Washington is a citadel of public service; therefore, it is the most selfish city in America. Any ounce of paradox left in this truism after the 20th century has surely been drained by The Prince of Darkness, in which journalist Robert Novak—contrary to the self-serving formula of many Washington memoirs—reviews his five-decade career behind the scenes of American politics in a spirit of genuine candor.
The result should fascinate anyone who cares about journalism, politics, fealty, intrigue, or how much money Novak makes—all of it vividly exposed. He might be the first writer in history to admit his income absent the threat of gunfire, and the gesture bespeaks his honesty on other matters. “Perhaps my preference for JFK showed” in covering the 1960 Democratic presidential race, he says. “He was great fun to cover, while being with [Hubert Humphrey] was an ordeal.”
The book is full of such self-examination. Bad reviews of Novak’s various books are quoted no less often than good ones, and he speaks plainly of possible lapses in his professional resolve. Of being manipulated by a source or being overgenerous in print to those who were prone to leak, he writes: “I was such a sucker for an exclusive story.”
Because these admissions never turn out to be preludes to righteousness, as confessions so often are, they lend a ring of truth when it comes time to settle some juicy scores—regarding, for instance, his role in the Valerie Plame affair or the identity of the influential senate Democrat who called 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern a candidate of “acid, amnesty, and abortion”—and to appraise character. Ronald Reagan, he says, was “more clever—and more devious—than most people imagine.” Jimmy Carter is a “habitual liar.” As for Plame’s husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson: “What an asshole!” Compared with what we learn about TV talk-show host Chris Matthews and former House speaker Tip O’Neill, “arrogant and pretentious” John Kerry gets off easy.
Novak wants to set the record straight—not only about his work but also about its ongoing subject. Noting that a flattering Newsweek profile of him was written by a family friend, he says: “Little in Washington is on the level.” There’s no need to repeat that statement in any of the other 637 pages, which confirm it over and over in relentless detail. As Novak sees it, seemingly every relationship and every spoken sentence in Washington is infected with soul-numbing duplicity. And it never ends.
Of course, this will shock nobody. The only surprising thing so far is that, unlike most insider accounts, Novak’s is never an example of what it disdains; his half century’s experience in our fair capital meshes perfectly with his own gradually developed belief in small government. But for anyone eager to rest on clichés of how power corrupts absolutely, a further surprise is in store.
It comes near the end: Novak came out early against the Iraq War, soon to find himself reading a National Review cover story by David Frum that accused him of “wishing for” defeat and “hating [his] country.” Few of Novak’s longtime conservative friends were disturbed by the insult. Some hemmed and hawed. Others never returned his calls. As Novak recounts the story with obvious pain, one thing becomes clear: Honest disagreement over ideas, not wealth and power, can wreak the deepest inhumanity of all.
P.J. O’Rourke ended his book Parliament of Whores on this note: “In a democracy, the whores are us.” Whether you consider The Prince of Darkness a warts-and-all celebration or an appalling exposé will depend on your moral stamina. Either way, Novak has given us a window on Washington, and it sure as hell looks like a mirror.