By Wes Vernon*
Robert D. Novak?in a half century of climbing the ladder of success from cub reporter to famous pundit?is a true survivor. He is a reporter/columnist who blew the whistle on Washington journalism’s cozy liberal consensus and survived professionally to tell about it.
In his memoirs, The Prince of Darkness, we learn that Novak had?to say the least?highly interesting encounters with Washington media’s party-line herd instinct from one of his first assignments in the fifties to his expos? of an international Communist operation in the seventies to his role in the Valerie Plame case in the early 21st Century.
Shhhhh! We don’t mention Communists.
Novak’s real baptism in Washington fire came shortly after his arrival as a regional reporter for the AP.
He covered a hearing by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee spotlighting Communist penetration of a local of Walter Reuther’s United Auto Workers (UAW).
The others at the press table seemed bored with the expos? laid out in front of them. But young Novak was fascinated. He even acted like a curious reporter and when the hearing adjourned, the Washington tenderfoot dared to approach committee counsel Robert Morris to get fresh material for the following day’s newspapers. Morris, who soon was to become the author of No Wonder We Are Losing, gladly gave Novak new information in the ongoing probe.
His wire report was soon all over the Detroit papers and on radio and TV. Because of other reporters’ disinterest, he had the story virtually all to himself. Editors for those competing news outlets were phoning their Washington correspondents demanding to know how they got scooped by the AP.
The next day, as he walked into the hearing room for the committee’s follow-up session, Novak was approached by a UP (later UPI) reporter who told him, “With Internal Security, we never write anything except what happens in open hearing. We never, ever interview Morris.”
“Why?” the new Washington arrival asked.
“Because nothing they do deserves it,” he responded.
In our own interview with Novak, these comments:
Novak: He [the UP reporter] was delegated by the other people covering the hearings [to clue me in].
AIM: So what does that tell you?I mean this is pack journalism gone mad.
Novak: Well, it was a [self-censorship] cartel, and there’s still a lot of [that going on]. I’m always amazed [even at age 76] I’ll actually come up with things that other people don’t like. They don’t write it, they’re not interested…..I just think there’s a lot of stories that are not written in this town because journalists aren’t interested. They don’t want to write the story. We have more reporters on the Hill. They’re smarter, more sophisticated, and yet there are stories that just go uncovered on Capitol Hill. It’s a good thing for me because I get a lot of stories that nobody else writes.
AIM: Did you think at the time [of the UAW/Reds story] as the new kid on the block that maybe you’d better pull in your horns on congressional investigations of Communism?
Novak: I was taken aback, I was 26 years old, and this guy was in his late fifties with vastly more experience than I had?and the other people?so he pulled in my horns a little bit. I think it was about my third week in Washington when it happened.
But the mindset persisted.
The Letelier Case
Years later, after Robert Novak had become a famous by-line in the widely read Evans & Novak column, he ran into a larger-scale censorship problem, again when writing about conspiratorial Communists.
John Carbaugh, “legislative assistant” to the conservative icon Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), handed Novak a folder found in the briefcase of the late Chilean Marxist-Leninist Orlando Letelier. How did Carbaugh get his hands on the documents? Apparently, his position with Helms was his “day job.” In that era before conservative think tanks sprouted up all over the nation’s capital, anti-Communists met in small groups. Carbaugh had “connections.”
Letelier had been a high-ranking cabinet member in the recent ousted government of Chile’s Soviet collaborating (recently ousted) president Salvador Allende. That regime?elected to office by a minority of the Chilean voters?was imposing?step by step?what had all the makings of a full-fledged Communist dictatorship.
When Allende was overthrown by a military coup in 1973, Letelier was imprisoned. Released in 1974, he came to Washington as a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), later described in the 1987 book Covert Cadre as having “Soviet bloc agents participating in so many of its programs” and whose activists had penetrated “into our Congress, church bureaucracies, the press, and the public policy community in Washington” while being “all but invisible to most Americans.”
In September 1976, an automobile carrying Letelier was demolished by a car bomb near Washington’s Embassy Row. Its occupants were killed. The FBI traced the crime to the secret police of the new Chilean government and apprehended the bombers.
But the Letelier documents survived.
Novak thereafter received the folder from Carbaugh with Letelier’s papers. Therein, he found a gold mine of information on Soviet-style intrigue laced with Letelier’s links not only to Moscow’s intelligence services, but also those of the Communist states of Cuba and East Germany.
It showed Letelier received material from a Castro spy with the Cuban UN delegation; corresponded regularly with the Cuban foreign minister whose private Havana phone number was in Letelier’s address book; was on the take from the Cuban government each month in the amount of $3,540 (in 2006 dollars); had written a letter to Cuba outlining strategy for seeking U.S. congressional support to restore a Marxist Soviet-friendly government in Chile. This included such methods of deceit as presenting Letelier and other Chilean exiles as “apolitical in character,” concerned only with “human rights.”
The idea was to mobilize American “liberals,” whom Letelier never mentions without putting quotation marks around the word. Never link the movement to Cuba, Letelier warned, lest some congressman is scared away from support and “you know how these ‘liberals’ are.” And just for good measure, “Perhaps some day, not far away, we also will be able to do what has been done in [Castro’s] Cuba.”
Novak, of course, followed up these findings with a column exposing the conspiracy. He likely expected some backlash from the Washington establishment’s Georgetown dinner party circuit, whose denizens had been charmed by Letelier. What he had not counted on was its intensity or the elaborate efforts to cover up this Communist spying and its dupes.
Angering The Liberals
“It is difficult to exaggerate the anger that column raised among Washington liberals,” the columnist writes. That alarm manifested itself in the editorial offices of The Washington Post, more or less the establishment headquarters in this town. Three days after Letelier’s death, the paper ran an article about him, beginning with the adjectives “warm,” “urbane,” “kind,” “civilized,” and “cosmic optimist.”
Despite its liberalism, the Post has carried the Evans & Novak (now the Novak) column for years. And that relationship is where he ran into a gigantic journalistic buzz-saw in the Letelier case. On the day his column appeared in the Post, Letelier’s lawyer called the paper to say he had the dead diplomat’s actual Samsonite briefcase in his possession and would show it to a newspaper representative.
The Post sent a diplomatic correspondent?the kind who virtually lives at the State Department and Embassy Row?to examine the contents. Novak had spent a week perusing the documents, including enlisting the assistance of a Spanish translator?but the diplomatic writer was able to file a “news” story the next day with the contents paraphrased rather than translated. The writer, Lee Lescaze, wrote that Novak (and Jack Anderson whose column was based on more limited access to the documents) “followed the darkest interpretation of the scanty material.”
The following day, Post editor Phil Geyelin allowed a 1,000-word op-ed by left-wing activist Saul Landau?one of Letelier’s colleagues at IPS?asserting that “a campaign has been launched with the apparent purpose of smearing Letelier’s reputation.”
The late commentator Fulton Lewis, Jr. once told this writer that a good investigative reporter always holds back some of the damaging information in his original expos?. That way, when the inevitable uproar ensues, he can pull out additional damning evidence and say, “Well, actually the situation is worse.”
Bob Novak followed that maxim in spades. He wrote a second column citing evidence that Landau himself had unwittingly dumped in his lap. The new column quoted a letter in the briefcase in which Landau wrote to Letelier saying, “I think that at age 40 the time has come to dedicate myself to narrower pursuits, namely making propaganda for American socialism,” in addition to encouraging Marxism in the undeveloped countries.
Furthermore, Novak added, there was a mention in the Letelier correspondence to “Helsinki,” referring to the World Peace Council, a Soviet front based in Helsinki that had awarded its “peace prize” to Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev.
Since Novak’s original column and the Saul Landau op-ed had both appeared in the Post, one would think Post editors would be anxious to print the Novak rebuttal?all in the interests of giving “both sides” of a roaring controversy on its pages. Not so. The follow-up column was spiked.
Editor Geyelin told Novak he would have spiked the first column had it not escaped his attention. Never mind that the material in the spiked second column would pique the curiosity of readers who had followed the flap. But when Novak protested, Geyelin responded, “No, I am not going to have you or anybody else dance on Orlando Letelier’s grave on my op-ed page.”
The Boston Globe also printed the first?but not the second Novak column on Letelier. That paper’s editor Charles Whipple swallowed whole Landau’s defense of Letelier, referring to the latter as a “respected diplomat.”
Which brings up another issue: often when the liberal media wish to shower blessings on an anointed figure of controversy, they insert the word “respected” before his name, without saying by whom he supposedly is “respected”?their way of trying to silence anyone who dares dissent?even with airtight evidence.
Novak’s second column, however, was carried in Rupert Murdoch’s then-newly-acquired New York Post, which may be one of several reasons why Bob Novak told AIM in our interview that he had no trouble with Murdoch taking over the Wall Street Journal.
AIM Was There
Longtime readers of the AIM Report may well remember that the late AIM Founder Reed Irvine was in the forefront of urging the media to halt their cover-up of the Letelier case.
In early 1977, he confronted then New York Times Chairman Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger (not to be confused with “Pinch,” the offspring and current Times chairman) because the NYT had not seen fit to print one word of the story in its paper. Irvine pointed out that not only Evans & Novak and Jack Anderson, but also Bill Buckley, William Rusher, Jeffrey Hart, Virginia Prewitt, and M. Stanton Evans had deemed the case worthy of a write-up in their columns. So had the Washington Star which had done a front-page story on it. Why not the New York Times?
Sulzberger’s response to Irvine was that the Washington Post had seen the letters and didn’t think “this whole thing held together.” But he assured Irvine the Times was “looking at this story.” Thirty years later, we are still waiting. Cover-up completed.
The Plame Game
Novak takes two chapters to discuss his role as the journalist who first publicized Valerie Plame’s CIA role. Since AIM has discussed that ersatz “scandal” in depth, we confine ourselves here to some highlights of the columnist’s efforts to set the record straight against a fog of media distortion that planted in the minds of Americans that Plame was currently or recently a “spy,” rather than what she was?a desk-bound bureaucrat at the CIA.
About 10 weeks after his Plame column, the Washington Post ran two stories on the case, September 28 & 29, 2003, which Novak describes as “a reckless piece of journalism.” Reckless or not, it was picked up by other media and its dissemination was to dog the veteran pundit for years. In his book he disputes Post errors. The columnist writes that he did not receive a planned leak from the White House?but rather in an offhand manner from Richard Armitage at the State Department (who was “no partisan gunslinger,”); in his discussions with the CIA, the agency never warned him that the disclosure of Valerie Plame Wilson’s name would endanger her or anybody else; and it was not much of secret?since it was already in the easily-available Who’s Who in America, which gave Novak one more source for verification.
The Prince of Darkness also makes short work of the memoirs of Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had repeated falsehoods he had given the Senate Intelligence Committee. There, Wilson argued the leak of his wife’s name came in retaliation for his unfavorable op-ed in the New York Times concerning his trip to Niger in connection to a reported Iraqi arms build-up. That Wilson article itself contained misstatements of fact.
Novak Exposes “The System”
Nothing served to distance Bob Novak from the cozy Washington media inner circle more than a study he submitted at a conference on the mass media at Kenyon College in rural Ohio in the early seventies.
In that missive, Mr. Novak dared to say in public what many Americans believed but which words were virtually forbidden within the closed sanctuaries of elite journalism.
“[T]he press corps has been ideologized into a part of the liberal establishment,” he argued. Among the axioms that Novak listed as “shared by the Washington press corps” were: reduction of defense spending, environmental protection rather than economic growth, forced school busing, greater federal funding for “social rebuilding,” and redistribution of wealth through the tax system and fiscal policy.
“[A] rigid conformity has emerged among the Washington press corps,” the columnist declared, and “the young journalist who violates these axioms can scarcely expect a rapid rise up the ladder of advancement.”
For citing these plain truths, Novak says, “[t]he liberal establishment?including journalistic colleagues?never forgave me. This put me beyond redemption.”
Out To Get Him?
Much more chilling than merely being the object of the liberal establishment’s displeasure is a situation where one of the establishmentarians makes it his life’s mission to destroy your journalistic career.
Novak wrote a column wherein he fingered no less than the secretary of the powerful Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).
In a secondary item, the Evans & Novak column alluded to conservative concern on Capitol Hill that then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker had taken on Alton Frye of the CFR as an adviser on strategic arms. It was feared he wielded dovish influences on Baker.
Frye then threw himself into preparing a negative brief on the Evans & Novak column and sent it out to newspapers all over the country. None printed it, so he came back with a second essay. This time, the liberal Nashville Tennessean printed the screed which began, “This is a citizen’s arrest,” and went downhill from there.
Novak: He (Frye) was very successful.
AIM: How many papers dropped you because of him?
Novak: I think quite a few…He’s still at the [CFR]…Been there forever. But if a guy makes that his life’s work, it can be very difficult.
Conservative journalists are vulnerable to that kind of harassment. Hollywood moans about a forties “blacklist” against Communists, but there are wealthy and/or influential people out there today who are happy to make it their business to spread whispering campaigns or otherwise blackball a conservative in the media who shows promise. A conservative journalist who can prove such vindictive mischief (usually very difficult) might consider legal recourse.
Other Media Notes
Bob Novak has more media anecdotes in The Prince of Darkness than space allows here. Nonetheless, some samples:
*On the Kennedy-Nixon 1960 campaign trail, gravelly-voiced Bill Lawrence of the New York Times remarked to his colleagues, “I think I can do Jack [Kennedy] more good when I’m [covering] Nixon.
*TV network correspondents were rude to a Michigan political (but non-celebrity) operative who was riding “their” media plane during the 1990 congressional campaign. Novak knew the man, sat by him, and as a result scooped his colleagues on a political story.
*On the night Marxist-Leninist Daniel Ortega was ousted in Nicaragua, reporters/anchors in Managua, New York, and Washington “acted as if they had lost a loved one.”
As for some other famous journalists, these judgments from Novak: 1?James “Scotty” Reston of the New York Times was “disreputable” for smearing Whittaker Chambers who exposed Soviet spy Alger Hiss. 2?Fulton Lewis, Jr.?”One of my favorites…Very effective.” 3?Edward R. Murrow?”Overrated in many ways. A liberal ideologue.” 4?Drew Pearson?”liked exclusives whether they were true or not.” 5?Walter Cronkite?”Strong liberal.”
In our interview with Novak, the two of us could name only five major U.S. metropolitan dailies with some conservative editorial polices?The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and The New York Sun.
What You Can Do
Send cards and letters of your own choosing to your two U.S. Senators about the U.N.’s Law of the Sea Treaty.
*Wes Vernon is a Washington-based writer & broadcast journalist.