BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Bob Novak, you tell a story in your book about Al Gore and the Gridiron Dinner. What was it?
ROBERT NOVAK, COLUMNIST: In the last year of the Clinton presidency, Bill Clinton, the president, decided he would bag the Gridiron Dinner, where the president usually goes to speak. It’s a press – a white-tie press dinner, very fancy.
And he didn’t like it much. It was the second time he didn’t. And taking his place was Al Gore.
I got a phone call just a few days before the dinner, saying – wondered if I’d help in Vice President Gore’s speech. I got a call from my friend, Bob Shrum, who was a media guy for Gore.
And what they wanted me to do was have a phony interview with him, where I would ask all kinds of questions – not with him, but with President Bush – and they would have President Bush saying ”general.”
Now, that was a little piece of tape that they got from an interview that George W. Bush had done earlier with a guy up in – a smart aleck guy – up in Massachusetts, who had asked him, do you know the name of the president of Pakistan, General Musharraf. And poor Bush said, ”General,” and he couldn’t think of his name.
So, they had all of these questions. And the answer to every one of them was ”general.” It made a fool out of Bush.
He asked, if I, as a conservative, would be the fall guy and ask the questions.
And I said, ”Well, what’s in it for me?” And I said, would Vice President Bush (sic) submit to an interview with me on ”Evans and Novak” after it was ”Novak, Hunt and Shields,” I believe, at that time, on CNN? He hadn’t agreed to an interview with me since 1988.
And so, Shrum said, ”Absolutely.”
And I said, ”No.” I said, ”I’ve got to get an assurance from the vice president.”
And so, the vice president called me at my apartment that night and assured me that – he thanked me for doing this stunt, which kind of made me as a patsy – but he would give me the interview.
And checked after – next week. And I checked the week after that and the week after that. He never would give me the interview. And he said he just didn’t want to do it.
So, I thought he was a big phony and a floor-flusher for doing that.
LAMB: Another year at the Gridiron, there was a song called ”Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
NOVAK: It was a song that didn’t get – and I was the president of the Gridiron that year. And there was a very clever song that everybody would have loved, because President Clinton was having all the Monica Lewinsky trouble. And everybody would start roaring the minute they played ”Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
But I killed the song as the president, because I was sitting next to the president for four hours that night. I was the president of the Gridiron Club. And I didn’t want to be embarrassed.
LAMB: What was he like for four hours sitting next to?
NOVAK: Well, to be honest with you, Mr. Lamb, I wasn’t talking to him for four hours. On my other side was the publisher of my newspaper, Lord Black – who is now in a lot of trouble, but that’s another story – and they talked for most of the three hours about Franklin Roosevelt, I believe. Black had written a biography of Roosevelt.
So, the president was down to talking to me for just about an hour. And, you know, I wasn’t tops on his hit parade. It was cordial. And I tried to lead him on in saying that the payroll taxes were too high, and he would look into that and he was interested. But he really wasn’t. Nothing was ever done.
And we talked a little. I’m a basketball fan, and he’s a basketball fan. We talked a little basketball, and made a few other comments, but nothing very exciting.
LAMB: Do you call this a memoir or an autobiography?
NOVAK: It’s a memoir.
LAMB: You also – speaking of Conrad Black, who’s been in trial in Chicago for several weeks – but you also – and he owned the ”Chicago Sun-Times” – you also tell the story about wanting him to jointly go with you at the University of Illinois, your alma mater, to fund a chair.
Explain that one. And what did he do?
NOVAK: Well, I owe a lot – and my family, my grandfather was an immigrant – and I owe a lot to the University of Illinois. My father and his three brothers were graduates, and I’m a graduate of the University of Illinois. And I wanted to fund a chair in western civilization and culture, so that they’d be talking about dead white – studying dead white men in perpetuity.
And I found out it cost $1.25 million to fund a chair. So, I went to Lord Black – he wasn’t Lord Black then, he was just Conrad Black – and said, let’s make this the Chicago Sun-Times, Robert D. Novak chair in western culture and civilization. We’ll each spend $650,000 on it.
And he said, ”That’s a great idea. Send me a letter and we’ll get it done.
I sent the letter, didn’t get any reply. A lot of back and forth. Finally, another guy, who is now in jail – the actual publisher of the ”Sun-Times,” Mr. Radler – they said, this is a Chicago matter. You’ve got to see him.
I went to see him and he says, ”No. Not on your life. We would never do anything like that.” So, I had to pick up the whole tab myself.
It turned out well, because it would have embarrassed the University of Illinois to have a crook funding the chair.
LAMB: You’ve done several things in your memoir that often you don’t see. One of them is, you have told us all throughout this how much money you make.
NOVAK: That’s right.
LAMB: Why did you decide to do that?
NOVAK: Well, people are very interested in it, and I’ve never told anybody. And you will find, if you read it, that I made a lot less money than people thought I made for much of my life. I made very little money when I started off in the newspaper business, and even when I – I wasn’t making much money even when I started the column.
I made a lot more money than I ever thought I would make as a journalist. Probably less than people thought I would make. But I think people are interested in that.
Brian, I think that a lot of journalists write memoirs, and they don’t tell you a thing. Maybe it’s the kind of business we’re in. They’re very secretive.
People who are ballet dancers and poets and artistes tell everything. They tell too much, if you want to know.
So, I tried to hit a happy medium, so I tell something about my personal life, including how much money I made.
LAMB: You tell us that you’re worth in the high single-digit – like, $7 or $8 million.
LAMB: You tell us that, in the last year at CNN, you made $625,000.
NOVAK: From CNN alone.
LAMB: From CNN alone. And you made $1.2 million in …
NOVAK: I make less than that – a lot less than that – now.
LAMB: But what were you doing at CNN that made you $625,000?
NOVAK: I was – at the end I had a – I did various things. In time I was on – I was the co-executive producer of ”Capital Gang,” which was a lot of work. I spent an enormous amount of work on there.
I was a regular on ”Crossfire,” two or three times a week. I had my own program called ”The Novak Zone,” in which I did strange things like jump out of airplanes and drive boats, and things like that.
And then I was a regular on the politics show, the ”Inside Politics” shows, anchored by Judy Woodruff. I was on there once or twice a week.
So, they got their money out of me.
LAMB: How much does a columnist make?
For instance, I know you were with Rowlie Evans for years. But how much were you paid for the column itself?
NOVAK: When I was with Rowlie?
LAMB: When you first started.
NOVAK: When I first started with Rowlie, I was paid $12,000 – wait a minute, $15,000 – $15,000.
LAMB: What year?
NOVAK: That was 1963, which wasn’t a lot of money even then. It was OK, but that …
LAMB: Did you split it with him? Or did …
NOVAK: No. That was what we each got, 15 grand.
LAMB: At the height of the column, when you were making the most money, what kind of money were they paying you for the column?
NOVAK: A hundred thousand dollars.
LAMB: And when would that be? Right now?
LAMB: How is that, do you think, for all the work you – you write how many days a week now?
NOVAK: I write three columns a week. It’s not a high – you can’t get rich being a columnist by itself. And that’s much more than most columnists make.
Columnists don’t make a lot of money. The money is in getting a high salary job in the newspaper business or in television, like you’re in, and things like that.
LAMB: How long have you written a column?
NOVAK: Since 1963, May 15, 1963. It’s the second-longest-running column in America.
LAMB: You have, on page 432 of your book, a story about Tip O’Neill saying he left Congress in 1986. And he wrote a book called ”Man of the House.” And that there’s a story in there about Rowlie, Rowland Evans and you …
NOVAK: And me.
LAMB: … which constituted – I’m quoting – ”the worst lie about us ever committed to print by a public figure.”
NOVAK: In his memoir, he has a lot of things in that memoir about a lot of people that aren’t true, but I’m just going to worry about myself.
He said that, when he became majority leader, before he was speaker, Rowlie and I went to see him and we offered him a deal – he said – that if he would give us news tidbits, we’d pave his way to be speaker of the House, and he kicked us out of his office.
It’s an absolute lie.
We did get to see him when he became majority leader. We congratulated him, hoped we’d be able to see him. But we had a very good relationship after that.
We wrote columns on it. As I go back on them, we were probably too praiseworthy of him. He appeared on a forum that Evans and I put on twice a year, the ”Evans-Novak Political Forum.” He was on television with us.
Every time he’d see me he’d cuff me on the head, which I didn’t care for, but that was a sign of affection.
And so, this was an absolute falsehood. And the reason was that we were doing an interview show for RKO Television, and he got himself in trouble in things he said – nothing we did – on that show. And I think it soured him on us.
But he was known as a liar, and he certainly lied about us.
LAMB: You also do something that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen before. You name tons of your sources.
NOVAK: Yes. I had always thought that, when I wrote – I’ve thought a long time I was going to write a memoir, and that I would divulge all my sources then, as I tripped into retirement. But I’m not going to retire. I’m never going to retire.
So, what I did was, I named dead sources. People who have died, I named. And people I think that really this can’t hurt them, I name them.
I still – I don’t name some of the sources. I don’t – I’m not very really secretive about it. I don’t publicize it. But I tell a lot more sources than you would think.
I try to tell you how I got stories and try to take some of the mystery on how a columnist or a reporter, who gets a lot of the exclusives actually gets the exclusives.
LAMB: You had something change between the time that you wrote the galleys, which we have been able to look at for some time, preparing for the interview, and when the final book comes out.
So, I’m going to start on the source by asking you who Mr. X was. And what’s the story around it?
NOVAK: In 1972, after George McGovern ran, won the Massachusetts primary by a landslide, and it looked like he was going for the nomination, and a lot of Democrats were very concerned.
And I quoted a very liberal senator, without giving his name in the column, as saying that when the working people of the country find out that George McGovern is for legalization of marijuana, amnesty for draft dodgers and for abortion, they would turn sour on him, and it would be a disaster for the Democrats.
And so, that became – Humphrey, Hubert Humphrey was trying to get the nomination from them – and he turned that into he was the AAA candidate – amnesty, abortion and acid.
And the McGovern people said I had made it up. I’ve never made up anything in my life for a column. They said I had made it up and this was a fictitious senator. This came out way after the election.
We tried – Rowlie and I went to this senator, had lunch with him at the Sans Souci restaurant. He said he was running for re-election and the McGovern people would kill him if we revealed his name.
And so, many years later when I’m writing the book, the guy’s long-gone out of politics, I ask if he would let his name be used. And he wrote – I wrote him and he wrote me back and he said, no, it was off the record – even this guy was out of politics, and there was no need for keeping it secret.
So, we referred to him in the galley proof that you had as first Senator X and then Mr. X.
LAMB: And who is he?
NOVAK: He died between the time that the galleys came out and the book came out, and it was Thomas Eagleton – for a short time the running mate of George McGovern – never dreaming, when he called him – when he said those things about McGovern, that he would be McGovern’s choice to be vice president until he was kicked off the ticket, because he hadn’t told him about a disorder, a nervous disorder he had, that had been treated, and had kept that secret. You remember that story.
So, it’s a shocking story and ironic, that the man who used this ”AAA candidate,” which haunted McGovern – and it haunted me – was Tom Eagleton.
LAMB: Why do you feel you can reveal the source now that he’s dead?
NOVAK: Because he was the only person who knew about it. It was something that – I think all bets are off once a source dies.
A lot of sources I do reveal who aren’t dead, but the ones who are dead, I definitely reveal.
LAMB: I wrote a bunch down. I’m going to name them, and then I’m going to read what you say about them.
LAMB: And then you can explain it.
Ken Duberstein. Who was he? You call him a long-time source.
NOVAK: He was a long-time source of mine. He was Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff. He was the former – he was a high-powered lobbyist.
And he revealed himself in another book as a source, as somebody who was a go-between between me and Richard Armitage in the Valerie Plame case.
LAMB: Why would he be willing to do that? I mean, he – what did …
NOVAK: He revealed – I would never have used his name, but his name came out in a book by David Corn and Mike Isikoff.
LAMB: Did you ask him whether you could do this?
NOVAK: No. The book has already appeared. His name has already appeared.
LAMB: The second name on the list is Karl Rove. And then you say, ”never enjoyed such a good source inside the White House.”
NOVAK: That’s true. He was a confirming source on the Valerie Plame story. He revealed himself as having – he quoted himself of what he told me, so that the confidentiality was gone by his own statement.
LAMB: What do we mean when we say ”source”?
NOVAK: A source is somebody who tells you something about news. A reporter relies on sources.
LAMB: How long have you known Karl Rove? How long has he been a source?
NOVAK: Karl Rove has been a source since he was a young fellow as a consultant in Austin, Texas, in the, well, I guess the 1970s.
LAMB: What’s the rule? What are the rules when you have a source? Did you name him in any of these columns?
NOVAK: No. I didn’t name him. But everybody knew he was my source. That was known.
What was not known was that he was a confirming source on the Valerie Plame story. But that information came out through him and his lawyer.
LAMB: Bill Kristol. You write a lot about Bill Kristol. And you say he’s been a super source before, but you’ve had kind of a falling out.
Tell us the background of the Bill Kristol story.
NOVAK: I was very – I thought I was a personal friend of Bill Kristol, and he was a super source. I never would have revealed it.
But he, at the time that – this is a very complicated story, but one of the leading neocons, David Frum, wrote an attack on me in the ”National Review,” listed me and Pat Buchanan and other people as hating America, which is just ridiculous, an assault (ph), because I was not in favor of the intervention in Iraq. I was opposed to the intervention in Iraq.
And he had – Frum had some grievances against me, and he wrote this piece.
And I, just on a – when I heard this was running in the ”National Review,” I just called up Bill Kristol, who was a great neocon, and I asked him what he knew about this. And he said he never heard of the story. I couldn’t believe that he didn’t know about it.
He never called me back, never returned the call – never had another conversation with him. I used to talk to him once a week.
And then later, he was the only conservative journalist I know who attacked me for the CIA leak case, the Valerie Plame case, in which he referred to my action on C-SPAN as reprehensible. And I believe that it had nothing to do with Valerie Plame. But I believe that there was a resentment on my position on Israel and on the U.S. intervention in Iraq.
LAMB: Let’s stop for a moment about the Israel thing.
You’re Jewish, but converted to Catholicism. And what is your position on Israel?
NOVAK: I am for Israel. I’m for the preservation of Israel. But I believe their policy has been dangerous and self-destructive, and I have – my name has appeared in hundreds of columns which have been critical of Israeli policy.
Almost all those columns were written by Rowland Evans, but my name appeared on them. And I was certainly – I supported him since he retired. And, of course, Rowlie has passed away.
I occasionally write on Israel. They still don’t like the column. It’s the same theme.
But I think it is not an anti-Israeli position. I was just in Israel this year talking to journalists and people who share my opinion that they should take a more forthcoming position on a negotiated settlement. So, it’s just a difference in opinion.
But the very – many Jewish-Americans, who are really more aggressive and unrelenting than Israelis, have been critical of me, including some of the neocons. And I’m afraid Bill Kristol – I can’t understand why Mr. Kristol had turned on me, but maybe that’s the reason.
LAMB: When was the last time you saw him or talked to him?
NOVAK: Oh, I see him at receptions and things, and I say hello. But we don’t really converse.
LAMB: I mentioned converting to Catholicism. A source was somewhat responsible for you converting to Catholicism?
NOVAK: Well, the person who first set me down that road – although I believe it was the Holy Spirit who really guided me – was Jeff Bell, who is a supply-sider. He ran for the Senate twice in New Jersey, a strong – he was an aide to Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. A close friend of mine, as well as a source.
And he started to proselytize me for Catholicism. It was a long road after I almost died of spinal meningitis in 1982.
LAMB: I actually was referring to the priest at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.
NOVAK: Oh! Well – oh, the priest. I thought – oh, yes.
That was Monsignor Peter Vaghi. He was really more of a source of Rowlie’s. He was a Republican politician before he became a priest.
And my wife and I, before we became Catholics, we moved downtown and we started walking over to St. Patrick’s Church, and suddenly found our old friend, Peter Vaghi, was one of the priests there and later became the pastor. And he was certainly a major factor in my conversion.
LAMB: You say he worked for Senator Pete Domenici. And then what led to him being a priest?
NOVAK: He became a – he had a late vocation in life. I don’t know that he was ever on the staff of – he was a lawyer in Washington, and I think he was an advisor and a supporter of Senator Domenici. I don’t know if he was ever on the staff. But he was a big – very close to Rowlie and a source of his.
LAMB: What year did you convert?
NOVAK: I converted in – I was – it was 11 years ago. What was – when would that have been?
LAMB: Nineteen ninety-six.
NOVAK: Nineteen ninety-six. Yes.
LAMB: What year did Rowlie die? Rowlie Evans?
NOVAK: Oh boy, what year did he die?
LAMB: I don’t remember, but …
NOVAK: I think he died about – oh, it’s hard to – I’m bad on remembering those years.
LAMB: How long had he been retired from writing the column?
NOVAK: He’d been retired about five years. He retired in – he retired from the column after 30 years. So, that would have – that would have been …
NOVAK: … ’93. I think he died about ’98.
LAMB: The other thing – I’m going to go back to some of these sources in a minute – but the other thing you tell us in the book is about your four cancers.
Why do you tell us that, and what are the four?
NOVAK: Well, I think that – I try to tell my life story in the book. I think some journalists would just tell you some stories they’ve written and not that they’re real human beings.
I think it’s had an impact on me. I had prostate cancer, lung cancer, a cancer on one kidney – and all removed. And I currently have a growth on the other kidney that appears to be a cancer, but it’s not growing. So, we’re doing watchful waiting on it, and we haven’t removed it.
LAMB: You tell the story about the whole business of the cancer – there had been the kidney operation, when you went out to California. How did that happen?
NOVAK: Well, I was …
LAMB: Or the lung. It was the lung, yes.
NOVAK: On the lung cancer. That was my second cancer.
The doctor – a very good doctor at Johns Hopkins, where they had removed my prostate cancer – had a regimen that looked like it wasn’t going to be – it was going to be very painful. It was going to be a long process of taking out for a biopsy and remove most of my lung, and I’d be laid up for a long time.
Bob McCandless (ph), who was a lobbyist in town and a great friend of mine, had represented Transamerica. And one of their doctors was the head of the John Wayne Cancer Institute in Santa Monica, California, one of the great cancer doctors in the world, Dr. Donald Morton.
He said, get this guy. And I called him up and he said, fly right out. He flew out. And he said, I can take this out.
LAMB: You flew out.
NOVAK: I flew out to California. And he said, I can take this out and have you out of the hospital in three days and back in Washington in a week.
LAMB: Didn’t anybody know it here that you’d had that?
NOVAK: I told people, yes. But I didn’t make a fuss about it.
LAMB: And what impact has it had, these cancers, on your work? What are you, 76 years old?
NOVAK: I’m 76.
I think they slow you down considerably, having all these surgeries. I’ve broken both hips, had spinal meningitis. I’m a miracle, I’m alive.
And I think the good Lord had some purpose for me. That makes you think about mortality and what your role is and what your place is.
But I’m amazed that I’ve survived all that.
LAMB: How did you break both hips?
NOVAK: I broke one walking out of a basketball game at the University of Maryland. And the other one, I came out of the shower after the first debate of Bush versus Kerry at the University of Miami in …
LAMB: Two thousand and four.
NOVAK: … 2004.
It wasn’t that I was so upset about Bush doing lousy in the debate, but I was about to catch a plane, trying to finish a column. And careless, like an old man, I slipped and broke the hip.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had anything like this, because you’re a younger fellow, but be careful and don’t slip, because it’s very painful.
LAMB: Back to the source. You name Bill Moyers as the best LBJ source.
NOVAK: Yes, that’s right.
LAMB: He was 25 years old at the time.
NOVAK: That’s right. He was trying to deal with the press, and we were trying to – Rowlie had great sources in the Kennedy White House, because he was very close to Jack Kennedy.
And Kennedy had had Pierre Johnson phone – I mean, Johnson – had Pierre Salinger phone Rowlie and tell him that ”your day is over here. You don’t have any sources. You’re out of there.”
So, Rowlie was trying to rebuild some sources. And we had some success with Bill Moyers. Bill has been very critical of me in years to come. He thinks I moved far to the right, and I think he’s moved far to the left.
Wilbur Mills, a marvelous source. Who was he?
NOVAK: Wilbur Mills was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He had a reputation as the smartest member of Congress.
And he was brilliant and had some very strong ideas on tax policy. He believed in tax cutting, but only in return for cutting tax advantages. And so, he got crossways with John F. Kennedy, who wanted to cut taxes without necessarily taking out the loopholes.
LAMB: You say you never criticize a source in your column.
NOVAK: Try not to. Sometimes you do a little bit. You don’t get total protection by being a source. But that’s the way the world works.
Very few reporters will admit that. That’s one of the – I think that’s one of the unusual things about this book.
LAMB: The biggest scoop ever. Bob Ellsworth, and as you call him in the book, Melvie (ph) Laird.
LAMB: Former secretary of defense. You call him your best congressional source?
LAMB: Melvin Laird.
NOVAK: Melvin Laird, yes. He was wonderful. We’d have a – go up to his little hideaway office in the House of Representatives, and we’d have a – when he was the – he was really the most powerful Republican in the House.
Ford was nominally the leader, but Laird was in charge.
And he’d say, shall we have a shooter? And we’d have a little whiskey before dinner. Everybody drank in those days. And then he’d really tell me what was going on in the House.
But I got a scoop that he was being named secretary of defense, which was a total surprise. Nobody – by Nixon. Because everybody thought that Scoop Jackson, a Democrat, was going to be named secretary of defense, because Nixon wanted one Democrat in the Cabinet.
That was a huge scoop, and it ran in front pages. It was a – we got it on a Sunday night, put it out for Monday morning, and most papers couldn’t get their own story. The ”Washington Post” did. But most papers couldn’t, and so they used our column on page one.
LAMB: Why would Bob Ellsworth – he was a congressman; I don’t know if he was at the time, but a Republican from Kansas – why would he slip this to you?
NOVAK: Well, I asked him. I asked him if I could use his name as the source.
LAMB: For this book.
NOVAK: For this book. And many of the sources I did ask. I asked him, and he said sure.
And I asked him why he gave it to me, and he said, ”I liked you. I wanted to help you out.”
There was no ulterior motive. Didn’t want to kill the thing. He liked it. He thought it was a good nomination, but he was helpful to me.
Reporters have to get people that are fond of them and want to help them out, as well as help themselves out by leaking information.
LAMB: What are the – I think he gave three or four reasons on why somebody would be a source and leak information.
NOVAK: Well, one more thing is to kill the story, because it became public. One is to ingratiate himself with the person, so he gets a good press. One is to do damage to the story, to somebody in the story that’s happening (ph) now (ph).
Or, as in the case of Mr. Ellsworth, just do me a favor.
LAMB: You also tell us about your drinking problem.
I can remember you, a scenario. Around lunchtime you’d have a couple of Cutty Sarks over – and water. And then you’d have wine or beer.
LAMB: And then you’d go home with your wife, Geraldine, and have another couple of Cuttys and wine. And by the time the day was over, maybe as many as eight drinks.
Were you an alcoholic? Or are you?
NOVAK: Well, I was – I really thought that – that was on an easy day, was eight drinks. If I was covering a story or going to a dinner, a political dinner or a political reception, I had a lot more than that.
But I didn’t think I was an alcoholic, because I didn’t drink in the morning. I didn’t ever miss appointments. Never missed a column. I didn’t feel, when I was cut off and couldn’t drink, I didn’t feel bad.
So, I said to myself, I’m not an alcoholic. I had a drinking problem. Whether I was alcoholic or not, I don’t know.
Which, it probably would have caused great trouble for me, except for the fact that, in 1982, I got spinal meningitis and almost died.
And I really couldn’t drink after that. It just wouldn’t go down. I couldn’t drink scotch anymore. I know that. And maybe I always thought, maybe that was the Lord helping me out when I couldn’t help myself out.
LAMB: Do you drink at all now?
NOVAK: I drink a little bit. As I say in the book, sometimes – I found out in more recent years, if I just have a few drinks, it’s a few drinks too many. I fainted a couple of times.
So, I can’t really drink at all now. So, I will have maybe two or three drinks a week, and never more than one in a night.
LAMB: Who is the kid you punched in the face?
NOVAK: At the Republican Convention in San Francisco in 1964, the column was only a year old, and ”Newsweek” was doing a real puff (ph) job on us in the press section as the …
LAMB: You and Rowlie Evans.
NOVAK: … yes – as the hottest reporting team since the Alsop brothers broke up. People out there probably don’t know who the Alsop brothers were, so we won’t even – but they were a hot column team.
And so, they were running this story. And I was covering the platform committee. And this young Republican came up to me who said I had misquoted him, or quoted him when he was supposed to be off the record, and some racist remarks he had made to me at the Young Republicans national convention a few weeks earlier, also in San Francisco.
And he started calling me ”slimy” and other epithets. And so, I was – I had been out drinking the night before. I had a short temper, and so, I socked him. He was a much younger fellow than me. He probably could have wiped up the floor with me. But everybody grabbed us, and so, he never got to hit me back.
And I was – I had told Rowlie about it, so he didn’t get a bad idea. And I said, now, keep it quiet.
So, he went out to dinner that night and regaled everybody with the story at the dinner party. At the dinner party was Herb Caen, the famous columnist with the ”San Francisco Chronicle,” who put it in the column about me punching this guy.
And, of course, ”Newsweek” was doing this article, and they wanted – they said they were going to put it in the story.
And so, I begged Ben Bradley, who was then the bureau chief – ”Newsweek” Washington bureau chief – not to use the stories. I said it was out of character. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.
But he wasn’t having any of it, and he ran the story. And they referred to me as ”I am the greatest,” as a takeoff on Muhammad Ali.
LAMB: Rowlie Evans died in 2001, March 23, 2001.
What was the difference between you two as people?
NOVAK: Well, we were just – the chapter in the book is referred to as the odd couple. And Rowlie was upper class WASP. He grew up with a governess, and he went to a boarding school. And he was in the Georgetown social circuit.
And I came from a Jewish immigrant family and certainly was not – didn’t ever travel in his social circle. So, we were – socially, we came from really quite different worlds.
LAMB: You cite some oral histories that you saw for the first time in 2004, 2006 …
NOVAK: When I was writing the book.
LAMB: … when you were writing the book, of things that you didn’t know about Rowlie Evans, back when you were working together. And part of it was the relationship that he had with the Kennedys.
NOVAK: It was always a relationship with Bobby Kennedy, and things that – meetings he had with Kennedy that I didn’t know about, things that Kennedy had told him, which were relevant to things we were writing about on the column.
But he never told me about it. He told the oral history at the Kennedy Library about it when he was interviewed about it, I believe, in the 1970s.
LAMB: What was your reaction when you saw that he hadn’t told you?
NOVAK: I was surprised. I mean, I was surprised. You know, I loved Rowlie, and he was long gone by then. You can’t get mad at somebody like that.
But I was surprised. But it kind of – it was interesting that he had this very – he had this very close relationship with Bobby.
He told me that he was too close to Bobby. And he’s told that in the oral history, too, but he also told it to me, and that he would never, ever get that close to a politician again.
LAMB: What’s the story about the column, when you wrote something and he was very upset about it and worried that Bobby was going to be mad?
NOVAK: Bobby was on a collision course with Lyndon Johnson. He was a senator by this time, from New York. And he broke with him on the Vietnam War, came out with a call for a coalition government.
And I said to – this went so much against – we were very hawkish on Vietnam. I said to Rowlie, we’ve got to take a hard line on this position. I wrote the column, and he made some changes in it, but it was a very tough column. It was a pretty tough column, on Bobby.
Before it even ran, he told me that he was – he seemed to have had second thoughts about the column for some reason, and suggested that we had to have single bylines in the future. I said that was impossible. And so, he said, well, maybe that’s the end of the column.
What I didn’t know is that all this time he was in communication with Bobby, and talking to him, and upset about it.
Also, I didn’t know that – because the thing blew over, and I didn’t know that Bobby had told him, after the thing ran, that I think his friendship with Rowlie was more important than recriminations. And he told him, don’t worry about it, and the storm in, the crisis in our partnership passed over.
LAMB: You also tell us a lot about the people that you were working with on ”Capital Gang,” and with ”Crossfire,” and with John McLaughlin.
How would you like to express your feelings about John McLaughlin?
NOVAK: Well, I really grew to loathe John McLaughlin. I was present at the creation of ”The McLaughlin Group,” when it was getting started.
The whole idea of ”The McLaughlin Group” was an amazing thing. John had no experience at all in television, very little in journalism. He worked for a Jesuit – he was a movie reviewer for a Jesuit publication. He had been a priest, as you know.
And so, I was there at the beginning. And as John grew, as the fame of the program grew and John grew in hauteur and dominance over everything, our relationship deteriorated. We had a blow-up over really nothing, on the set. He wouldn’t talk to me afterwards.
And I decided I had to leave it, and that’s when I left him after several years and started the ”Capital Gang” with CNN.
LAMB: But you would talk about going to a city where you would all get paid $2,500 to be on a panel. He’d get $10,000.
NOVAK: That’s right.
LAMB: He’d stay at a luxury hotel, and you’d stay at a regular hotel.
NOVAK: Yes. Sometimes he’d get picked up by a limo. We’d get picked up by a van.
Well, Jack Germond, who was one of the originals on the company (ph), he wouldn’t have it anymore, but he wouldn’t go on those road shows anymore. But I didn’t want to – until I finally did break with them, I didn’t want to completely break. And I didn’t – I also, I could use the $2,500.
LAMB: You told about the difficulties between Al Hunt and Mona Charen and others on ”Capital Gang.” What was that about?
NOVAK: Well, after – Pat Buchanan started on ”Capital Gang,” and Pat – there was Pat – the regulars were Pat and me, Mark Shields and Al Hunt. And I had selected them, and everybody got along very well.
When Pat left to become Ronald Reagan’s communications director – I’m sorry, not Ronald Reagan’s communications director. That was a different thing. When he left to run for president, I’m sorry.
When he left to run for president, I decided we had to have some women on the show, and we brought Mona Charen, who is a conservative woman, and there were sparks immediately between her and Al Hunt. And it lasted for about four years, but it was a very unhappy marriage. And she finally was eased out.
LAMB: How would you know there were sparks?
NOVAK: Oh, they were on the air. They never really attacked each other in private, but they really had embarrassing confrontations on the air.
LAMB: So, when people watch that, it’s not always an act.
NOVAK: No, not always, particularly with Mona and Al. And then she was replaced by Kate O’Beirne.
LAMB: But you say in the book that – is Kate O’Beirne your godmother …
NOVAK: Yes, and …
LAMB: … when you were …
NOVAK: … Jeff Bell is my godfather.
LAMB: … you became a Catholic.
But you also say that Kate disappointed you when it came to that ”National Review” article by David Frum.
NOVAK: She didn’t stand up for me, and she didn’t alert me. And she kind of took a neutral view between me and Frum. And I thought he had really slandered me and libeled me as being unpatriotic and hoping that America loses the war.
I mean, that is really a vile thing to say.
LAMB: Do you have any relationship with David Frum today?
LAMB: How do you – with all these different personalities, how do you get along on a day-to-day basis?
NOVAK: You mean, how do I live with myself?
LAMB: No. I don’t mean that at all. I mean, you’re not the only one that has these disagreements in town.
How do you …
NOVAK: Well, that’s …
LAMB: … sift it out?
NOVAK: I think that’s – you know, I don’t want to sound like a holy Joe, but I think having faith is more important than these disagreements. I think trying to do a good job.
I work very hard on the column. I try to – to this very day, I try to write things that people don’t read elsewhere, and dig out information.
And so, but I think these are all part of a life, and a life in Washington that I hope people find interesting, that they may not imagine that this really exists.
LAMB: Why did former Mayor John Lindsay call you the ”Prince of Darkness”?
NOVAK: It wasn’t former Mayor John Lindsay. It was a different John Lindsay.
LAMB: Oh. What, a ”Newsweek” reporter?
LAMB: Why did he …
NOVAK: We were both young reporters covering the Senate. I was for the ”Wall Street Journal.” He was working for the ”Washington Post” then.
And we used to sit late at night, waiting for Wayne Morris to finish his long speeches, so we could – we couldn’t leave the Senate until it was adjourned in those days. And we’d have long talks about philosophy and the course of Western civilization.
And I was very gloomy as a young man about the prospects for the West. And I was not, at that time, belonging to any religious faith, and I was deeply pessimistic. And he referred to me as the ”Prince of Darkness.”
LAMB: What is – define as much as you can your politics today. What do you believe in?
NOVAK: I believe in low taxes, limited government, limited economic – limited power of the government – individual economic freedom, strong national defense, prudent and cautious in world affairs, and internationalist and global in trade and economics.
LAMB: At three places in the book, you insert a name. And I went to Google to find out who it was, and I’m still not clear on it. I do know that he’s a part of an Ezra Pound poem.
NOVAK: De Born.
LAMB: … de Born. Who is he?
NOVAK: He was a nobleman in the Middle Ages. And he really caused hell. And he was a – he burnt castles. He committed mayhem against fellow noblemen, he carried off maidens.
And Dante, in ”The Inferno,” said, in life – because in life he had been a stirrer up of strife, in death he was condemned for eternity to stand at the gates of purgatory with his severed head in his hands.
And Bertran – Ezra Pound was very interested in Bertran de Born, and wrote about him. That’s where I first read about him, and then I looked him up in Dante.
So, I always felt that that was a good model for a journalist, to be a stirrer up of strife. And I hope, as I say at the end of the book, I hope I don’t – and some people hope I do – but I hope I don’t end up in purgatory with my severed head in my arms.
LAMB: What will be the news in this book, when they write about it?
NOVAK: I think the news that the author of the AAA – amnesty, abortion and acid – on George McGovern was his temporary running mate and fellow liberal, Tom Eagleton. I think that is going to be news.
But I think the broader news are the things I write about. I’m very critical of Lyndon Johnson. I’m critical of – I’m very critical of Jimmy Carter, who I had lying to me. I’m very critical of Nixon. I’m critical of Jeane Kirkpatrick.
And so, I think, some of the things I’ve never written in columns come out in the book.
LAMB: You say that Henry Kissinger, John Negroponte and Al Haig were all sources.
NOVAK: They were more Rowlie’s sources than my sources, yes.
LAMB: In what way? And did you know that you were being used? Or did you feel you were being used?
NOVAK: Well, I didn’t – I never got – I don’t think I got – I did have a – I got some contact with John Negroponte. I never got much out of Haig and Kissinger. They were Rowlie’s sources, yes.
LAMB: But you do say that you don’t remember ever criticizing Henry Kissinger in a column.
NOVAK: No, I did. I criticized him a lot. In the book I said I criticized him, but Rowlie never criticized him. So, we had a little tension on that.
But I was highly critical of Henry. But all the criticism in the column of Henry was from me, and not from Rowlie.
These little things were more complicated, because we were a partnership. And we had to kind of bargain these things out on how it would come out in the column.
LAMB: And you said that Bob Haldeman, chief of staff to Richard Nixon, was treated more harshly, because he refused to contact you, he refused to talk with you.
NOVAK: I think so, yes. But probably justifiably so. I think he deserved it.
LAMB: Are you going to get criticized, in your opinion, do you think, by the journalism community for this kind of stuff?
NOVAK: Oh – oh, yes.
LAMB: For admitting all of this?
NOVAK: I think so. I think I am a – see, journalists are not supposed to tell these things and how journalists really function.
LAMB: You talk about your partner on ”Crossfire” from time to time, Tom Braden. You talk about his wife and her relationship with Robert McNamara.
NOVAK: Well, she talked about it.
LAMB: I know she did. But what was the Tom Braden thing? And he was – eventually, what, they let him go when he was 71.
NOVAK: Seventy-one. They let him go without notice. His contract was expiring, and he was out the door.
Television can be very rough. Of course, C-SPAN is, I hope, more beneficent towards employees.
LAMB: But we are in a different business here, and you are in a commercial business at CNN.
NOVAK: That’s it.
LAMB: How did they treat you, do you think, over the years, and when you left after your argument with James Carville?
NOVAK: They fired me after my argument with James Carville. I was on for 25 years, but I was ready to quit. So, I didn’t want to work for them, and they didn’t want me to work for them, so they let me go.
But really, Brian, they had killed all of my programs. I didn’t have any programs left. So, they were looking for a reason to let me go.
The programs I had – ”Crossfire,” ”Capital Gang,” ”Inside Politics” and the ”Novak Zone” – were all cancelled. So, I was just kind of – I was making a lot of money and doing very little. I knew my days were numbered there, whatever happened between me and James Carville.
LAMB: What age were you when you jumped from the airplane? And why did you do it?
NOVAK: I guess was, what, 72, or 73? Something like that. The program on ”Novak Zone” was a little program where I’d interview somebody every week. And we’d try to have odd interviews like athletes or piano players or opera singers.
And I’d do things. I was a Super Numeri in ”La Traviata” at the Washington Opera. And I drove a boat up the Severn River at the Naval Academy.
I wanted to do an interview with the Army parachute jumping team. And they sent back a letter saying that we could do the interview, but why – would Mr. Novak like to jump?
And I was always afraid – I am, essentially, a coward. I’m always afraid that I’m going to be shown up as a coward, so I said, yes, I’ll jump. I was scared to death.
So, I hadn’t told my wife I was going to do it. I hadn’t told my doctor I was going to do it, with all the illnesses I’ve had. But it was quite an experience, never to be repeated.
LAMB: You wrote that David Stockman might have been the best high-level source you’ve ever had.
NOVAK: That’s right.
LAMB: Who was he?
NOVAK: David Stockman was the budget director in the Reagan administration – a brilliant guy. And he was the prince of the supply-side economics. I was a supply-sider.
We used to have – we used to talk constantly on the phone. And we had breakfast at the Hay-Adams every other Saturday.
And the odd Saturdays, he didn’t talk to me; he talked to Bill Greider, who was a left-wing journalist. And he wrote an article for the ”Atlantic Monthly,” quoting David Stockman on the record, just attacking the Reagan administration.
I said in the book it was like, in the middle of the Russian Revolution, Stalin had turned against Marxism. And it was an incredible stab in the back for Reagan, who didn’t fire Stockman. He couldn’t believe it. He believed Stockman hadn’t intended to do it, and he kept him on. He was a disruptive force for the rest of his time there in the White House.
LAMB: Why do you think he would have written in his book that he had the meetings with you, when they didn’t happen? I mean, I remember the …
NOVAK: I don’t know. I guess he’s a liar. Because, for example, he said he had lunch with me and Jack Kemp when he decided to make him budget director. And the three of us never had lunch. I went over my records. Jack Kemp went over his records. We never had lunch together.
I explained how, that I had been told that he was pushed for it. I checked it out and found out he had already been just about picked. I wrote a column on it, but I’m not – I wasn’t in the business of promoting him.
LAMB: I have purposely not talked about the Plame affair for a couple of reasons. One, we can talk about it at a later time. But, two, also, everybody’s going to be asking you about it.
But you wrote two chapters out of 46. Chapter one, you started off ”On Sunday morning, July 6, 2003, I drove from my downtown apartment to the studios in far northwest Washington to appear on NBC’s ’Meet the Press’ for the 236th time.”
What was your approach in here about the Plame affair?
NOVAK: There had been so much written about it that is untrue, that is exaggerated, that is – I just would give my role in it in detail and everything out in the open, not holding anything back. That’s what I did in the first chapter, which I tell what happened that week, and then the aftermath of it in the – what was it, about the 44th chapter of the book.
LAMB: Near the end of the book.
How many years did you work on the book?
NOVAK: It took me three years to write the book and a year to cut the book, because it’s a thick book, as you can see. It’s over 600 pages, but the manuscript was 1,400 pages. So, I took a – I just wrote everything.
And I had never done – this is my sixth book – I had never done that with any other book, written way over in length. But I just wanted to put everything down.
And then, Bill Schulz, former Washington editor of the ”Reader’s Digest” – I had been a roving editor for the ”Reader’s Digest” – he had cut my material for the ”Reader’s Digest,” and he really was the one who cut the book down.
LAMB: Is there another book, then, after this?
NOVAK: I don’t think so. The stuff – it doesn’t really fit together as a book. Somebody might want to try to piece it together, but I’m content with this.
LAMB: You’re from Joliet, Illinois. Where is your wife, Geraldine, from?
NOVAK: She’s from Hillsboro, Texas.
LAMB: How did you meet her?
NOVAK: She was working for Lyndon Johnson, and I was covering the Hill for the ”Wall Street Journal.”
LAMB: You say she hates politics.
NOVAK: She really does. She is a saint. But she had to be a saint to live with me all these years. We were married in 1962.
She really doesn’t like politics at all. She started off as a Democrat, and she’s a registered Republican now.
LAMB: You have two children. One – at least you mentioned in the book – worked for Regnery Publishing.
NOVAK: Still does.
LAMB: Does he …
NOVAK: He’s director of marketing for Regnery.
LAMB: His name …
NOVAK: My son, Alex.
LAMB: … Alex. And the other one, Zelda, worked for you at one point.
NOVAK: And she worked for Quayle. She worked for Vice President Quayle. She worked for Jack Kemp. She worked for Alan Keyes, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle. Then she went to work for me. She worked for me for three years, and then started having babies. She has four children.
LAMB: Who do you want to read this book? And what’s the message here? Because you paint a story of being very connected in Washington for all these years.
NOVAK: I would like to have people who are interested in politics, interested in government, who have watched me on television, maybe have read the column, to show how – what the real Washington is like, what I’m like, what I really think, what moved me, how I moved from a, shall we say, a center-left position to a right-wing position.
The people, I think, that are the market for this book are people who are interested in politics and what’s happening on the inside of politics, and how journalism works.
LAMB: You know, this always works for journalists. You write on page 193 – these words never published until now, and so, I’m going to read them.
They’re from John Sears, who was …
NOVAK: John Sears was a young aide for the Nixon administration. He was later a campaign manager for Ronald Reagan in 1976 and part of 1980.
LAMB: What year did he give you these words?
NOVAK: This was after – this was in 1971, when we were working on a book about Nixon.
LAMB: ”He can be a very tough guy, as long as he doesn’t have to see the other guy. In personal relationships, he has …”
NOVAK: He’s writing about Nixon.
LAMB: Right. Thank you.
”In personal relationships he has a good bit of cowardice, because he can’t do things they can do. He can’t make small talk. He can’t talk and derive a result that’s satisfactory. He doesn’t want to get involved in confrontations with people. He’s supposed to be a hard, tough politician, and he can’t take what another politician is saying about him.
”He’ll sit there and act really strong, hard and tough – he’s not. He’s saying all those things to convince himself – also to convince the people in the room, because that’s part of convincing himself. That’s part of the reason he doesn’t like to see a whole lot of people.”
Why did we just read this for the first time in this book?
NOVAK: He had given it to me for use in the Nixon book that we wrote, that we published, ”Nixon: The Frustration of Power,” which was published in 1971. And it never fit in the book.
And going through all my papers, I thought that that was – we were talking about Nixon – I thought that that was an interesting thing to put in the book.
LAMB: You call yourself ”selfish” and your wife, ”self-sacrificing.”
NOVAK: Yes, that was – that’s been the case for a whole life. I think the specific was that we were on a trip, a reporting trip, in 1964, in South America, and discovered she was pregnant. And really, we all, we should have gone home immediately, but I had all these appointments.
We went to Bolivia and she was really sick. La Paz is the highest capital in the world, 14,000 feet. And she was just miserable, and the doctor said she should get down to sea level immediately.
But I had an appointment with the military dictator, the guy who had just had a coup in Bolivia, for the next morning. I didn’t want to give up the appointment, and she stuck it out with me.
LAMB: There’s so much else. Robert Matsui, a source? A congressman, now dead.
NOVAK: Now dead. He was one of my most secret sources. He was a Democrat, a liberal Democrat from California. And we were on ”Crossfire” and ”Capital Gang,” duking it out, fighting on CNN many times.
Nobody would ever dream he was a source, but he really clued me in on what was happening in the Democrats. And he did it, I believe, just so I got it straight and didn’t get things wrong.
He was a very honest man, a gentle man. I don’t know if you knew him, but he was a lovely human being.
LAMB: And his wife now took his seat in Congress.
NOVAK: In Congress, yes.
LAMB: Six hundred and thirty-eight pages. We’re out of time. One last question.
Are you still a four-pack-a-day smoker?
NOVAK: I quit smoking when I started the column in 1963. And, Mr. Lamb, that’s why I’m alive today.
LAMB: Robert Novak, author of ”The Prince of Darkness.” Thank you very much.