Robert Novak on C-SPAN: "I'm Never Going to Retire"

By: E&P Staff Brian Lamb interviews Robert Novak this Sunday on his ?Q & A? program on C-SPAN, coinciding with the publication of the famed columnist?s memoir, "Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington." E&P has been sent a transcript. Novak says very little about the Plame case, but covers dozens of other subjects, with a lot of emphasis on his sources and why he named so many of them in the book.

Novak says in closing that a "good model for a journalist" was "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." This was a reference to Dante's "Inferno."

He also says, "I'm never going to retire."

Novak defends naming sources in the book because in most cases they have died. But he also freely discusses his income ($100,000 a year right now just from his column), his drinking problem (in the past), his abrupt exit from CNN, and his falling out with fellow conservatives such as Bill Kristol, David Frum and John McLaughlin.

In one exchange, Lamb mentions that in the galleys of the book he received, one key source was still mentioned as "Mr. X." When the finished book came out, he was named. The reason? He had passed away in the interval.

The name may shock many. He was the source of a juicy quote for Novak back in 1972, when he declared that Sen. George McGovern would be burdened in any race against President Nixon because he allegedly favored amnesty for draft dodgers and the legalization marijuana.

The source turned out to be the late Sen. Thomas Eagleton -- who, as it turned out later, would be picked as McGovern's running mate (until bounced from the ticket after it was revealed that he had undergone shock therapy).

Novak also claims that he personally killed the planned use of the song ?Thank Heaven for Little Girls? at a Gridiron Dinner that was to be attended by President Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. Novak explains that he was president of the group and would be sitting next to Clinton for four hours and "I didn?t want to be embarrassed."

Here are some other excerpts.

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: 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?

NOVAK: Yes....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: 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: [Concerning Karl Rove] 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: 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.

NOVAK: 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 Bradlee, 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: 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: How did they [CNN] 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.


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