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Bob Novak, “What I’ve Learned”
Comments () | Published November 1, 2008

Do you see that changing?

I don’t know when they are going to work their way out of this crisis, but I’m sure they will. When you get two Republicans together, the first thing they say is “Who’s our future leader?” The answer is nobody knows.

The most interesting Republicans right now are a few young House members. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is the best of them. Also Jeff Flake of Arizona and Jeb Hensarling of Texas. They are known in the House as right-wingers. I would describe them as reformers. They think there’s been too much corruption and waste. They are supply-siders. They are very upset with earmarks and very, very upset with the passive leadership we have today. I told them the current leadership reminds me of the get-along, go-along days I found when I got here, with House minority leader Bob Michel playing golf with House majority leader Tip O’Neill.

You’ve had some unparalleled sources. How does one go about cultivating them?

What I’m going to say may come as a shock, because I’m not a terribly likable person, but you gotta get a source to like you. There’s very little that I or any other journalist can really do for a politician. A favorable column is not all that much, so there’s not much payback. It’s gotta be “I want to help Novak because I like him.” That may sound naive, but it’s true.

Senator Pat Moynihan was one of my great sources. I don’t believe he said, “Boy, if Novak writes this column, I’m going to really be in much better shape.” He thought I was an interesting guy and had interesting ideas, and he liked to talk about things with me.

You mention the names of a lot of sources in The Prince of Darkness, which is practically a who’s who of everybody in government or politics over the past 50 years. Who were the most skillful leakers, the ones who really knew how to give good leak?

The word “leaker” has an ignominious ring. It connotes giving you something you shouldn’t have. I think I should have everything. So there are no leaks—there are sources.

When I’m feeling well, a source I talk to every day is Rick Hohlt. He is a lobbyist and fundraiser for Republican causes who was on Senator Richard Lugar’s staff years ago and is still close to him. He is very smart, and he knows more about what’s going on in Washington than anyone else. Unfortunately, he’s very discreet and doesn’t tell me everything. But every time I talk to him I learn something.

Who else?

Richard Perle—he is a wonderful source. Probably the best source I ever had was a guy named John Carbaugh. He was a legislative assistant to Senator Jesse Helms for years and later became an international financial consultant; he’s dead now. He was an ideal source. Most sources, even the best, deal orally. They tell you something, give you tips, to see if you can check them out—which you have to do. But John would come into my office, documents in hand. He had incredible contacts, and occasionally he gave me highly classified documents. Where the hell he got them I don’t know.

Sources like to be taken out to breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Will they give you the queen’s jewels for a lunch at Sans Souci—which no longer exists—or its successor? No, a lunch isn’t that important. But it’s a way of establishing intimacy.

I was just a Midwestern country boy when I came here. Rowly [Evans] was an elite Philadelphian. I didn’t realize how much a lunch was part of the whole source/reporter equation. Rowly learned that from Joseph and Stewart Alsop. If Rowly didn’t have a meal with a source, it was a bad day. Quite often he would have two sources for the same meal, usually breakfast.

Who were the most dazzling politicians you watched over the past 50 years?

It almost sounds like a cliché, but John F. Kennedy was a dazzling politician because he had a dazzling personality. Personality is a huge thing in politics.

How would you rate George Bush’s presidency?

Poor. I have said that the presidency is a leadership role; it’s not an administrative job. You can’t run the country—it’s too complicated. A leader’s role is to lead this diverse, cranky, difficult country and get the people moving in the same direction. George Bush has totally failed at that.

While I believe Roosevelt was overall a terrible president and prolonged the Depression by his policies, he was an excellent leader. People were down on the country, down on themselves, down on the government, and he picked them up.

Reagan was a great leader. I think Kennedy was terribly overrated, but he was a good leader. I don’t think George Bush even comprehends the demands of leadership. I went to see him when he was governor of Texas. I should have gotten a warning at the time. He expressed such contempt for Washington. If I were smarter, I would have seen huge trouble ahead from somebody who has that many negative feelings about the job.

The only president in my time I give a passing grade to is Reagan. I thought Nixon was the worst—a vicious little man. He never should have been president. The one I have the hardest time giving a grade to is Clinton. Did he have talent? Absolutely—he was a very accomplished man. But what did he do? I don’t think he accomplished anything. I think he was very good on the Cold War. But he seemed to be a man with limited horizons and ambitions.

In your memoir, you describe an early meeting in the Oval Office with Reagan in which he quoted a couple of obscure 19th-century British free-trade advocates and some little-known modern Austrian economists. How underrated intellectually do you think Reagan was?

He was extremely underrated, particularly by the press. The press was very derisive. They were derisive of Eisenhower, too—they thought he was just another army officer—but the attacks on Reagan were harsher. He was portrayed as stupid, uneducated, out of his element. I think he was very well educated and understood a lot of things. He was also very flexible in his policies—too flexible for my taste.

How do you feel about Dick Cheney?

I think he’s the most forceful, effective vice president in history.

I like some of the things he’s done. I think he was instrumental in getting the tax cuts through, which I approve of. I’m at odds with his aggressive military policy, but he’s put a new dimension on the vice presidency that I don’t think will be continued and maybe shouldn’t be continued.

You’ve seen a lot of secretaries of State. Who were the best?

It’s a very difficult job. You have to balance two constituencies—the presidency and the Foreign Service. Most don’t succeed very well in that. I think Dean Rusk, for example, was totally the president’s man. Colin Powell leaned heavily the other way, maybe too much, trying to protect the Foreign Service. As for making a great mark on history, I don’t think any of them cut a major swath.

The most effective in terms of interpersonal relations was Lawrence Eagleburger. He was not in the job for long, but he was quite good. Although I often criticized him, I thought George Shultz overall was an effective secretary of State. I think the least effective of all in my time was Al Haig, who never figured out what he was doing. He was a great source of Rowly’s and a pretty good source of mine, so that’s not the sine qua non when it comes to evaluating them.

I arrived in time to see the end of John Foster Dulles’s term as secretary of State. He was very powerful and decisive—he knew where he was going and had a world plan. Of all those I covered, he may have been the most effective. But he had a very bad press, which always means being treated badly by history.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 11/01/2008 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles