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Robert Novak: The Prince of Darkness, Part 2

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. 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. Let us start as we normally do on Think Tank. Tell us something about your background I guess beginning with your birth, where it was, the forces that sh—shaped you.

MR. NOVAK: I was born in Joliet, Illinois.

MR. WATTENBERG: Famous river town.

MR. NOVAK: Famous river town. My father was a chemical engineer, and he was son of Jewish immigrants who—my father —his father was a veteran of the Russian Imperial Army and came to the United States, got a job on the production line at the John Deere factory in Moline, Illinois, and my father was privileged to go to the University of Illinois and become a chemical engineer. My father was the only Republican on either side of the family.

MR. WATTENBERG: I met him once at your house. Lovely man.

MR. NOVAK: He was a public utilities executive, and my first recollection of politics was my father was an ardent supporter of Wendell Wilkey (ph.) who was a public utilities tycoon in 1940 and Wilkey was my father’s type of Republican.

MR. WATTENBERG: They called him the barefoot boy from Wall Street, right?

MR. NOVAK: My father was a liberal Republican. Disliked Roosevelt intensely. But didn’t like the Chicago Tribune type of conservatives. Didn’t like the eastern liberal Republicans like Tom Dewey. Wendell Wilkey was just this—Harold Staser (ph.) and Wendell Wilkey were his kind of guys.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about your mom?

MR. NOVAK: My mother was a—my mother had one year of junior college which was very unusual for a woman at that time, and she was a private secretary. She was—whatever my father thought politically she was—she went along with.

MR. WATTENBERG: Was she Jewish?

MR. NOVAK: She was Jewish too.

MR. WATTENBERG: Now it’s interesting in terms of your Jewish background. You and that lovely man with whom you wrote a column for so many years with Roland Evans, were friendly with many of the Israeli diplomats but took a line that drove them crazy I mean to put it mildly. What was the essence of your approach to that? I mean I’m sort of a big pro-Israeli, pro-Zionist kind of guy. Have been since I’ve been that high. What was the essence of your disagreement with the American pro-Israeli stance? Forget nuts like me as a Zionist. But America’s generally been pro Israel.

MR. NOVAK: Rolly Evans, my partner, went to Israel right after the six-day war, immediately after. We had never written a single column. The column started in 1963. We’d never written a single column on Israel until 1967. He got very interested in the subject and he wrote hundreds and hundreds of columns about Israel all with my name on them. I wrote maybe two or three columns on Israel the whole time. I agreed with him. He convinced me that it was in Israel’s interest that they take a less combative role and a more conciliatory role. I would say he was—he as pro-Israel. He was an Abba Eban type of Israeli where you might not have been.

MR. WATTENBERG: But well no. It was—Abba Eban has this wonderful line. He said the Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Even the punitive doves like Abba Eban were terribly frustrated with dealing with the Palestinians. They didn’t want to deal. They wanted to keep the pot boiling.

MR. NOVAK: That’s right. I think things have changed a lot since then. There’s been so many permutations and we could discuss that the whole time.

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me just say a word about Rolly Evans. I was at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, and he and I sat down one morning at a counter in one of the hotels to have some breakfast. Something happened that had never happened to me before. Some guy comes up, apparently sober, and starts cursing me for being Jewish—a kike, a this, a that. It never happened before, and Rolly who was a little scrawny…

MR. NOVAK: In Miami?


MR. NOVAK: In Miami this happened?

MR. WATTENBERG: In Miami this happened, and Rolly Evans who was a little scrawny guy stood up to this guy and said you better shut—he just stared him down. He’s a lovely…

MR. NOVAK: He was a Marine.

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, I didn’t realize that.

MR. NOVAK: Went to the Pacific, was a sergeant in the Marine Corps in the Solomon Islands, got malaria. Got a chest full of ribbons and…

MR. WATTENBERG: Greatest generation. Now you started out as a shoe leather reported for what—regional papers and then the Wall Street Journal. Is that right?

MR. NOVAK: Yeah. I worked all through high school and college on my hometown paper, the Joliet Herald News, and then I worked at the University of Illinois on the Champagne Urbana Courier. Then after two years in the Army I got a job with the AP in Nebraska.

MR. WATTENBERG: And then came to Washington…

MR. NOVAK: To Indiana and then the Washington. No, with the AP. I came to Washington with the AP fifty years ago in 1957.

MR. WATTENBERG: And made your bones with The Wall Street Journal, the Washington bureau here.

MR. NOVAK: That’s right. I left the AP after a year and a half and went—in Washington and went to The Wall Street Journal.

MR. WATTENBERG: And the word I’ve heard is that you were an excellent straight reporter.

MR. NOVAK: Well…

MR. WATTENBERG: Among people who are not your fans as a columnist—is a very important distinction.

MR. NOVAK: I hope that’s true, but it’s also true that I was the king of the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. In those days the reporters were permitted to write editorial page columns. No longer the case on The Wall Street Journal. But I wrote more editorial page columns than anybody on the journal. So…

MR. WATTENBERG: With your name or without?

MR. NOVAK: With my name.

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh, I see. Now…

MR. WATTENBERG: Bob Novak, you have dealt with the great and the near great for fifty years. Tell me some of the stories you tell in the book and maybe I can comment a little bit on some of those personalities that we’ve both known. Why don’t we start with Lyndon Johnson and we can just roll them off.

MR. NOVAK: Lyndon Johnson was deceitful. He was a megalomaniac. He was a great legislative leader. But he didn’t get much accomplished. He was a mechanic, and I thought he was a very poor president. He expanded the war in Vietnam without a—without an end game, without a way of getting out.

[Film Clip] We want nothing for ourselves only that the people of South Vietnam be allowed to guide their own country in their own way.

Of course he built up this—he started this whole tremendous welfare state which had been—which had not grown since the early days of the New Deal. He started expanding the government with all these—all these agencies.

MR. WATTENBERG: That is right. He—he enhanced environmental safety. He enhanced automobile safety. He and Wilbur Mills increased Social Security. They established Medicare. They did things that…

MR. NOVAK: No, no. Wilbur Mills fought Medicare.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Lyndon Johnson basically put Medicare through.

MR. NOVAK: It was a terrible program.

MR. WATTENBERG: It’s a terrible program now. Will you tell me the name of a politician who gets elected today by saying I’m against Medicare?

MR. NOVAK: See, that’s—that’s the whole problem. That’s what—Professor Parkinson said that is the danger of democracy—that there is almost an irresistible impulse to take away goods earned by people and give them to other people.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about John F. Kennedy?

MR. NOVAK: Well, I love John Kennedy as a person. He was a—he was—I was young and he was charismatic. He was very nice to me. I thought he was a great cold warrior, going to fight the Soviet Union. I think he was—he was not that good at that. But he was an exciting personality. When you’re young I don’t know if I’d like him this much as a grouchy, old man. I don’t think he was a very effective president. He had a very hard time with Congress, and he was—one time I was dating my wife. I had dinner at Vice President Johnson’s house and he got very confidential with me and he thought that this was a failed president, Kennedy—because they were treating him, Johnson, very badly. But he said he was losing the conservatives on Capitol Hill which was true and he was losing to the Communists around the world.

MR. WATTENBERG: If you have a problem with John Kennedy that he did not pass his program and then Lyndon Johnson comes in and passes his program and then you condemn Johnson for passing his program.

MR. NOVAK: That’s really… What can you do to please Novak?

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, come back to the headline, Novak hates government.

MR. NOVAK: I’m not too keen on government and the most—there’s only been two presidents—there’s only two presidents in the 20th century that thought government was the problem rather than the solution that I know of and that was Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan. Now were they always…? I think Calvin Coolidge was inconsistent.

MR. WATTENBERG: The federal budget increased dramatically under eight years of Ronald Reagan and he signed all the bills.

MR. NOVAK: I know, but he did…

MR. WATTENBERG: And he liked them.

MR. NOVAK: He didn’t like them.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, let’s go on. Barry Goldwater.

MR. NOVAK: Barry Goldwater was unfocused. He was—what he really liked to do he liked to mess around with gadgets. He was very—he was a very nice man. I liked him. He was one of the first politicians I covered as a twenty-six year old reporter covering what was called the Center Rackets Committee. But he was very unfocused, and I made a tremendous mistake in 1964 voting against him because I thought he was—he was too disorganized to be president. I believe people should only vote—should only have one criterion in voting for people and that’s who do you agree with the most?

MR. WATTENBERG: I—I’m told that in your new book you get into some personal foibles of people. I mean tell us about Estes Kefauver. Was he a skirt chaser?

MR. NOVAK: Yeah, but that—that segment on Estes Kefauver hit the cutting room floor. There’s a lot—

MR. WATTENBERG: Oh is that right?
MR. NOVAK: Yeah. Estes—Estes was very much a—kind of chased the girls and he was a—he was a kind of guy who was a folk hero. He was really a terrible man, incompetent, pretty much worthless.

MR. WATTENBERG: Alright. Robert Kennedy.

MR. NOVAK: He was a mean guy. He was really tough. He was a—particularly when I first met him. I was covering him day by day at the Rackets Committee. He was—he didn’t believe in the American system of civil liberties. He just wanted to put Jimmy Hoffa in prison which—finally when he got the Attorney General he did. He was a very rough character. He had some kind of a transformation into the—into the guardian of the poor and the downtrodden which I’ll have to say it was sincere. But he was a very tough character, very unlike his brother, Jack.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about Ted Kennedy?

MR. NOVAK: Well, he’s just a typical liberal. Big government, intrusive government, lots of spending, high taxes, re-distribution of income.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. My hero, Senator Henry M. Scoop Jackson?

MR. NOVAK: I love Scoop Jackson, but of course he was a big government guy.

MR. WATTENBERG: He certainly was.

MR. NOVAK: But he was…

MR. WATTENBERG: And very proud of it.

MR. NOVAK: He was a great Cold War hero and that was my big issue so I—I like Scoop a lot.

MR. WATTENBERG: John McLaughlin.

MR. NOVAK: John McLaughlin is—may not be purely evil but he’s close to it. (Laughter) He is—he’s really a—I don’t think John believes in anything, but he’s been—he’s a great country, Ben, and he’s been—with his character he has been a successful person. I was on that program…

MR. WATTENBERG: I know you were. I was with you a few times.

MR. NOVAK: I was on every week for years and it was amazing it lasted as long as it did. One thing that John—John McLaughlin did is he gave—he gave birth to the Capitol Gang on CNN because I couldn’t stand being on the program anymore. I started my own program.

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

MR. NOVAK: He’s an entertainer. I mean what do you want? He loves show business. He’s not as serious about politics. He’s a—he’s a liberal but he’s—he’s been very successful. He’s not an educated person, and he’s done very well, hasn’t he?

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Let’s go back to some politicians. Al Gore.

MR. NOVAK: Senior or junior?

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, junior.

MR. NOVAK: Al is a four flusher. He really is.

MR. WATTENBERG: He’s a what?

MR. NOVAK: A four flusher. He’s—he made—he’s done some things which I write about in the book. I’m not gonna go into. Broken a commitment to me on something. He’s—I think he’s—I really think he was—guy was unsuited for the presidency and I was very glad he lost it.

MR. WATTENBERG: Bill Clinton.

MR. NOVAK: Very difficult guy to assess. He was a charismatic, likeable guy. I think he was a very poor president. I think he wasn’t serious. I think he was self-indulgent. But Newt Gingrich once said he’d never want to spend much time with Bill Clinton because he was—he’d become seduced by him. He was an engaging person.

MR. WATTENBERG: Newt Gingrich.

MR. NOVAK: Also an engaging person, but also a person who was very hard to focus. Even today Newt Gingrich puts out ten ideas a minute. Maybe one of them is any good. Newt Gingrich is a—was a great political manager. He got the Republicans—did more than anybody to get them into the majority where they stayed for twelve years. I thought he was a mediocre speaker. Really not in the same class as Tip O’Neal or Sam Rayburn.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hillary Clinton.

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

MR. WATTENBERG: I ran for office twice and lost. I learned my lesson.
MR. NOVAK: Figures
MR. WATTENBERG: Joe Lieberman.

MR. NOVAK: Joe’s a nice man, but he’s known around Capitol Hill as Holy Joe which is not a good name. I think he’s a little sanctimonious. It’s kind of fun the way he’s stuck it in the eyes of the people and defeated them for the Democratic nomination though.

MR. WATTENBERG: A couple of others who are running for President. Fred Thompson.

MR. NOVAK: I like Fred Thompson a lot. I think he reminds me of Reagan in some ways. He doesn’t work too hard. I don’t think he would micromanage. He’s really much more conservative than his image was because his voting record except for one issue was very conservative.

MR. WATTENBERG: Barack Obama.

MR. NOVAK: Hard to figure Barack Obama. He’s really a very engaging person. He is likeable. But he’s—he certainly in a big government liberal and wants to redistribute the income, take it away from you, Ben, and give it to the poor people.

MR. WATTENBERG: I don’t have a problem with that if it doesn’t—if it isn’t put in ways that is self-destructive, the way our welfare program was for a while which is…

MR. NOVAK: You don’t have any problem with redistributing income?

MR. WATTENBERG: Not in moderate amounts.

MR. NOVAK: That’s—that’s…


MR. NOVAK: That’s Marxist of course.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah. I mean so you’re saying that Bill Gates and his thirty billion dollars ought to keep every cent of it or not pay a higher rate than some poor person?

MR. NOVAK: I would—that’s my general feeling. I’d say I like sales tax where if he buys five million dollars worth of goods, he pays taxes on five million dollars, if he lives in a cave and hoards his money, doesn’t use it, he shouldn’t have to pay any taxes.

MR. WATTENBERG: Gerald Ford.

MR. NOVAK: Very poor president. He was always a Congressional mind.

MR. WATTENBERG: Robert Dole.

MR. NOVAK: Never should have run for president. He was a disaster. Wasn’t really good in politics. He was an heroic figure and a courageous person.

MR. WATTENBERG: Dick Cheney.

MR. NOVAK: I’m a fan of Dick Cheney’s. I think he changed a lot when he became a multi-millionaire. But a good conservative who I agree with on most things but not his desire to rule the world, have the United States rule the world.

MR. WATTENBERG: Paul Wolfowitz, much in the news.

MR. NOVAK: Personal friend of mine. Neo-conservative. I think he was—he was absolutely done in and trapped at the World Bank. Never should have gone there.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now let’s just go on to a couple things here. What do you think of the political persuasion called neo-conservatism of which I count myself as one?

MR. NOVAK: I thought originally of neo-conservatives as people like you had grown up without thinking about it as Democrats and lovers of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They were—was it Irvin Crystal who said they were mugged by reality and began to look at more conservative figures. But they have become people who are very much tied to the—to the Israelis in the Middle East and not necessarily the United States interests and are definitely interested in re-arranging the world through the use of U.S. power and not very effectively. So I think they have been really a negative force…

MR. WATTENBERG: Can you name one democratic state in the world surrounded by non-democratic states that we have not supported? You brought up Israel and you say we’re supporting a democracy and it’s against our interests. We have supported every democracy around the world.

MR. NOVAK: I don’t—I think—I don’t think it’s a question of supporting. It’s a question of being totally tied to their policies which may not be in their interest and certainly not in our interest.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Now so you have a problem with neo-conservatism as you think it went—trying to change the world, and that’s a bad thing to do to try to change the world.

MR. NOVAK: In my opinion, yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: So you want—I mean you would like history to stop.

MR. NOVAK: It’s not a matter of history stop. It’s an impossibility to change the world. There are so many bloody dictatorships around the world. Are we gonna say Africa’s off bounds? We can’t change that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Why don’t you look at the two-thirds of the glass that’s half full? We now have 60%/65% of the people living under democratic rule. Twenty years ago or thirty years ago it was 20%.

MR. NOVAK: It’s a fool’s errand because we can’t—we can’t change Egypt. The worst thing we could do is to make Egypt a democracy.

MR. WATTENBERG: That would be bad.

MR. NOVAK: Because the Musl—the Islamists would take over and we’d be in even worst trouble.

MR. WATTENBERG: I am not gonna answer that. I’m not gonna get sucked into that argument. Now, you were—read out of the conservative movement by the National Review. He was—you were lumped with others as…

MR. NOVAK: I think I was read out of the country by the National Review.

MR. WATTENBERG: You were called an unpatriotic conservatism.

MR. NOVAK: American.


MR. NOVAK: Unpatriotic American.

MR. WATTENBERG: Unpatrio….that’s tough. You didn’t like that?

MR. NOVAK: No. I didn’t like it a bit. Not by some Canadian who wrote it.

MR. WATTENBERG: You regard yourself these days as a conservative’s conservative, not like your father a moderate conservative.

MR. NOVAK: I consider myself probably a conservative on many things, but I’m not a part of any movement. I’m for liberal immigration. Very strong for liberal immigration.

MR. WATTENBERG: I am also. There’s a surprise.

MR. NOVAK: No. Well, you don’t understand me. I’m—I’m against the water-boarding. I’m against the torture of prisoners. I’m against spying. I’m against putting journalists in prison.

MR. WATTENBERG: Were you against spying during the Cold War?

MR. NOVAK: I guess I was trying to be fast.

MR. WATTENBERG: Or during World War II?

MR. NOVAK: Let me say I’m not against—I mis-spoke myself when I said I’m against spy—I’m against looking into the secret conversations with American citizens without court orders. That’s what I was—I’m against.

MR. WATTENBERG: Does American conservatism have a future?

MR. NOVAK: I don’t know. It’s a problem. Conservatism to my definition, my kind of conservative was who wants less government. This has been a minority view around the world. The so-called quote “conservative regimes” of past centuries were big government regimes. You would have loved them. (Laughter) The Austro-Hungarian Empire…

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah, right.

MR. NOVAK: The German Empire.

MR. WATTENBERG: Yeah. I was—I was…

MR. NOVAK: I mean those people were…

MR. WATTENBERG: I worship at the feet of Kaiser and…

MR. NOVAK: They were big government operations. Bismarck was the founder of the Social Security system.

MR. WATTENBERG: And 80% of the American people—90% of the American people—95% of the American people who say do not cut my Social Security you say the hell with them.

MR. NOVAK: No. What I’m saying is the Amer—any—all the people they want—they want everything to be paid for. Even the rich they would like the government to pay all their medical bills while they go off to the Bahamas. So I am saying that I don’t know if conservatism has—conservatism has any future. What I am saying is that it is very hard for politicians to say to the American people that’s enough. You can’t have the government spoon-feeding you all the time.

MR. WATTENBERG: The future of America.

MR. NOVAK: Well, I worry about America. I think—I think we are the richest country in the world. We’re the most powerful country in the world because we have a global society and we have a lot of cheap politicians on both sides who want to—who want to close off immigration, who want to have protectionism, who want to have the government regulating everything. So I—I worry about the country, but I’m seventy-six years old, and I have had a great life. I love this country, and I have had a—when my grand-father left the Russian Imperial Army--I think he deserted after five years—and came to this country, I thank God for that. Great experience for me, and I’m very thankful to the country.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Robert Novak, the legendary or near legendary journalist called the Prince of Darkness whose new book will be out in July. I thank you so much for joining us on Think Tank old friend and thank you. Please remember to send us your comments via email. We think it makes our program better. For Think Tank, I’m Ben Wattenberg.

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