Secrets of a Small Town

Robert Novak’s new memoir of 50 years in journalism, “The Prince of Darkness,” is 638 pages of storytelling and score settling by a Washington institution who paints himself, convincingly, as churlish, brave, resilient, petty and indefatigable. I got it as soon as it came out and found it entertaining and, in spite of the usual pitfalls of such books—a rote “When Clinton came in second in New Hampshire I was not surprised” unspooling of year-by-year events—human, and frank. It’s not a big book, but it tells you, or reminds you of, a few things, and those new to Washington might learn things from it. As in:

Washington in the 1950s was a pretty wonderful place to be. It seems in almost everyone’s memoirs, certainly this one, to have been the last time Washington was fun. It was “shabbier and less pretentious” than today, but it was also an easier place, a more human one, in part, apparently, because everyone in the White House, on the Hill, and in the newspaper bureaus was drunk. (In fact, that would explain the ‘50s, wouldn’t it?) In the Washington young Mr. Novak enters, senators plot over whiskey and cigars; reporters knock back scotches while trading tidbits at the press-club bar; lunches with sources begin with doubles; the Senate majority leader is soused in the lobby, singing to himself. Beehived women chain-smoke with the boys and listen to their tales of woe.

Members of Congress had real accents and actually varied backgrounds. These were the last days when it mattered if you came from California as opposed to North Carolina. It meant you had different experiences growing up, you brought those differences to the Capitol, and they made it richer in human terms.

The ‘50s have gotten a bad rap. For all the decade’s flaws, it was a human time, and freer than ours of a certain Perrier- sipping, blog-surfing, post-workout puritanism. Mr. Novak makes you miss the era even if you never knew it.

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What rules now in Washington is teamism. Not so much fierce partisanship, but a partisanship that is as belligerent as it is meaningless. “I am a Democrat and we’ll do anything to win.” “I am a Republican and we’ll smash the foe.”

In fact, the point is to be a conservative or a liberal or something else; parties are the vehicle by which your views are instituted. But conservatism and liberalism are philosophies. Parties are clubs. They are teams. They are needed, their very existence is clarifying, and they provide the troops without which a movement does not move. But they are not the meaning of the struggle. “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much,” says JFK. That seems in retrospect one of the most important things he ever said.

Robert NovakPolitical reporters don’t ponder why some people do not talk to them. In the book Mr. Novak shows no sign of understanding that people in government and business are often leery of reporters because they have reason to be. Say the wrong thing in a loose moment, and you can lose your job, your income, your standing. You can also wind up indulging a passing mood and hurting people. Mr. Novak belongs to the tough school. When H.R. Haldeman was unsettled by personal bad press, he didn’t invite Mr. Novak to lunch. Mr. Novak says he treated Haldeman “more harshly because he refused any connection with me. He made himself more of a target than he had to be by refusing to be a source.” This is honest, and unlovable.

What is a good source? Mr. Novak says it’s someone who doesn’t lie to him. This marks the first time I ever thought of him as naive, if that’s the word. Mr. Novak surely knows the most experienced leakers don’t have to lie and are careful not to. To say of a source, “He never that I know of lied” is to say, “He did me the favor of not passing on immediately provable lies, which allowed me to accept the information he gave with full credulity.”

Mr. Novak seems to have decided that if you spoke to him off the record or not for attribution, but in the ensuing years had the poor taste to die, your identity can be revealed. He outs Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D., Mo.) as the source of the putdown of George McGovern as standing for acid, amnesty and abortion. He fingers others. Is this fair?

Human nature trumps all. Reporters come to like people who are their sources. They become friends. This is a little like a banker befriending dollar bills. The source gives information that is turned into columns that are turned into a career that is turned into money. But it is not true only that the reporter is using the source. The source is also using the reporter, as Mr. Novak notes: These are “symbiotic relationships.” The source seeks to advance himself, his friends, his agenda, which will produce for him power and profit. In their mutual dependence, sympathies arise. They are concerned, or know to act out concern, when the other meets misfortune. What do they really feel? I thought of Samuel Johnson: He feels the same degree of pain as the cow feels when the mare miscarries.

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Washington is a small town. New York is many small towns, but Washington is one small town. Everyone knows this, but Mr. Novak somehow makes it vivid. The first priest to impress Mr. Novak in his journey to religious conversion made him “comfortable.” Was it the depth of his theology? No. Earlier the priest had been a lawyer on the Hill and “a source for the Evans and Novak column.”

Workaholism is a good way to rise but not a good way to live. Mr. Novak’s book is full of people who work hard. They are in the office, they are working it, they’re in early and stay late. Woody Allen said 90% of life is just showing up, but that is not true, and if it was true of Mr. Allen, it was because he was so gifted. For the rest it’s show up and work. Mr. Novak castigates himself for not taking much note of his children until they were teenagers, and interesting. He suggests that if he had it to do over again, he’d shift emphasis. Reading this, I remembered the great line in the movie “Spanglish.” The merry, fatalistic grandmother says to the young mother: “I lived for myself. You live for your daughter. None of it works!”

Never spin your friends, it adds distance. Rowland Evans was Mr. Novak’s partner in their successful column for 30 years. They complemented each other, Evans the patrician Democrat and Mr. Novak the rougher-edged Republican. But Mr. Novak says Evans, who died in March 2001, misled him about the depth of his friendship with frequent column subject Robert F. Kennedy, and the frequency of their contacts. Mr. Novak found out while researching his book, and from Evans’s own mouth: the oral histories he left behind. Mr. Novak speaks of Evans in the book with a correct, careful and unmistakably cool affection.