"The Prince of Darkness"
February 02, 2010, 03:25 AM
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I recently read The Prince of Darkness,the 2007 autobiography of the late Washington reporter and TV commentator Robert D. Novak, who died last August. It`s a quite distinctive memoir that nicely conveys Novak`s love of ferreting out individual facts—it`s a book that will prove useful to future historians of politics and the press in understanding how reporters got scoops and what their incentives were—and his aversion to the kind of Big Picture synthesizing that`s the norm in an autobiography.

It`s the opposite of Dreams from My Father: Novak realizes the reader is mostly interested in accounts of what the big names he met over the years (from JFK through GWB) were really like, and limits himself to giving his side of various historical events he was involved in, such as the Valerie Plame affair, and recounting data about himself that is useful in understanding the media.

Although he dislikes summing up, Novak is candid that getting a scoop (and Novak probably got more Washington scoops, large and small, than anybody) depends upon serving the self-interest of whoever is doing the leaking. (Lead and Gold has more about Novak`s book here.) Still, knowledge is better than ignorance.

For example, Novak reports how much money he made at various points in his life: e.g., when he works for the AP in Omaha in 1954, he made $68 per week. In a characteristic touch that I`ve never seen in any other autobiography, Novak almost always adjusts his income for inflation. That mythological-sounding $68 per week turns out to be the rather more prosaic equivalent of "$512 in 2006 purchasing power."

On the last page, Novak writes:

Memoirists often are explicit in reporting their skimpy salaries in their early years and become reticent when monetary success comes. Breaking that pattern, I will disclose that my adjusted gross income for 2004 reached a high of $1.2 million.
The dyspeptic Novak`s general impressions are few but worth recounting. After leaving sportswriting, the first major politician he ever met as a political reporter, the governor of Nebraska, turned out to be "considerably less impressive than the athletic coaches who up until then had been my most intimate news sources. But so were nearly all the legislators. This first impression of the political class did not change appreciably in a half century of sustained contact. ... I did not find the caliber of politicians in Washington generally any higher than what I had encountered in Indianapolis and Lincoln."

The President who seems to have impressed the conservative journalist the most for general caliber is one he liked little politically: Bill Clinton. Strikingly, Novak`s blunt opinions extended to himself. He recounts sitting next to Clinton for four hours at a Gridiron Club dinner during the Monica Lewinsky year. Clinton deftly talked to Novak about his passion, college basketball, but mostly talked to the guest on his other side, conservative press baron Conrad Black (who later went to jail over his finances), about Black`s interest, FDR. Novak modestly writes:

That night, these two strong, complicated men enjoyed themselves talking about another strong complicated man. Beyond that, I think Clinton and Black liked each other because they both were intelligent, reckless, charismatic risk-takers. I simply was not in their class.