Robert Novak, the most famous and notorious of conservative American journalists, still remembers precisely how it felt, back in 1952, when he failed to become sports editor of the University of Illinois student newspaper.
It was a high-prestige campus job that he expected to hold during his final year. When it went to someone else, someone of no evident talent, he was thunderstruck and miserable. In his new 662-page autobiography, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington (Crown Forum), he claims that in his whole life nothing has ever shocked him so much.
He later learned that his mentor and friend, the editor he expected to succeed, decided against him because he imagined Novak couldn't work with a staff. Novak understood. Many people don't much like him. "I am not a person who is easy for a lot of people to like." That incident told him he was no good at politics, even student politics. He would observe, not participate.
Anyone who follows Washington will find The Prince of Darkness revealing in ways that the author may not entirely understand. Novak, the tough inquisitor , comes across as a man who gets hurt easily and stays hurt. Recalling his apprenticeship as a reporter, he remembers precisely which colleagues helped him and which didn't. Over 50 years, he's made many friends (or "sources": It's hard to tell the difference) but they weren't always reliable.
He expects friends to meet his standard of loyalty. When David Frum, writing in the National Review in 2003, described Novak as an unpatriotic conservative who favoured "a fearful policy of ignoring threats and appeasing enemies," Novak demanded that his neoconservative friends, on the National Review and elsewhere, rally to his side. They failed to do so, further proof to Novak that he was outside the magic circle that he could discern but never penetrate.
The Prince of Darkness is not standard-issue personal journalism, but it's intensely personal. A political autobiography containing even a little truth will always cause disillusionment for those who accept day-to-day reporting and rhetoric at face value. Addressing the public, members of the political class claim public policy and voter pressures dictate their decisions. But they are just as often swayed by ingrown resentments, tribal loyalty, jealous pride, fleeting affections. Of all memoirists, none I know has illustrated this truth so clearly as Novak.
Of course, he has his principles. He's always favoured small government and low taxes, to cite two lifelong crusades. But his book demonstrates that relationships matter more. In his mind, Washington is dominated not by ideology or greed but by networks of friendship and webs of enmity. It is not nearly as different from a schoolyard as it would like to pretend.
The sports-editor catastrophe left Novak with an Eeyore-like self-image. Ever since, he's cast himself as an outsider. Those who know that he's rich, famous and influential will call that preposterous, but he insists on his status as a low-born provincial, a troublesome craftsman, scorned by many of his peers. He identifies with Bertrand de Born, the troubadour-warlord in Dante's Inferno, a major troublemaker who was sentenced to stand at the gates of Purgatory with his severed head in his hand, because "in life, he was a stirrer up of strife." Novak accepts that charge for himself: "Stirring up strife seemed to me a proper role for a journalist."
Long ago, a fellow reporter called him the prince of darkness because he took a baleful view of the future. In later years, liberals considered that epithet appropriate for anyone holding so many satanic opinions. As a book title, it's an ironic gesture directed at his enemies -- and one more admission of his intricately personal approach to his work.
I saw Novak in action only once, in 1964, during an old-fashioned whistle-stop tour of Pennsylvania, part of Senator Barry Goldwater's failed presidential campaign. Most of the American reporters, knowing that Goldwater was a certain loser, spent their time interviewing each other. But whenever the train stopped Novak jumped off, grabbed the nearest local Republican politician and pumped him for particles of information that might someday be of use.
That was Novak, dark and unsmiling and humourless, yet eager. He paid no attention to the other reporters and they ignored him. He was a lonely figure, out there on the train platform, doing what a reporter, an eternal truth-seeker, had to do. At the age of 76 he's finally disclosed that he believes he has bought his status at the price of personal isolation.