The legendary columnist and reporter’s firsthand experience with the key figures of politics of that time is simply incredible. He had access to the main characters that would be unthinkable today, if only for logistical reasons.
In his early years reporting at the Capitol, he would join Everett Dirksen and other senators for off-the-record happy hours, just talking over the day’s events. Decades later, Novak mentioned the sessions to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and Lott was astonished it could have happened. He had personal relationship with a succession of presidents, as well as with key members of Congress, cabinet members, and White House aides in several different generations.
When Novak began in journalism, politics was also a much smaller universe. He mentions that Dirksen monitored every bill that advanced past the committee level, and would personally prepare briefs on the legislation. That’s unthinkable today. But back then, there were just fewer people in politics. When Novak began a decades-long career on CNN, he was one of the first to appear in that format.
Even into relatively recent history, though, Novak maintained amazingly close ties to the highest-profile politicos. Bill Clinton once gave him a lift on his plane when Novak got stranded on the campaign trail.
I borrowed the book from former Novak protege Tim Carney hoping to pick up on some tricks of the trade and some insight into journalism. Here are some things I learned:
-- Novak grew up in Illinois and not long after moved to D.C. But he spent time, while in the military, right near where I went to high school, at Fort Devens in Lancaster, Massachusetts.
-- D.C. used to be much more of a drinking culture and participating led Novak into what he acknowledges was probably high-functioning alcoholism. Source lunches with three-plus drinks were the norm for him, followed up with heavy drinking at night. He described campaign plane and bus trips, during the Nixon era, as a group binge session. He later curtailed his drinking after suffering spiral meningitis.
-- Novak was an opinion reporter for most of his career. As he grew older, he became more and more outspokenly conservative. Espousing that point of view sometimes hurt his ability to develop sources, although it also helped in cases.
-- Novak always wrote about horse race politics and gossipy insider information. The fleeting newsbyte was his bread and butter. Because those are the things people like reading, it helped him maintain an audience and -- on my own reading -- helped to keep politicos coming to him to talk shop and serve as sources.
But he wasn’t a lightweight or inconsequential, and he took his work and journalism seriously. He tried to travel each year to stay informed about world affairs. He put himself into danger in Vietnam and felt personal responsibility for the war ending badly for the U.S., on the grounds that better reporting could have helped lead to a better outcome.
-- Novak admits to breaking and compromising on several key rules of journalism ethics. For instance, he says he lied about sourcing to protect sources. He hints several times in the book that he allowed personal relationships color his reporting, or that he shunned legitimate stories of public interest for his own purposes.