Love him or hate him, conservative journalist Robert Novak has been one of the most influential Washington journalists of the past half century. His column has run in the capital's hometown paper, The Washington Post, since 1963 and his sometimes scowling visage is frequently seen on cable TV.
A self-described "stirrer up of strife" in his new autobiography, "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington," Mr. Novak didn't disappoint as the speaker at Thursday's Monitor breakfast.
Would the White House change hands in 2008?
"Only the Democrats could screw up what looks like a golden chance by nominating a candidate who is not very likeable," he replied. "And they can do it. "
Would history look more kindly on George W. Bush's presidency than current polls indicate?
"I'd say it is impossible to turn him into a sympathetic, effective president after he is dead. But he is going to live a long time. When I am gone ... they will go to the National Cathedral and people will tell lies about [the Bush presidency]," he said.
Novak's naming of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson in a July 2003 column led to a special prosecutor's investigation and the trial and conviction of vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. President Bush later commuted Mr. Libby's prison sentence.
Novak was roundly criticized in the media for surfacing Ms. Plame's name. In his book, he reports spending more than $160,000 in legal fees during the controversy. Asked now about the experience, Novak admits to being "very disappointed in my colleagues." He argues that a lot of people were "jumping to conclusions that were not justified as to my role in the Valerie Plame case. But on the other hand, I was delighted my home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, was very supportive of me. The Washington Post was extraordinarily supportive. Ultimately, in their editorials, [they] vindicated my position, but that was down the line. Right from the start, they continued to run my column, which is the greatest compliment you can pay."
At the breakfast session, reporters asked about Novak's decision to reveal in his new book the identity of some sources who wanted their names kept private. His response: "I blow a lot of sources, guys who aren't in politics anymore. If they don't like [it], I am sorry, fellows."
In one key case, a source who asked for continued confidentiality had died. Before he was selected as George McGovern's running mate in 1972, the late US Sen. Tom Eagleton of Missouri told Novak confidentially that "people don't know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot." The column gave rise to the shorthand that McGovern was the "Triple A" candidate favoring "amnesty, abortion, and acid."
Novak argues that he kept the secret "for over 30 years" and that if Eagleton objects, he will "have to settle with me" in the afterlife.
In 1998, Novak converted from Judaism to Catholicism. When asked at the breakfast if growing income inequality in the US offended his sense of Christianity, Novak answered, "Not a bit. One of things that has never bothered me is inequality in income. I think that is a sign of economic strength. A lot of people try to even out income inequality and they ruin their economy...."
But "I try to be a Christian. I try to use what little savings I have to contribute to causes both connected with the church and not connected with the church.... I could become a Catholic on one evening with a baptism and a confirmation, but it takes a lot of living to be a Christian."
Novak is not the first reporter to be a Monitor breakfast speaker. Others include campaign historian Theodore White, Jerry terHorst, press secretary to President Ford, and breakfast founder and Monitor columnist Godfrey Sperling.