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Veteran Pundit Novak Relishing Role in Scandal

Plugged in to GOP administrations, the columnist likes to make points by making news.

October 01, 2003|Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Columnist Robert Novak is clearly relishing his role at the center of the growing scandal over who in the Bush administration leaked the identity of a CIA operative.

"Smiling like a Cheshire cat," said his liberal friend and sometime sparring partner, MSNBC's Bill Press.

A Washington fixture for more than 40 years, Novak delights in writing not an opinion column but a reported one. While others opine and pontificate, Novak prides himself on breaking news.

Written with Rowland Evans until 1993 and solo after that, the column has been variously described, Novak said on its 40th anniversary in May, as "Red baiter, Arabist, Chinese Communist and U.S. corporate apologist, labor baiter, homophobe, warmonger, isolationist -- and most recently, unpatriotic conservative." The truth, he continued, is that "in every 690-word column, we were reporters."

During the Johnson administration's War on Poverty in the 1960s, Novak and Evans broke the news that Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an undersecretary of Labor, was about to issue a controversial report, "The Negro Family," focusing on the deterioration of the family structure among African Americans.

During the Cold War in the 1970s, the column broke the news that the State Department was promulgating a "no rollbacks" policy of Soviet borders in Eastern bloc countries. "It created enormous problems for Jerry Ford," Novak said in an interview, referring to President Gerald R. Ford. "In my time in Washington, I ended up with everybody hating me, so it's OK."

In July, he wrote a column on an investigation conducted by former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq policy, into allegations that Iraq had tried to purchase uranium in Africa. Novak named Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction and, citing administration sources, said she had played a role in sending Wilson to Africa to investigate the reports.

This time, he said, he simply asked a senior administration official a question: "Why would you send this guy to Africa who was such a sharp critic?" The response -- that Wilson's wife in the CIA's counter-proliferation department suggested the mission -- created a furor.

Novak is a conservative who often annoys conservatives; he opposed the war in Iraq and was critical of congressional Republicans in the 1990s for failing to enact tax cuts. But he is so plugged in to GOP administrations that devoted readers of his column can sometimes divine his sources. It was quipped during the Nixon years that Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird was a marvel -- a talented man who could both run the Pentagon and write Novak's column.

"Novak is an old-fashioned, dogged, shoe-leather columnist with a definite point of view who is well-wired, particularly in this administration," said Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media writer. "After four decades as a Beltway operator, he often provides clues to what top Republicans are thinking in a way that makes him hard to ignore."

Novak also takes pride in the nickname -- "Prince of Darkness" -- by which he is known around town. "I think he gave it to himself," said Washington Post columnist David Broder, stating a view shared by many. "He created this wonderful persona as a bogyman." But Novak has said in published interviews that the moniker was given to him by a former colleague at the Wall Street Journal for his pessimistic prospects on the future of Western civilization.

However he acquired his sobriquet, his reputation as a tough, take-no-prisoners competitor has only increased his notoriety, at least in that odd nexus of journalism and commentary where columns reside. With a staff of three (an office manager, a researcher and a reporter), he writes three columns a week, produces CNN's "Capital Gang," appears regularly on CNN's "Crossfire" and "Inside Politics" and gives between 30 and 50 speeches a year. His columns, written for the Chicago Sun-Times, are distributed to more than 150 papers, according to Creators Syndicate.

"You've got to know Bob's history," Broder said. "For 40 years, he's been the hardest-working political reporter on the beat."

Not everyone is enamored of Novak's work. For years the Evans & Novak column was widely derided as "Errors & No Facts." Critics assailed Novak for making assertions for effect and hiding behind the defense that he "got it from sources" even after a claim had been proved incorrect.

But few dispute his tenacity. "You remember in the movie 'Jaws' when somebody describes the shark as the perfect eating machine? I've always regarded Bob Novak as the perfect journalist machine," said Morton Kondracke, executive editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. "He eats, sleeps, breathes information. He never stops gathering stuff. He's a dynamo."

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