Respond to this Article December 2004

Bob in Paradise

How Novak created his own ethics-free zone.

By Amy Sullivan

Robert Novak was in high dudgeon. He and his colleagues on CNN's “The Capital Gang” were squabbling over whether CBS should have run a story on President George W. Bush's National Guard service, a story which relied on documents whose authenticity had come into question. Novak—the show's resident curmudgeon, outfitted with a three-piece suit and permanently arched eyebrow—delivered his verdict. “I'd like CBS, at this point, to say where they got those documents from,” he growled. “I think they should say where they got these documents because I thought it was a very poor job of reporting by CBS.”

Resident liberal Al Hunt jumped in to clarify. “Robert Novak,” he asked, “you're saying CBS should reveal its source?” When Novak replied that he was, Hunt pressed him further. “You think reporters ought to reveal sources?” In a flash, Novak realized he had made a mistake; he began to backtrack. “No, no, wait a minute,” he said. “I'm just saying in that case.” So in some cases, Hunt continued, reporters should reveal their sources—but not in all cases? “That's right,” said Novak.

What Novak's fellow panelists on “The Capital Gang” knew that day, but most of the show's viewers probably didn't, was that much of Washington has spent the better part of a year waiting for Novak to reveal a source of his own. During the summer of 2003, someone in the Bush White House decided to extract a pound of flesh from former Amb. Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's rationale for the Iraq war, by revealing to members of the press that Wilson's wife was an undercover CIA agent. And though the leak was peddled to several journalists, only one was willing to actually print it: Robert Novak.

By exposing the name of Wilson's wife—Valerie Plame—Novak not only put an end to her undercover work on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues, possibly putting at risk the lives of any foreign sources who may have cooperated with her. He also may have abetted a federal crime: It's a felony for a government official to knowingly disclose the name of any undercover agency operative, an act serious enough that the Bush administration eventually agreed to name an independent prosecutor (the only one appointed during Bush's first term) to find out who was responsible. That prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has since subpoenaed other journalists who received the leaked information. Two of them—Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine—ran the information only after Novak first publicized Plame's name; both refused to disclose their sources, were held in contempt of court, and face prison time if their appeals don't succeed.

And what about Novak? That's hard to say, because while Miller and Cooper (who is also a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly) have publicly disclosed the essence of their interactions with Fitzgerald, Novak has remained mum. The columnist has made hundreds of appearances on television since he printed Plame's name, but Al Hunt's tweak on “The Capital Gang” was the closest any of Novak's colleagues have ever come to asking him about the case on the air. Even Hunt's challenge was more of a reportorial reflex than anything else. He told me recently that he has “conspicuously avoided the topic” because Novak is “a close friend…it's uncomfortable.”

This exquisite sensitivity is shared by much of Washington. For about as long as Novak has been a first-string Washington pundit and raconteur, after all, he's been dealing in factual mistakes, ethical slips, and personal attacks that would have done in a less well-positioned journalist. Today, he thrives thanks largely to his prominence, his independence, and the clubby support of a media elite whose standards he openly mocks. Novak has created for himself a Cayman Islands like, ethics-free zone where the normal rules simply don't apply.

Novak, Inc.

The one ground rule for my interview with Novak for this article, conveyed to me by his assistant, Kathleen, was that I could not ask him any questions about the Plame case. It wasn't that Novak wouldn't answer such questions; that was so obvious as almost to go without saying. But if I raised the topic in any way, she told me, “the interview will be immediately terminated.” The morning of the scheduled interview, Kathleen called me to say that Mr. Novak wanted to “make sure” I understood that if the Plame case came up during our talk, the interview would be over. I assured her that I got the picture.

That afternoon, after walking to the offices of the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” one block west of the White House, I find myself sitting across from Novak in a cramped, windowless room. Novak looks bored. He's slumped to a 45-degree angle in his chair—not an unusual posture for him, but more pronounced thanks to surgery he underwent a few weeks ago to repair a broken hip. With the ground rule in place, he has given me half an hour of his time, but it's clear he just wants to get it over with. The walls of the room are chockfull of photos charting Novak's career and life, and he perfunctorily points out a few to me. Here he is in the Oval Office with the first President Bush and a not-yet-balding Dick Cheney; over there he laughs it up with William F. Buckley Jr., while an extremely young-looking George Will huddles in a corner, gripping a glass and looking “kind of dorky,” observes Novak.

He is not without the charm that serves to temper his reputation as the “Prince of Darkness.” (“I think he gave himself that nickname,” one of his colleagues later told me.) But it's a forced charm—I've read most of Novak's lines in previous profiles of the guy. I'm reminded of the description of Novak, sometimes attributed to Michael Kinsley, which a number of sources volunteered: “Beneath the asshole is a very decent guy, and beneath the very decent guy is an asshole.” I am not under the illusion that he will reveal some new or interesting anecdote during our talk, and he is not under the illusion that I will press him on anything he hasn't already heard. At age 73, Novak has dealt with much tougher challenges than being profiled by a small-circulation political magazine.

“Look, I'm not David Broder,” Novak tells me. “I'm not one of the real good guys. They try to make things nicer. That's not my deal.” What is his deal is something else entirely. Unlike many of his colleagues on the op-ed pages, Novak does not trade in witty prose or expansive theories, but instead offers a glimpse of Washington's innermost power dens. Novak provides the snack food—provocative bits of information from insiders that fill his columns and commentary. He takes particular glee in inciting—or at least enabling—inter- and intra-party warfare. When a Republican treasury secretary loses favor with conservatives in the party, we learn via Novak that the cabinet position may soon be open. With the war in Iraq not going as expected, Novak is the one who tells us that some power players in the administration want to pull out early in a Bush second term. And he does it by getting everybody—absolutely everybody—to talk. “It's kind of like [Bob] Woodward,” says his “Crossfire” colleague, Tucker Carlson. “It's in the job description. You can't not talk to Bob Novak. It's the law.”

At this stage in his career, Novak is more than a reporter—he's a small business. He peddles his wares with the help of a team of researchers based at “Crossfire,” “The Capital Gang,” and the warren of offices in which we're sitting. Novak's thrice-weekly column is syndicated to more than 300 newspapers—including The Washington Post—making him one of the top five most-read columnists in the country. His scowling visage appears on television at least half a dozen times during an average week—he's a marquee name at CNN, where he headlines “Crossfire” and “The Capital Gang,” acts as an analyst for “Inside Politics,” and conducts interviews for “The Novak Zone,” a feature on the Saturday morning news. He also pops up on NBC's “Meet the Press” as a frequent guest. On top of everything else, he still writes the bi-weekly political newsletter he and Rowland Evans started in 1967, the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” which has a remarkable record of accurate election predictions.

His journalistic judgment, however, is not always as keen as his political nose. Consider just a few Novak highlights from the past fall. In August, when the members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth went after John Kerry, Novak used his column and television appearances to hype their claim that Kerry had lied his way into receiving medals in Vietnam, and flacked their book, Unfit for Command, with a glowing review. When Novak attended a party at Morton's Steakhouse in downtown Washington to celebrate the book's success, he was joined by the director of marketing for its publisher, Regnery Publishing: his son, Alex Novak. In the six years that Alex has been in charge of promoting Regnery products, Novak has positively reviewed at least four Regnery books for conservative magazines and has favorably mentioned others in his column and on his television shows—all without disclosing his relationship to the publishing house. He dismisses any criticism as politically motivated, and insists that he and his son don't discuss the books. But he has another connection to the publishing house that also goes unmentioned. Tom Phillips, the owner of Regnery, also owns Eagle Publishing, which distributes the “Evans-Novak Political Report,” available to subscribers for an annual $297 rate.

In September, Novak wrote about remarks made at an off-the-record dinner party by the CIA's top specialist on the Middle East, Paul Pillar. The CIA officer was one of the authors of a recent National Intelligence Estimate and he claimed at the dinner that the CIA had warned the White House in January 2003 that war with Iraq could unleash a violent insurgency in the country. Novak wasn't at the dinner, which was conducted under established background rules—the substance of Pillar's remarks could be reported, but not his identity or his audience. But someone there told Novak about it. So Novak, apparently feeling bound by no rules, outed Pillar by identifying him as the speaker. It's a trick he uses often—others attend off-the-record meetings or briefings, tell him about it, and he reports not just what was said, but fingers those who spoke as well.

Less than a week before the 2004 election, Novak resuscitated one of his favorite charges—that Democrats steal elections. He hit the note regularly after Mary Landrieu narrowly defeated Woody Jenkins to win Louisiana's open Senate seat in 1996, even though a congressional investigation dismissed similar charges. And he has repeatedly claimed that “the Indians” stole South Dakota's 2002 Senate election “by stuffing ballot boxes.” Novak made the comment again on “The Capital Gang” in October, months after South Dakota's Republican governor had called his charges “ignorant” and the state Republican party chair deemed his statements “appalling” and “insane.” It's a case, his friend and colleague Mark Shields observed to me, of Novak “toeing the party line even when it ceases to be the party line.”

Any one of these recent sins—plugging the books of the publisher that is providing income to one's family without disclosing the connection, repeatedly parroting an incendiary political charge that has proven to be false, or outing a CIA agent—might have been enough to put another journalist or columnist into scalding hot water. But Novak's actions have raised few eyebrows, and he brushes off the occasional complaints like crumbs from his vest.

Billboard Bob

There are many reasons why Novak gets away with these lapses. Foremost is the rather obvious fact that people on both sides of the aisle genuinely value much of the work that he does. Fundamentally, he's more ideologue than party man, not averse to whacking his own side when it suits his conservative predilections. His column exposing Republican attempts to bribe Rep. Nick Smith (R-Mich.) in exchange for a “yes” vote on Medicare reform led to a rebuke of DeLay by the House Ethics Committee. The establishment press corps loves iconoclasts—and it loves Bob Novak.

Novak is also the rare conservative pundit who actually works the phones. The vast majority of right-leaning talking heads and columnists came up either through politics (such as Tony Blankley, Newt Gingrich's former communications director and now editorial-page editor of The Washington Times) or through right-wing think tanks (such as Jonah Goldberg, who began his career at the American Enterprise Institute). As one of the few significant conservatives who launched his career in the newsroom, Novak earns grudging respect even from his liberal colleagues.

He got his start as a cub reporter at the Joliet Herald-News (where he grew up) and the Champaign-Urbana Courier (where he attended college). After stints in Nebraska and Indiana, where he covered politics as a regional reporter for the AP, Novak arrived in Washington at age 26, assigned to the AP's congressional beat. He rose quickly, breaking stories through sheer tenacity, and building what would become an unparalleled network of sources. After less than two years, The Wall Street Journal made him its Senate correspondent, and in 1961, Novak became the paper's chief congressional correspondent. He established such a reputation for his work ethic that when Rowland Evans—then a congressional correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune—was casting about for someone to share the load of a six-day-a-week syndicated column, it didn't take him long to decide that Novak was his man.

So after six years as a national political reporter, Novak became an opinion writer. He was still a reporter, but a certain kind of reporter. He wasn't a Jack Anderson, who trafficked in leaked documents and facts, or a James Reston, who offered in-depth analyses after conversing with the powerful. Novak was—and remains—more of a political Walter Winchell. His currency is opinion, his specialty “people are saying” reportage. Whose nose is out of joint about the arrival of a new White House aide? What do some conservatives at the State Department think about the change in leadership there? Novak's popularity grew throughout the 1960s, as readers learned that they could turn to his column to discover something new.

These fascinating little nuggets could come at a price. On occasion, Novak proved too reliant on sources who dished their side of the story. “The danger in this kind of reporting and this kind of column,” he tells me as we talk, “is that you're a sucker for anything that's new.” This is less an admission than the designated point in the interview for him to display humility and self-awareness. “Do you want to hear about my worst column?” he asks, not pausing for an answer before launching into the tale of a 1972 item in which he reported that Nixon aide Chuck Colson was going to sue Time magazine for libel unless it retracted a story claiming that he was part of Watergate. “He really euchred me there,” says Novak with a grin. “He conned me on it because he didn't sue, but he got this publicity out of it.”

Does that kind of experience fine-tune his radar for dealing with sources? Novak begins to agree and then stops. “That's the problem,” he says. “You get a great story, and you say, 'Boy, this is really interesting and new.' It was so juicy, the president's political advisor is suing Time magazine for seven million dollars.” When I ask about criticism he has received for other columns, Novak just shrugs, having lost interest in this subject. “I don't think we've ever printed anything that really did any damage to someone.”

George McGovern might disagree with that assessment. In 1972, his politics were famously derided as about “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” The description first appeared in a Novak column as an anonymous quote from a Democratic senator, but its veracity was immediately contested and many believe that the quote was fabricated. Novak himself told a reporter from Cox News last year that this was probably when the column was first dubbed “Errors and No Facts.”

Such leaks became a pattern for Novak: Sources came to him to push a partisan agenda, he allowed himself to be the conduit for their leaks, and in return they rewarded him with future scoops and access. It was an irresistible cycle that made him one of the most talked about—and talked to—columnists in town. Former Nixon campaign aide Herbert Porter testified that he leaked to Novak “on plain bond” Democratic presidential campaign memos obtained in the Watergate break-in, while Reagan budget director David Stockman found the fiscally conservative columnist a willing ally in the effort to win supporters for supply-side economics. In his memoir, Stockman wrote that he considered Novak's column his “billboard” while he was in the White House.

"Reckless hyperbole”

By the 1980s, Novak had come to occupy a unique position in Washington. His peculiar status as a conservative reportorial columnist insulated him from any meaningful pressure to improve his standards of accuracy or ethics. Novak likes to trade on his reputation as a reporter to retain credibility as a journalist. But if challenged, he shifts and claims that he is only a columnist, voicing opinions. In 1984, he and Evans were sued by a New York University professor after Novak penned a column arguing that the professor should not be made chair of the University of Maryland's political science department; the U.S. Court of Appeals decided that opinion columnists—as opposed to reporters—had First Amendment rights to use “reckless hyperbole,” as none other than Robert Bork's concurring opinion put it. Furthermore, whereas columnists employed directly by newspapers are at least theoretically under the oversight of an editorial-page editor, Novak's column was syndicated, which means that, where his written work is concerned, he answers to no boss but himself. If a paper objected strongly to his work, they had only one possible course of action: to drop his column.

He soon established a relationship with a television network that would provide him even more free reign. When CNN launched in 1980, Novak's status had swelled to the point that the network considered the columnist a must-have. Ted Turner put Novak on the air the very first weekend to bring attention to the fledgling network. He and Evans were also given their own weekly interview program, which ran until Evans's death in 2001. In 1982, Novak became an original member of “The McLaughlin Group,” a syndicated show hosted by former Jesuit priest John McLaughlin. The show was an instant success, casting political debate as the verbal equivalent of professional wrestling. From the beginning, it was clear that Novak had the knack, reveling in the program's vaudeville-like atmosphere. He also began co-hosting “Crossfire,” where he did one-on-one battle with a series of (usually overmatched) liberal commentators.

Novak clashed frequently with the strong-willed McLaughlin, and their feud led him to leave the show in 1985. “I just couldn't stand being on that show anymore,” he says, “but I enjoyed that format.” So he took Al Hunt and Mark Shields out to breakfast, signed them up for an idea of his own, and went to the brass at CNN. Novak offered to provide the network with its own version of “The McLaughlin Group”—but he would be an executive producer, with ultimate control over topics, guests, panelists, and format. While his over-the-top, leak-driven style would never fit in at The New York Times or Newsweek, cable television rewarded controversy. CNN had launched a revolution in cable news, but it was struggling to compete in the world of political commentary, and network executives jumped at the chance to put one of the country's most prominent—and pugnacious—conservative pundits at the heart of their lineup. Novak did not disappoint: On the Thanksgiving broadcast of his new program, “The Capital Gang,” he complained that his holiday dinner had been ruined by the sight of so many homeless people on television.

All the while, Evans and Novak kept up their juicy, gossipy column—along with their tendency to let sources lead them onto factually and ethically dubious ground. In 1989, they were the first to publicize a rumor about then-Rep. Tom Foley's (D-Wash.) sexuality, referring in their column to “the alleged homosexuality of one Democrat who might move up the succession ladder.” At the time, the Republican National Committee was waging a parallel whispering campaign against Foley, the presumptive Speaker of the House, which relied heavily on phrases like “out of the liberal closet.” Novak's column gave legitimacy to the rumor, and other commentators followed suit with speculation, eventually leading Foley to declare on national television, “I am, of course, not a homosexual.”

But by then, Novak was well-insulated against minor, over-in-a-week scandals. Even the election of Bill Clinton didn't diminish his access. “Bob's sources tend largely to be on the right,” one of his colleagues says, “but he always has olive branches at work with Democrats that he then pretends to criticize.” For example, liberal political consultant Bob Shrum—a Novak friend and source for thirty years—has long provided Novak with scoops from inside the Democratic Party because, this colleague says, “they have a good-natured, locker-room type of relationship where it's okay for Bob to make fun of Shrum on the air.” Novak takes pains to flatter his sources in print, and refers to Shrum in his column as “one of the nation's premier campaign strategists, media designers, and speech writers.”

Novak's bipartisan networking helps explain how he survived what was, until recently, arguably his gravest error. In 1997, he relied on Robert Hanssen—later caught for and convicted of spying for the Soviets—as the primary source for a column accusing Attorney General Janet Reno and the Justice Department of covering up campaign finance scandals. Novak later disclosed the identity of his famous source, explaining his decision to do so on the grounds that the circumstance was “obviously extraordinary.” Writing about his relationship with the spy, Novak admitted that it was possible “he was merely using me to undermine Reno.”

Circle of friends

The election of George W. Bush elevated Novak's power and reputation to their apex. The administration's tightly controlled press shops released so few pieces of information—and so few sources were willing to talk to reporters—that any journalist who could gain significant access to administration officials could be sure of a wide audience. Novak did just that.

On July 6, 2003, a retired American ambassador named Joseph Wilson published an op-ed in The New York Times disputing the administration's claim that Iraq had attempted to purchase concentrated uranium oxide, or “yellowcake,” from Niger—a crucial piece of evidence in the president's case that Iraq represented an urgent threat to U.S. security. Wilson had previously traveled to Niger at the behest of the CIA to investigate the allegations and he reported back that it was highly unlikely that any such sale had taken place. Nonetheless, President Bush's State of the Union address one year later cited the alleged uranium purchase as proof of Iraq's capability to produce “weapons of mass destruction.” Wilson's disclosure, then, was a major embarrassment to the White House—and someone there decided to do something about it.

Several phone conversations later, Novak wrote the following sentences for his syndicated column for July 14: “Wilson never worked for the CIA, but his wife, Valerie Plame, is an agency operative on weapons of mass destruction. Two senior administration officials told me his wife suggested sending Wilson to Niger to investigate the Italian report. The CIA says its counter-proliferation officials selected Wilson and asked his wife to contact him.” This would have been little more than your standard-issue leak but for one small fact: It's a federal crime for a government official (say, Novak's source) to knowingly disclose to the public the name of an undercover CIA agent. And while it was not illegal for Novak to publish Plame's name, it was ethically questionable, according to former Washington Post ombudsman, Geneva Overholser. “He turned whistle-blowing on its head,” she told me. “The point of protecting whistle-blowers is to protect them from recrimination. Novak enabled those in power to bring recrimination on the head of Joseph Wilson, and he did it by outing a covert agent.”

One week after Novak's column appeared, Newsday reported that Plame had indeed been working under cover on weapons-of-mass-destruction issues until outed by Novak. They also broke the news that Novak claimed that his “senior administration sources” came to him with the information about Plame's identity. “I didn't dig it out, it was given to me,” he told Newsday in an interview. “They thought it was significant, they gave me the name and I used it.”

And then, for 10 whole weeks, the story almost completely disappeared—save for the efforts of The Nation's David Corn and various left-of-center bloggers. The establishment media, including Novak's buddies, somehow did not notice that their friend had abetted an act of near-treason in broad daylight. It took the Bush Justice Department, of all places, to put the story of Valerie Plame and Novak back on the airwaves, when it announced on Sept. 29 that it was launching a criminal investigation into who blew Plame's cover. That day, Novak was scheduled to co-host “Crossfire” with Paul Begala, and they had no choice but to focus the show on the leak investigation. Begala managed to ask Novak some reasonably tough questions, but for the most part, it was a surreal half-hour. Swiveling in his chair, Novak went on the attack—“It looks like the ambassador [Wilson] really doesn't know who leaked this to me”—punching back against the challenges of his guest, Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.)—“Do you know whether my source was in the White House? Do you know that at all?”—even though Novak was one of two people on earth who knew for sure the identity of the leaker. Novak also disputed the Newsday account, asserting that “nobody in the Bush administration called me to leak this.”

Two days later, Novak went further, devoting his Wednesday column to the issue and then submitting to an interview with CNN colleague Wolf Blitzer. Novak assailed criticism of the White House leak and his column, telling Blitzer, with no apparent sense of irony that, “this kind of scandal. . . is Washington at its worst.” That Saturday, “The Capital Gang” turned to the subject for the first few minutes of its program, but Novak's only comment was to defend his source as someone who is “not a partisan gun-slinger.” And on Sunday, Novak spoke his last public words about the incident. Appearing on “Meet the Press,” he faced an uncharacteristically timid Tim Russert, who mainly seemed concerned with determining whether Karl Rove was Novak's leaker.

Far from requiring Novak to explain or apologize for his actions, Novak's corporate sponsors have gone out of their way to praise him. During a CNN news segment after the investigation was announced, Blitzer offered a “personal note” about the scandal: “All of us who know Bob Novak know he's one of the best reporters in the business and has been for nearly half a century.” Blitzer's guest—Steve Huntley, who is Novak's editor at his home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times—was likewise effusive, calling the columnist “one of the best reporters in this country.” When I called CNN to ask if Novak's statements to Blitzer and on “Crossfire” were part of an arrangement where he would talk about the case just that once and then never again, the network declined to comment. Similarly, Novak's lawyer James Hamilton chose not to comment when I asked if there was any legal reason Novak could not discuss whether he had ever been contacted by Patrick Fitzgerald. But Floyd Abrams, the attorney and First Amendment expert who is representing Matthew Cooper and Judith Miller in the same Justice Department inquiry, is not so tight-lipped. “Mr. Novak is not under any legal prescription to disclose what his status is with the investigation,” he told me. “Whether he has decided because of some particular—and to us unknown—reason that he shouldn't, it's not because he can't.”

Colleagues like Begala say that they don't question Novak about the Plame case out of personal loyalty. “Look, he's a friend of mine,” Begala said to me. “I know that he can't talk about it. I respect that fact, so I don't bring it up.” But there's another reason they don't ask. Novak won't let them. The topic hasn't come up on “The Capital Gang,” for instance, because, according to one source at CNN, “Bob is the executive producer and he has more say than anybody else…He won't talk about it.” Novak's role at the show means that he gets to determine what subjects do—and, more importantly, do not—get discussed. But couldn't one of the other panelists bring it up, even so? “You have to understand,” said the source, “this is Bob's show. He's the boss.”

Novak is an island

Bob Novak is, he tells me, writing his memoirs. It is unlikely that there will be a citation for “Plame, Valerie.” His set-up is nearly perfect—as a syndicated opinion columnist and executive producer of his own show, Novak can say what he wants without fear of punitive consequences, and he can ignore what he wants, safe in the knowledge that no one of significance will ever press him. He is hardly alone in being used by sources or having dicey conflicts of interest. But unlike journalists Dan Rather and Howell Raines, who provided full explanations and apologies once their errors were revealed—and who faced well-organized mau-mauing campaigns waged by critics on the right—Novak is an island, untouched by criticism. His privileged position would count for nothing if his peers and colleagues held him accountable.

On one special occasion during the past year, Novak made an exception and broke his radio silence on the Plame case. In March, at the ultimate Washington insider event—the annual Gridiron Club dinner—Novak starred in a skit about the Plame leak. Dressed in a top hat and cut-away coat, the columnist hammed it up in front of an audience of his peers, crooning to the tune of “Once I Had a Secret Love.” Novak sang off-key about outing “a girl spy” thanks to “a secret source who lived within the great White House.” And he finished it off with a killer closing line, delivered with a wink and a grin: “Cross the right wing you may try / Bob Novak's coming after you.” The audience howled.

Amy Sullivan is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


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