get in on the front line of the Kerry campaign, in the 2004 (campaign) and they kicked him out and now he’s trying to get in with Hillary Clinton.
It’s very sad that this is a signature issue with me, but that’s what a lot of people think. Of course, the left-wing wackos on the internet call me a “traitor,” and things I won’t mention…so, it’s very sad that is my trademark. But, it’s a very minor, unpleasant story.
I just told what the Deputy Secretary of State had told me and I don’t believe anybody’s life was put in danger and certainly no crime was committed. The only poor person who got accused of a crime and convicted of a crime was Scooter Libby. (He) was accused of lying. It had nothing to do with leaking any names.
John Hawkins: Speaking of people on the internet, journalism has obviously changed a lot over the years, in part because of blogging. What do you think of blogging in general and do you think it has had a positive or negative impact on the news business?
Robert Novak: I think it had a hugely negative impact for several reasons. A lot of the bloggers just put out whatever comes to their mind.
While I was promoting this book, I had an interview with NPR in New York City and they quoted something I had said to Keith Olbermann in an interview and I said, “I have never met Keith Olbermann in my life. I have never talked to him. If he asked me to go on his show, I would refuse.” And the man said, “Well, I read on the internet that you said this to him.”
There’s more nonsense on the internet than you can believe. They have lies about me that have no connection with what I really do or what I really am. That’s one aspect.
The other aspect is that good, honest reporters are told that it’s not enough to do their story for their station or their newspaper, that they have to get out and do a blog on it right away. It puts a high credence on speed, rather than care. A lot of things are said without due diligence being given to how accurate they are and how complete they are.
John Hawkins: Now another interesting thing about your book is that people have this perception that journalists spend all day researching things and break these stories by doing footwork. But, it seems like in your book, it’s that you know the right person and the right person tells you the story. So, when you see a big story break about a political candidate, how often would you estimate that’s a reporter doing research and how often do you think that it’s just a campaign or source feeding them opposition research.
Robert Novak: I think it’s usually somebody telling them that. It isn’t just them sitting there with a baby bird with its mouth open, waiting to be fed, it’s going after the sources, pressing the sources, asking them questions and I compare it to being an oil prospector. You go with sources and you ask questions and you get a lot of dry holes, but every once in a while you get a gusher. That’s the way most of the news is….
John Hawkins: Now, do you think the mainstream media has gotten more overtly liberal over the last few years?
Robert Novak: Unquestionably. I know this for a fact. This is not guesswork on my part because in Washington, there used to be a…circle of very conservative bureau chiefs, of medium sized town papers — Kansas City, Dallas, Chicago, Los Angeles Times. All those papers now are pretty liberal and they certainly don’t have conservative bureau chiefs. Through most of the media, the middle management and upper management, which used to be fairly conservative, is now very liberal. So, it’s a totally liberally controlled…if you had to think of 10 major newspapers with conservative outlets, I think you’d be hard pressed to find them.
John Hawkins: Now, you mention multiple times in the book that you didn’t always tell (the correct) details about your anonymous sources. You might write some misleading details in there. For example, you might say one person was two people or you might give a completely misleading description of the anonymous source. Is that a common practice in the mainstream media and do you think that’s ethical?
Robert Novak: It’s shady on the ethical side, but it’s a way of protecting people. You say you got a story from the State Department when in fact you got it from Capitol Hill…a lot of the reviewers of my book who don’t like me made a (big point of) noting that I had an anonymous source, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and I referred to her as “he”…I don’t know if it’s ethical or not. It’s to try to protect the sources. I don’t know if it’s a widespread practice or not; I think it’s a widespread practice. I don’t find journalists who get exclusive stories and do a lot of the kind of reporting I have done who get together and compare notes very much. After 50 years in the business in Washington, I am being very candid and straightforward in reviewing things in this book that I have never revealed to anybody before.
John Hawkins: We’re about to finish up here, but before we do, could you tell us a little bit about your book?
Robert Novak: If you like the inside story of politics and (would like to know) how these politicians work, how they coincide with the media — if you like to hear about the inner lives of the media and what goes on behind the scenes in Washington, then this is the book for you. It’s a thick book, but it consists of a lot of small stories. That’s what the book’s about.
John Hawkins: Once again, I have read your book; it was very good. Thank you for taking the time to do the interview.
Robert Novak: Thank you for having me.
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