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Robert Novak: The Prince of Darkness, Part 1

MR. WATTENBERG: John Mcgaughlin

MR. NOVAK: He may not be pure evil but he’s close to it.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you think of Larry King?

MR. NOVAK: He’s not an educated person and he’s done very well hasn’t he?

MR. WATTENBERG: Bill Clinton

MR. NOVAK: you never want to spend much time with Bill Clinton.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hillary Clinton

MR. NOVAK: A very unlikeable person. I think you have to be likeable to be in politics Ben that’s why you’ve never gone into politics.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello I’m Ben Wattenberg. In Washington journalistic circles Bob Novak is known as the Prince of Darkness and that is the title of his forthcoming memoir. He tells stories, explains his changing views and offers some harsh judgments. Bob Novak: 50 years in the political cauldron, this week on Think Tank.

MR. WATTENBERG: Robert Novak, old friend, very old in a lot of ways. Legendary prince of darkness in the Washington journalistic power—power centers. Author of a new book called Prince of Darkness, subtitle.

MR. NOVAK: Fifty years reporting in Washington. It’s a memoir.

MR. WATTENBERG: It is a memoir. Your politics—let me see how artfully I can phrase this—were not always what they are now.

MR. NOVAK: No. In 1960 and 1964 I voted for Kennedy in ’60 and Johnson in ’64. I was still a registered Republican but I voted for them. I think I was so—I really like the Demo—I liked the Kennedy Democrats and the—I didn’t like Johnson much but I loved Kennedy, and I liked the Muskie…

MR. WATTENBERG: Didn’t your wife work for Lyndon Johnson?

MR. NOVAK: She was—she was one of his secretaries. But Johnson gave a wedding reception for Geraldine and me.

MR. WATTENBERG: Which I understand you did not want to attend at first.

MR. NOVAK: I didn’t want to, yes. He said he would have it if we—even if I didn’t come. So I thought I’d come, avoid a scandal.

MR. WATTENBERG: You didn’t want to attend not because you didn’t like him but because you thought it might be journalistically improper.

MR. NOVAK: That’s correct.

MR. WATTENBERG: So what takes you from being a moderate Eisenhower Republican toward being a…

MR. NOVAK: Right-wing extremist?

MR. WATTENBERG: I didn’t say that. You want to categorize your—I mean there are people who call you that word. It’s their red Christmas vest. And you know but…

BB: Well, I had been moving on many issues to the right. I was always a—I read—when I was in the Army I read “Witness” by Whitaker Chambers which had a great impact on me. So I thought the struggle against Communism really, really struck me. Then…

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, but there were Democrats like the man I admire most in politics like Scoop Jackson who were pretty tough on Communism. I mean…

MR. NOVAK: Very tough.

MR. WATTENBERG: Very tough which would more likely have been coherent with your earlier modern moderate Republicanism.

MR. NOVAK: My—my only—my only measurement in my early years and when I personally voted for somebody was how they were in the fight against Comm—that’s why I voted for Kennedy against Nixon. I thought Nixon was weak, and I think I was right. But—but I—as time went on I became more disaffected with the government. Thought it was inefficient, thought it was ineffective, became more interested in individual economic freedom.

I became very much of a convert to supply side economics. The second book that had the great effect on me was The Way the World Works by Jude Wonisky (ph.) which is a primer of supply side economics.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me ask you something. There is this belief that if you’re a supply side adherent you are against government. Now, let’s just go one by one. Are you against Social Security?

MR. NOVAK: Yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: You’re against Social Security?

MR. NOVAK: Oh, I think it’s a bad system as it’s constituted.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, let me re-phrase it. Are you in favor of some mandatory retirement program so you don’t have skinny, scrawny people littering the streets?

MR. NOVAK: I’d like to—I’ve had more—I would like to have a more voluntary program.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah but then what do you do with the people who do not take advantage of it? Then you have to help them as charity cases. We’re not gonna leave you starving.

MR. NOVAK: I think—I think I have a great deal of trust in Americans if we had a real voluntary program. I think we’d get a lot of people to opt into it. It’d be a great—great responsibility for people. I think it’s a really bad system the way it is now.

MR. WATTENBERG: What do you think about something like Medicaid or Medicare?

MR. NOVAK: Terrible systems. Well Medicaid is for poor people. It’s a relief program.

MR. WATTENBERG: Are you’re in favor of that?

MR. NOVAK: You gotta take care of poor people. But I think Medicare is a horrible program. It’s gonna bankrupt the whole federal government. Something’s gotta be done with it. It’s a much more bigger—it’s a much bigger problem than Social Security. Very bad program.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, it’s a very bad program except a lot of people who would have died otherwise are alive living healthy lives and the same is true of Social Security.

MR. NOVAK: We all die in the end, Ben.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well yeah, but are you gonna die at sixty or are you gonna die at eighty-five? I mean let’s not be too cavalier about this.

MR. NOVAK: I think—I was against the program when it was up in the Congress, and I thought Wilbur Mills and Bob Kerr were quite—Democrats were quite correct in saying that is was—it was a journey down an avenue toward bankruptcy and hasn’t been fixed yet.

MR. WATTENBERG: Look…

MR. NOVAK: Name some more programs.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I will name a hundred of them. Are you against environmental protection?

MR. NOVAK: I think we’ve gone much too far on environmental…

MR. WATTENBERG: That was not the question, Bob. The question was not whether we’ve gone too far.

MR. NOVAK: I’m against the present system, the Environment Protection Administration, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: You still did not—were not responsive to my question. Are you against environmental protection? Should we have laws to prevent dirty air, dirty water?

MR. NOVAK: Not the present laws. That’s as good as you’re gonna get.

MR. WATTENBERG: Are you of the opinion that you answered my question?

MR. NOVAK: Yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are, okay. What do you think—I’ll give you a softball—what do you think about the so-called death tax, the estate tax?

MR. NOVAK: It’s the worst tax ever, ever conceived. I think it was conceived by who, Ben? One of my least favorite Republicans.

MR. WATTENBERG: Who?

MR. NOVAK: Theodore Roosevelt. Did you know he was the author of the death tax?

MR. WATTENBERG: I did not know that.

MR. NOVAK: Absol—he was the author of the death tax, he was the author of the anti-trust laws, he was the author of the FBI—all things I dislike.

MR. WATTENBERG: You were against the death tax I assume because it double—double taxes people.

MR. NOVAK: Absolutely. There shouldn’t be a death tax.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now, I have a little pet idea about that which is this. Somebody dies who is worth ten million dollars. As it stands now his entire estate gets taxed 52%. That’s over a sliding scale.

MR. NOVAK: It’s all been taxed before.

MR. WATTENBERG: I understand, and then his heirs split up that 52%. Now wouldn’t it be more logical in a system that has progressive taxation that if he has five children and one of them is a millionaire and one of them is in poverty that they ought to pay the taxes on a progressive system. In other words a millionaire might pay 50%, the kid in poverty might pay 10%.

MR. WATTENBERG: See in your question Ben, you put a little hooker on. You used a word progressive system. You know who was the inventor of the progressive income tax? It wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt.

MR. WATTENBERG: It wasn’t Hitler either.

MR. NOVAK: It was Karl Marx.

MR. WATTENBERG: Listen Karl Marx might have said tomorrow is Tuesday. That doesn’t mean tomorrow is Wednesday. I mean you know…I…look, are you against progressive taxation?

MR. NOVAK: Absolutely.

MR. WATTENBERG: In other words it ought to be one rate for a millionaire and a poor school teacher?

MR. NOVAK: I don’t believe in the distribution of income. I believe—I believe that the soundest tax would be a national sales tax, and to try to—politically I know how bad that is. Politically there’s a lot of ways you can ameliorate that. You can have a refund for every tax payer. Say you get four thousand dollars a person back and—to ease the pain. But really that would—it would be less intrusive. Ben Wattenberg would have more freedom. He would waste so much more money.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you feel yourself as living in an un-free society?

MR. NOVAK: Not as free as I’d like it. Surely Ben you’re not in favor of the federal income tax system which asks you personal questions and goes into your—into your life.

MR. WATTENBERG: I am not in favor of the federal income tax system, but I am in favor of a federal income tax because I believe that the things we’ve done—aid to education, aid to environment, Social Security, Medicaid, environmental protection, each of them is flawed and in some cases grievously flawed. But you cannot conduct a modern society without some form of a safety net.

MR. NOVAK: I’m not so keen about modern society, so that may be one of the differences between us. The reason, Ben, that we’re ahead of your friends in Europe—the French and the Germans and the EU—is because we have a economic system which is less intrusive and if there was even—even if there was more freedom than there is now we’d even be further ahead.

MR. WATTENBERG: You wrote a column recently where are the good ole days? Everybody used to be collegial and nice and now it’s so….

MR. NOVAK: I don’t think I used the word collegial.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, you pick your…

MR. NOVAK: Courteous, I used the word.

MR. WATTENBERG: Courteous. Yeah, I mean this is a republic where early on the sitting vice president assassinated the Secretary of Treasury. It was not exactly a sweet…

MR. NOVAK: former Secretary of Treasury.

MR. WATTENBERG: The form—pardon me. The former Secretary of Treasury. This is not exactly a republic that has been always well mannered and there’s nothing in the Constitution that I could find that says serving in Congress has to be fun.

MR. NOVAK: Sam—Sam Houston shot a member of the—the opposing political party on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of Blair House.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. So…

MR. NOVAK: It was very rough.

MR. WATTENBERG: So, it was sort of a bitter column that boy back in the good old days everybody had fun and now it’s just so nasty. You sort of made somewhat of a career of being tough on some of these things. Do you have something against the idea of a vigorous competition of ideas?

MR. NOVAK: I like a vigorous competition of ideas. I did feel that as I said in that column because on the occasion of my 50th anniversary in Washington that this was a pause in the country during the Eisenhower times. I think you will agree that this was a time of less combat where this was before the assassinations and the racial riots and the 60’s generation. It was before Vietnam. It was before—we had just cleaned up the Korean War. It was kind of a pause. It was a time when President Eisenhower was I believe a conciliatory person. There was some failings in that, I agree. As I said in that column we had three recessions in that period because the tax rates were too high.

MR. WATTENBERG: You know Bob, I mean your friend and my friend, Pat Moynihan used to show a chart. Going back sixty—fifty/sixty years ago. The swings in the GNP, the recessions used to look like that. These recessions now ever since World War II they have things called growth recessions. The line goes like that on an ascending track.

These are not the kinds of catastrophic crashes that we—I mean after 1939 or 1940 we have not had a major recession in this country by any historical standard.

MR. NOVAK: That’s true, and I don’t think the government is entirely responsible for that. But it is also true that in the Eisenhower administration—I voted for Eisenhower twice—that we had three recessions, the third one a very severe recessions, much worse. And the reason we had recessions is that Eisenhower came in with a 91% top marginal tax rate because of the Kor—finance the Korean War, and really never got rid of it. It wasn’t until President Kennedy came in and proposed his across the board tax cut and then he couldn’t get it passed, but when he was assassinated President Johnson got it passed that the economy really started to hum. The only president I really give high grades to is Ronald Reagan, and I thought—I thought Ronald Reagan was somebody who—who saw the big picture. He wasn’t worried about micro-managing. I think the people who are workaholics were very dangerous. I think LBJ, Nixon and Carter damn near wrecked the country.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well look, I mean, there was a lot I liked about Ronald Reagan I must say. I voted for him the second time.

MR. NOVAK: Did you really?

MR. WATTENBERG: But he was not a small government president. He had a—he was a bleeding heart conservative. He did not cut budgets, he did not cut programs, he did not cut those things purposely because he felt that—I mean is there a program he cut with all that rhetoric?

MR. NOVAK: I think he wanted to cut programs. I don’t think he could. One thing he could…

MR. WATTENBERG: You are not responding—Bob, you are not responding to my question. Is there a program that you can name that he cut?

MR. NOVAK: No. He did—he did—yes he did. The first year they had the Graham-Lina (ph.) bill where they cut a lot of programs, not a lot.

MR. WATTENBERG: If you could name one I’d sure like to…

MR. NOVAK: They cut all the programs. It was across the board.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, they were incremental cuts of 2% or 1%, but they would—they didn’t abolish—there were a lot of programs that could be cut in this country, there’s no doubt about it.

MR. NOVAK: The two things he did was he cut taxes. Indisputable he cut taxes. Cut tax rates that is. Secondly he won the Cold War. I thought—I thought he was—I thought he was brilliant in saying no to Gorbachov at Rjekiovik. So I was the—was he perfect? He sure wasn’t. I don’t believe in perfection in men, but he was so much better than all the other presidents. I really thought that Nixon was a desperately—I thought he was the worst president.

MR. WATTENBERG: Reagan had—was a forward-thinking person on the extension and promotion and promulgation of liberal view—of Democratic views and values around the world.

MR. NOVAK: No. I don’t believe he was interested in that in the slightest. I think he was interested in winning the Cold War and protecting the American homeland and national security and of course you can’t say we want—we want the Soviet Union to fail. Said we wanted it to be Democratic but what he wanted to do is he wanted the Soviet Union to fail.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob, every speech he gave—the national—thing in London, the thing in Moscow. the funding of the National Endowment of Democracy. The guy had a vision of liberty and freedom not only in the United States but around the world. That was his coda.

MR. NOVAK: I think his vision was to protect the United States.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, that’s number one. We can—we’re not gonna argue about that.

MR. NOVAK: Number one, but it’s—I can’t ima—I think when he found for example that he had made a mistake on getting involved in Lebanon he got out of there. He got out of these fast.

MR. WATTENBERG: I don’t have a problem with that. You have to acknowledge that is one of the hallmarks of neo-conservatism. If you made a mistake in government get out of it. That’s the whole…

MR. WATTENBERG: That’s a hallmark of neo-conservatism?

MR. NOVAK: Absolutely. The understanding that you have to examine every government action. Did it work, did it not work? And whether you’re liberal or conservative if it didn’t work dump it. That’s what Pat Moynihan and Marty Lipset and those guys did.

MR. WATTENBERG: It’s funny. I thought the neo-conservatives decided that it doesn’t matter. We’re gonna stay in Iraq until the last dog has died.

MR. NOVAK: Some of them have. Some of them happened—some of them haven’t. Now it’s your belief that we’ve lost in Iraq?

MR. NOVAK: We never should have gone in there in the first place.

MR. WATTENBERG: You are like a politician. I’m asking you a question. Have—is it your belief that we have lost in Iraq?

MR. NOVAK: I don’t think it’s a war that you’ll win or you’ll loose. It’s the—it’s the id…

MR. WATTENBERG: Might we prevail?

MR. NOVAK: If prevailing is to get the Iraqi people to act like people in Iowa or even New Jersey we have lost.

MR. WATTENBERG: No but Bob, please.

MR. NOVAK: What’s the definition of win or lose?

MR. WATTENBERG: I will tell you. They have an elected president. They have a constitution. They have a legislature. They have a supreme court. A poll taken by Madeline Albright, not pro-Bush, showed that 80% of the Iraqi people want a secular democracy.

MR. NOVAK: Then we’ve won. Let’s—let’s—say okay, let’s get out.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, but…

MR. NOVAK: It’s their country.

MR. WATTENBERG: On a schedule or I mean you served in the Army. Would you tell your enemies saying we’re leaving on May 31st?

MR. NOVAK: I don’t—I don’t believe that it’s our duty to protect—to protect and to try to bring some peace to people who’ve been slaughtering each other for millennia. You know the Shias and Sunnis were fighting each other before the Crusades. You know that, you’re a scholar.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, I know also that the Catholics and Protestants were slaughtering each other for five or six hundred years and right now—are you saying that we make no progress in this world. That things are the same as they have always been?

MR. NOVAK: What I am saying is that the idea, the two worst traits in America are the traits of Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Woodrow Wilson spread democracy around the world. We can’t… That’s a bridge too far, and the worst trait is Theodore Roosevelt, the muscular imperialism in him, to show the American flag all over the county to save our little brown brothers around the world. That was ill fated.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let’s do that one at a time. Forget Woodrow Wilson as a personality. What we have seen in the last forty years in this world is—it used to be that ten or fifteen percent of the people in the world were living under democracies. It’s now something like 60% to 65%. Very good data by Freedom House. This is not hocus pocus. One of the neo-con beliefs, and it’s the belief of any serious student of foreign policy, is that democracies do not go to war with one another. It’s when you have Muslim theocracies, when you have Marxist totalitarian states that’s when you get wars. So promoting and fostering democracy is not just being Mr. Good guy. It is promoting peace and stability around the world.

MR. NOVAK: I don’t believe that the use of American treasure, blood, to foster democracy on people where it is very difficult to plan…

MR. WATTENBERG: Did you say foster or force?

MR. NOVAK: Foster. I don’t believe is an effective means. You know we have—we have—on the surface we have more democracy for example in South America today than we did at the time when John Kennedy took office for example. But do we really? Is Chavez a democratic regime? He’s elected, but is it more democratic than the—than the generals who ruled them as well?

MR. WATTENBERG: There are thirty nations in South America roughly, and you’re picking one of them?

MR. NOVAK: No, there’s more.

MR. WATTENBERG: I mean…

MR. NOVAK: We’re in terrible shape in South America, and yet on a basis of your simple-minded approach that a democracy is good and the other people are bad. For example…

MR. WATTENBERG: Listen. I am saying that most people would, given a choice, would like to be free, and it is in our interest not only as moral human beings. Look, your friend and mine, Pat Moynihan, said we are the leader of the liberty party around the world, and he as much as anyone articulated these views and values. It seems to me such a no-brainer to say that we’re—when people look back at this country and this time fifty years from now or a hundred years from now what did they do? They helped establish democracy and freedom and liberty around the world and that is a goal that Ronald Reagan would have supported 100%.

MR. NOVAK: We have—we had a democratic election in—among the Palestinians. It didn’t work out very well, did it Ben.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yet.

MR. NOVAK: The bad guys won.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yet, yet. Listen, bad guys win elections.

MR. NOVAK: That’s right. So it’s not a cure all. We have—the thing that is saving us in the Middle East is the non-elections. If we had elections in Egypt, if we had elections in Saudi Arabia, goodness knows there’d be—people would be tremendously anti—I say thank goodness for the royal family in Saudi Arabia. Things would be much worse if we had a democratic regime there.

MR. WATTENBERG: If I were still writing a column and I wrote a column about this conversation and somebody put a headline on it and said Novak dislikes democracy would that be fair?

MR. NOVAK: No. I say…I say…

MR. WATTENBERG: That’s the way—if I were the headline runner that’s what I’d put on the column.

MR. NOVAK: I’d say we should not try to impose our views all over the world.

MR. WATTENBERG: Did I ever mention impose?

MR. NOVAK: Well, you implicated.

MR. WATTENBERG: I said promote. I said promote.

MR. NOVAK: I think we ought to take care of ourselves, and I really do believe that the—one of the great mistakes we made in my whole life was the intervention in Iraq which you were for. You were for it 100%.

MR. WATTENBERG: 80% of the Congress was for it.

MR. NOVAK: My goodness what kind of a criteria is that? I will say this for President George W. Bush. He has really tried to get the American people behind this Iraq war. But civilized countries, Ben, don’t like wars with good reason, and they don’t—what they really don’t like is they don’t like wars that don’t seem to have any outcome, that they don’t have an end game, that we’re going to finish. They didn’t—that’s why your friend Harry Truman had a 20% approval rating at the end of his term because he couldn’t finish the Korean War. That’s why Lyndon Johnson was so popular—unpopular.

MR. WATTENBERG: Just hold on a minute. Harry Truman finished with 30% popularity rating. Now fifty years after his death he is great—he is rated as one of the five or ten greatest presidents.

MR. NOVAK: Not by me. I thought he was a mediocre president.

MR. WATTENBERG: Listen. He stopped Communism. He integrated the armed forces. He set up a—the beginnings of a reasonable social safety net. He was honest. I mean—and he fought Communism in Korea when there was a frontal invasion. Bob.

MR. NOVAK: I thought his management of the Korean War was disgraceful and particularly after the Chinese came in when he—I was in the Army then, and he wouldn’t let—he would not—he’s afraid of any kind of trying to win that war, to try to do anything. We were just getting bled on the thirty-eighth parallel with the troops. I don’t want to re-fight the Korean War, but I thought he was a mediocre president.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob, stop for a minute. Robert Novak the legendary or near legendary journalist called the prince of darkness whose new book will be out in july. Thank you for joining us old friend, and Thank you. Please send us your comments via email, we think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.


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