What about White House chiefs of staff?
I think the current chief of staff, Josh Bolten, is quite good in what seems to be a disastrous administration. He is very efficient—he keeps the tumult down to a minimum.
Who do you think were the best legislators?
Legislators are funny. One of the best-equipped legislators was Wilbur Mills, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. He really knew trade, taxes—he really knew the field. He was very smart and came across as a shrewd bargainer. But he never got anything done.
A more recent chair of the Ways and Means committee was Bill Thomas, who was considered by his colleagues to be the smartest guy in town. I think Bill considered himself the smartest guy in the world. But he was very meager in terms of accomplishments. It’s hard to get things passed.
If you go by accomplishments, the best was Lyndon Johnson. There’s not even a close second in terms of getting bills passed. The reason: He was a trader, and he never took no for an answer. He could bargain into the night.
I am always amused when I watch Harry Reid come out on television and bemoan the fact that he had devised a unanimous-consent agreement but the evil Republicans violated it, so he couldn’t get a unanimous-consent agreement. I compare that with Johnson, who never gave up. Sometimes when there was an impasse, I’d be sitting in the press section and see him retreat to the cloakroom. A little later, he’d come back with a couple of senators and they’d have an agreement. He was unique.
What about Newt Gingrich?
I thought he was a failure as speaker and a great success as a political manager in getting a Republican majority in the House. It’s amazing to see how much influence he still has and how popular he is in the Republican Party.
What changes have you seen in Washington as a place to live?
It’s a totally different town than it used to be. It is much less dingy. It’s got slick restaurants. But the big difference between 2008 and 1957 is money. Washington is much more like New York in being a money town. If you wanted to make $150,000 a year out of law school back then, you didn’t go to Washington, but you do now. The giant law-and-lobbying firms have markedly changed the climate.
If a retired congressman isn’t making 300 grand a year out of Congress, his wife is going to complain. I had a conversation with a congressman who left Congress under a cloud. I asked him how he’s doing. He said, “Six figures.”
You’ve described yourself as a hero worshiper in a field that doesn’t have many heroes. Who were your heroes?
To be a hero—my hero—the person has to be in the process of risking his life or his livelihood or his way of life for a principle. That’s hard to find in the political world. I’ve talked about the great Czech distance runner Emil Zápotek, the greatest distance runner of all time, who ended up working in a uranium mine because he supported the 1968 uprising. He was a great hero of mine—an athlete who changed his whole life for principle.
I admire a lot of people on the Hill, but are they heroes? I wouldn’t say so.
I think about Pat Moynihan, who I liked and admired. He was very smart, a very nice man, and wrote all his books himself in longhand. But whenever there was a choice between political expedience and principle, he’d choose political expediency. I don’t criticize him for it; he was a politician.
You’ve had a chance to look back on your life and think about what you’ve done that was good and what was bad. What stands out?
Looking back, I tried to find out what the politicians were up to, which is a difficult job. I find that politicians as a class are up to no good. Sometimes they accidentally do the right thing. When I started out, I didn’t have any agenda or tablet of principles at all. But in the course of writing about things and getting exclusive information, I might have helped certain causes. I might have helped the tax-cutting cause, which I’m very much in favor of. That takes away from my mantra that I’m just a simple reporter reporting the facts, doesn’t it?
When we started the column, Rowly and I were neutral on abortion, maybe leaning toward pro-choice. I began to read, think about it, and by the time I embraced Catholicism, I was adamantly against abortion. I’m happy that I moved in that direction.
Rowly once gave me a very elegant description of what it was we were doing. He said we were trying to intercept the lines of communication. Looking back on my life, I regret I was so determined to do that. I ended up writing a lot of political trivia, which really made my reputation. I think when people stop me now and say they miss my column, what they’re talking about is the behind-the-scenes trivia—the kind of thing that made me acceptable to people who disagreed with me. But I think I would have been better off to write about tax cuts and abortion and less about inside politics.
Only those issues or others?
I was very negative about the invasion of Iraq. That’s another subject I should have written more about, explained more. I thought the war was unjustified. But my stand led to a Novak-hates-his-country piece in the National Review, which caused me a lot of grief and cut me off at the White House. I should have explained more about why I took the position I did. I probably should have written more about foreign policy in general. If I told you I accomplished some huge feat, it wouldn’t be true. But I’m not ashamed of what I’ve written. I stand by it.
Let’s talk about the Valerie Plame affair, which caused you so much grief. If you had it to do over again, would you reveal who she was?
If you read my book, you find a certain ambivalence there. Journalistically, I thought it was an important story because it explained why the CIA would send Joe Wilson—a former Clinton White House aide with no track record in intelligence and no experience in Niger—on a fact-finding mission to Africa. From a personal point of view, I said in the book I probably should have ignored what I’d been told about Mrs. Wilson.
Now I’m much less ambivalent. I’d go full speed ahead because of the hateful and beastly way in which my left-wing critics in the press and Congress tried to make a political affair out of it and tried to ruin me. My response now is this: The hell with you. They didn’t ruin me. I have my faith, my family, and a good life. A lot of people love me—or like me. So they failed. I would do the same thing over again because I don’t think I hurt Valerie Plame whatsoever.
You saw up close what it’s like to be the subject of so many news stories. Has this changed the way you view the journalistic profession?
I thought the journalistic community was terrible to me—even members of the Gridiron Club, which is supposed to be a band of brothers and sisters. I thought one of the worst columns written on the Plame affair was by William Safire. He wrote a stupid column saying I should reveal the name of my source. He wanted to get his colleague at the New York Times, Judy Miller, off the hook with the prosecutors. He didn’t know, as I knew, that my source, Richard Armitage, had long before identified himself to the FBI and the Justice Department. But my attorneys advised me to keep silent about the whole affair.