October 10, 2007

The Ultimate Insider

Russell Baker reviews Robert Novak's autobiography at the New York Review of Books this week. Novak is a character who has always fascinated me as a particular kind of reporter and political animal. Novak has specialised for years in picking up the titbits of Washington conversation, hearing the pebbles roll at the top of the mountain which may cause an avalanche further down. What interests me more than the idea of Novak the reporter, and I admit he is almost certainly a very good one, is Novak the caricature.

His recent biography is entitled Prince of Darkness. Novak has been caricatured ruthlessly by many over the years, for Jon Steward he is a member of the undead for example. He is loathed and hated by people who think that he is darkness personified. He himself talks about himself as a political force, a master of the black arts of politics. According to Baker, Novak in this biography sketches out a role as the Machiavelli of Conservatism, backing his sources with judicious discretion and even more judicious leaking.

And yet in possibly the greatest drama of his career, Novak emerges not as a prince of darkness but as a dupe. He has always been a partisan conservative and there is no doubt that Novak opposes almost all Liberal causes. However he was against the Iraq war, for which the National Review blasted him. In 2003 he was given by Richard Armitage, the under secretary of state, the name of Valerie Plame the CIA agent. Novak published it, having had it confirmed by Karl Rove. He thought it minor. It was not and it blew up into a massive investigation, the results of which led to a White House official Lewis Libby doing jail time for the obstruction of justice.

What emerges from this though isn't that Novak knows what he is doing but that he was used. Possibly he wasn't even used, possibly there was just an administrative cock-up in the Bush administration- indeed quite what connection Armitage a leading sceptic over Iraq had to the neo-cons who are supposed to have engineered Plame's outing has never been explained. But the central issue is that Novak was played for a fool, and its not the first time it has happened either. Presidents Johnson and Nixon fed him with false information at times which he believed to be true and published in his column, sending the press off on wild goose chases. He did it inadvertantly.

The real lesson of Robert Novak's career is that actually, despite his sinister demeanour, nobody can live up to being the Machiavelli of the right or left. You can't hold all the strings in your hands and more often than not we are all groping in the dark, unaware of the wider meaning our actions may have. Robert Novak who was condemned for opposing the Iraq war, may end his career with the reputation of having been part of a conspiracy to support it. The Prince of Darkness may end his career with a very un-Luciferian reputation not for evil but for folly!

A lesson to us all in not assuming our own omnipotence!


Ellee said...

I think you should be a biog writer for the national press, perhaps an obit writer. You are so concise in your autobiographical facts. Has that idea ever occured to you?

Gracchi said...

A friend of mine does it. Thanks for the compliment- I'm currently looking for a job after the PhD- so I'll add that to the list.