Half a century spent as 'The Prince of Darkness'

Robert Novak writes of 50 bruising years on the political beat in Washington, D.C.

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For many Americans under the age of 40, (and particularly those without a weakness for cable-TV news), the name Bob Novak might have seemed quite obscure before the summer of 2003.

That was before the veteran syndicated columnist burst back to the forefront of the political and journalistic world with an infamous column outing CIA undercover operative Valerie Plame Wilson, which recently culminated in the conviction of vice presidential aide Scooter Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Novak's byline has appeared so many times over the years that older readers – like him or not – were unlikely to forget it. But in recent years, he'd become better known as a scowling, almost cartoonishly dark presence on political food-fight TV shows, where he seemed almost a caricature of a right-wing pundit.

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However, in The Prince of Darkness, his restrained new memoir about his half century of reporting from the nation's capital, the man who proudly answers to the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" reveals much of what has made him one of the most polarizing figures in Beltway journalism. It also provides plenty of fodder to satisfy most political and media junkies.

A native of working-class Joliet, Ill., Novak began life as a political centrist, an admirer of John F. Kennedy. He once turned down a job writing editorials for the Wall Street Journal because he didn't think he was conservative enough. But he charts his progressive alienation from mainstream journalism and a related journey to the political right.

There is much of the generational throwback about Novak. A proud cold warrior during most of his career, he was shaped by Whittaker Chambers's memoir "Witness," a book over which he recalls bonding with many fellow conservatives.

A self-described hunt-and-peck typist to this day, he proudly recounts the days of drinking to excess and his onetime four-pack-a-day smoking habit. He even breaks some news about himself, admitting he once had a $1,000-a-day gambling habit. "I suppose I had a gambling problem to accompany my drinking problem," he writes.

As a leading participant in the Washington reporting scene for two generations and a key figure in both the print world and its subsequent migration to TV (he appeared regularly on CNN from its inception in 1980, later jumping to Fox), he's in a position to dish up lots of backstage dirt, and he does.

He recounts meeting then-Nixon aide William Safire in back alleys to receive leaked intelligence files about the Communist ties of antiwar activists and how he once reached into his own pocket to pay for then-CIA Director William Colby's train tickets (for which, he grumbles, he was never reimbursed).

He describes an icy call from Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, unhappy over his use of a detail leaked from her dining room salon. His acid sketch of Jesuit-priest-turned-TV-political-roundtable-maestro John McLaughlin is also a wicked treat.

A man of his generation, Novak mostly recoils from self-reflection. He's so focused on justifying his own actions that there's little room left for other subjects. Plus, his plain-vanilla prose doesn't help carry the story. First trained as a wire-service reporter at the Associated Press, his staccato writing style (he calls it "my matter-of-fact prose") doesn't lend the book much narrative power.

But now, in the twilight of a long career, Novak, a self-described "spoiled only child," does attempt to come to terms with his reputation for controversy. He doesn't apologize so much as he tries to leverage his outsider status into a badge of honor. "I am not a person who is easy for a lot of people to like," he writes. "No stirrer-up of strife is ever very popular."

But give him his due. He's made it through a half-century in one of the toughest and most competitive of all professions. He's survived prostate and lung cancer, as well as spiral meningitis, which abruptly ended his drinking career.

He's braved scorn from the left and partronizing attitudes from the right, where, too often, he admits, he's been treated as a lapdog.

A late-life conversion from nonpracticing Judaism to Catholicism helps provide perspective on what really matters, he writes. And the considerable wealth he's accumulated provides its own cushioning effect.

But most of all, Novak should be celebrated for his brutal honesty. In this book, he reproduces seemingly every negative comment ever said or written about him. And it's not everyone who can look in the mirror and, without a hint of irony, call himself "a right-wing ideologue," as Novak does. Award him points for candor, at least.

John Ettorre is a writer and editor in Cleveland.

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