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The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington

Author: Robert Novak
Publisher: Crown Forum • 2008 • 672 pages

Robert Novak has been embroiled for several years now in the Valerie Plame CIA leak scandal, but decades before anyone had ever heard of Plame, Novak had established himself as one of the leading political reporters in America — and among those most likely to spark controversy. Now, in this massive, brutally honest and gripping memoir, Novak tells all not only about his role in the Plame affair, but about his decades of revealing encounters with some of the most powerful people in the world. In “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington,” Novak tells the whole captivating story of his remarkable life and career. Novak offers an adventure-packed half-century of stories, scandals, and personal encounters with Washington’s most powerful and colorful people.

An insider’s insider, Novak has lived and worked among the movers and shakers – virtually all of whom he has known personally — since the days when Washington was a sleepy southern town and journalism was built on personal relationships (which were often sealed with copious amounts of liquor). The first president he covered was Harry Truman, and he has been in Washington ever since, breaking a huge number of big stories – many of which dwarf the Plame affair in importance. With good humor and a vivid storyteller’s touch, Novak here reveals the extraordinary transformations that have fundamentally remade Washington, politics, and journalism — and his own key role in those transformations.

Now that years have gone by and long-ago controversies have cooled, Novak opens up, telling the stories behind the stories. He vividly recalls encounters with the Kennedys (angry meetings with Bobby, a scary ride home in Jack’s convertible), his unusual relationship with Lyndon Johnson (who hosted Novak’s wedding reception and who, “drunk as a loon,” had to be carried out of a bar by the young newsman), and his first meetings with George W. Bush — at which the veteran journalist seriously underestimated the future president. He introduces numerous other fascinating characters as well, from George Wallace (who confided in Novak his dismay and disappointment in his running mate during his 1968 presidential bid) and Tip O’Neill (who routinely greeted Novak with a friendly cuff on the head) to Ronald Reagan (who stunned Novak and his partner Rowland Evans during an interview by citing obscure philosophers and decades-old budget statistics from memory), Alexander Haig (who threatened to sue Novak for five million dollars) and Dan Quayle (who misspelled Novak’s name on a photo he inscribed for him).

With refreshing candor, Novak reveals how politics and journalism really operate at the highest levels, both publicly and behind closed doors. He is also frank about his personal experience, writing forthrightly about the days when his drinking matched the boozy culture of Washington. He reflects also on his political journey to the right, and on his spiritual journey, from his early life as a secular Jew to his conversion to Catholicism at the age of sixty-seven.

Packed with riveting, never-before-told stories, The Prince of Darkness is a hugely entertaining and equally perceptive view of fifty years in the life of Washington and the people who cover it.

Novak remembers:

  • Bill Clinton admiring a woman’s legs at a party: “In the midst of the Monica turmoil, Clinton was instinctively attracted by a woman with beautiful legs”
  • Clinton’s cabinet choices: “I believe Clinton put a lower premium on talent in his cabinet-making than any predecessor in my experience”
  • Clinton’s politics: “Clinton was a man of the Left who disguised himself as a man of the center…Combining this with his personal misadventures meant the nineties would prove a dreadful decade for the Democrats”
  • George H.W. Bush: “An unhappy president. He could not come to grips with the prevailing Republican opinion on taxes, abortion, racial quotas, and other social and economic issues”
  • Jimmy Carter: “A habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his own purposes”
  • Ronald Reagan: “Clever – and more devious – than most people imagined…the first truly successful president since Franklin Roosevelt”
  • Reagan’s rhetoric: he “used conservative speechwriters to flourish as the Great Communicator…[his former aides] Baker and Darman never appreciated what a weapon the spoken word could be for a president”
  • The secret of Reagan’s success: he “kept his gaze on big goals” and displayed “implacable calm in the face of adversity”
  • Boris Yeltsin: “Gracious, enthusiastic – and sober – during the two hours he spent with me”
  • Deng Xiaoping: “Though surely no democrat…one of the few great men with whom I ever had come into contact”
  • Gerald Ford: “Of the ten presidents I covered, only Ford was a believer in congressional supremacy” and the minimizing of presidential power
  • Richard Nixon: “A poor president and a bad man who inflicted grave damage on his party and his country”
  • George McGovern: “A Great Plains radical droning on with outrageous formulations in his nasal regional monotone”
  • Hubert Humphrey: “As both a thinker and leader, he struck me as well meaning and weak”
  • Bobby Kennedy: “His biggest impact was to guarantee the presidency of Richard M. Nixon by helping divide the Democratic Party”
  • Kennedy and Johnson: “While John F. Kennedy was a failed president, Lyndon B. Johnson was a disaster”
  • Newt Gingrich in 1994: “He has exhibited an overweening ego that many fear may be his Achilles’ heel”
  • Pat Buchanan in 1996: “Buchanan had a legitimate chance to…withstand the monolithic assault on him to keep him from being nominated…It was almost as though he did not want to be the nominee for president”
  • Rudolph Giuliani: “No conservative and hardly a Republican (starting out as a George McGovern Democrat)”

“Novak’s insider perspective, vitriolic pen and damn-the-torpedoes frankness make it a lively and eye-opening account of big-foot journalism.” — Publishers Weekly

“Expresses no regrets.” — Booklist

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