Novak Expects to Be Remembered for More than 'Trivial' Plame Affair

By Kevin Mooney | July 7, 2008 | 8:32pm EDT

( - When his contribution to public life is weighed, conservative columnist Robert Novak says he expects to be remembered for columns on weighty matters stretching back across five decades -- and not for "The Plame Affair."

Over time, Novak said in an interview, he expects the controversy surrounding a July 2003 column he wrote about former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson in which he identified Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA operative, to wane.

Plame accused Bush administration officials of blowing her cover through the Novak column in retaliation for Wilson's criticism of the administration over Iraq. On Thursday, she lost a lawsuit that had demanded financial compensation, but Plame and Wilson said they would appeal.

Novak told Cybercast News Service that although Plame worked for the CIA, she was not a covert agent at the time he included her name and affiliation in the column that helped to ignite a political firestorm and triggered a lengthy investigation.

Although no one was charged with leaking the information, former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby was found guilty of lying and obstruction of the probe. President Bush early this month commuted Libby's 30-month prison sentence.

As a result of the episode, Novak said a "federal shield law" is necessary to protect journalists who have confidentiality agreements with sources.

Novak gave short shrift to the argument that the CIA sustained any damage as a result of that column: Plame had actually been "outed" by Soviet agent Aldrich Ames five years prior to the time his column was written, Novak observed in the interview.

In his book, Novak analyzes and disputes portions of a Sept. 28, 2003, Washington Post report quoting an unnamed CIA spokesman who claimed the columnist has been urged not to reveal Plame's name for "security reasons." It is quite evident, Novak claims in his book, who the source was.

"Not even thinly disguised, the source for this paragraph [in the Post story] was clearly Bill Harlow (the CIA spokesman). Novak wrote in his book. "While I hate to use the l-word, it was a lie to say that 'security reasons' were cited."

The first full account of Novak's interaction with White House and CIA officials over the Plame affair appears in the veteran reporter's newly released memoirs entitled "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington."

Yet it is other work that he expects to be remembered for - like an October 1979 column with his long-time collaborator, the late Roland Evans, in which Ronald Reagan, with his support for across-the-board tax cuts, was described as standing apart from other Republican presidential hopefuls.

Novak takes pride in this reporting on the early phase of the "supply-side" economic revolution that would shake loose what he called the "malaise" of the 1970s.

The book is primarily devoted to Novak's years as a Washington insider and his recollection of personalities who helped to shape modern American history. He has covered every American president since Harry Truman.

"I would like to be remembered for reporting on what really went on in government," Novak told Cybercast News Service.

"Some of the columns I did on arms control, about how the Soviets were cheating, and how [Presidents] Nixon, Ford and Carter were giving away the store, they were important. I was also one of the few columnists to come out in favor of supply-side tax cuts," he added.

The domestic and foreign policies Novak most strongly objected to in the 1970s were effectively reversed, he said, by President Reagan. Novak in the book depicts Reagan as a great president who reinvigorated the economy through tax cuts, while guiding the U.S. to victory in the Cold War.

But Novak does not shy away from some criticism of the 40th president, saying the Iran-Contra scandal was "not handled well" by a president who saw the matter as a distraction that should be quickly dispatched.

"He threw Oliver North over the ship a little too quickly," Novak said in the interview. "That was not the way to handle it. He should have stood with him."

(Lt. Col. North, who served with the National Security Council (NSC) in the Reagan administration, was instrumental in the affair, which involved the sale of arms to Iran - in the hope that this would expedite the release of American hostages being held by Iranian-backed terrorists in Lebanon - and diverting the earnings to anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in Nicaragua.)

'Default position: blame Novak'

Novak gave himself latitude to criticize even those he liked and admired, the memoirs show. In contrast, his long-time partner, the late Roland Evans, greatly complicated matters in the early months of their "Evans and Novak" column by being overly friendly with President Kennedy and his brother, Bobby Kennedy.

"It is not easy to report on a president who has been a guest in your home and who invites you to be a guest in his," Novak writes.

After President Kennedy's 1963 assassination, the column assumed a more "abrasive, more argumentative and more serious" tone, the book says.

"I don't think you [as a journalist] can ever be a genuine friend of a politician," Novak told Cybercast News Service. "I don't think it's possible."

The "most dangerous relationship" Novak said he had was with Jack Kemp, the former Republican congressman from New York who was a major force behind the supply-side tax cuts Novak himself championed.

"I think Jack got a little puzzled sometimes, because I would never hesitate to criticize him," Novak said. "But I was not his friend. I was a cordial acquaintance who believed in many of the same things he did."

As it turns out, Novak himself could be caught off guard by friends, acquaintances and even his partner columnist. When an April 1973 column drew the ire of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Evans assumed what the book calls the "Novak Default Position."

"Why don't you check your columns with me?" Kissinger demanded in a testy exchange with Evans.

"That was a product of my partner's reporting exercise," Evans had responded. But Novak, according to the book, was away in Japan at the time and had had no input into the offending column.

Novak said that he wondered how often Evans used that ploy - he had only learned about the exchange with Kissinger recently.

Another notable figure featured in the memoirs is former President Jimmy Carter, described as a "habitual liar."

Novak said his suspicions were aroused when Carter said at one point, "I'll never lie to you."

"When someone goes into great detail about how he's not going to lie to you, that's a sure sign that you should be on your guard," the columnist said. "There were cases where he lied to me and about me."

By contrast, he had a strong rapport with former Sen. Daniel Moynihan.

"He was a very able person, and I agreed with him a lot," Novak said of the New York Democrat, who died in 2003. However, there were a number of obstacles that stood in the way of Moynihan ever running for president, he opined. "I don't think he ever figured out where he stood on the ideological spectrum."

As for Wilson and Plame, the conservative columnist in the interview said he saw them as occupying a small, irrelevant slice of Washington history.

"They are trivial figures," he said.

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