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Robert Novak and the death of insider Washington journalism

August 18, 2009 |  4:12 pm

Novak I never met Robert "Prince of Darkness" Novak but my association with the columnist who died today goes back to my earliest days in journalism. As a twentysomething copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I was responsible for proofreading (and condensing) various syndicated columns, from James Reston to William F. Buckley Jr. to Rowland Evans and Novak.

A lot of obituaries highlighted Novak's scoop about the undercover status of CIA operative Valerie Plame. But in his later career Novak was known less as a reporter and more as an opiner and television talking head. His metamorphosis says a lot about the evolution (or devolution) of Washington journalism.

The title of the Evans-Novak column, "Inside Report," said it all. Like the more decorous Reston column, it was a form of foreign correspondence, initiating Mr. and Mrs. Heartland into the exotic culture of the capital. I remember amusing myself with a parody of "Inside Report" that went something like this: "A whispered conversation at the yellowed urinals of a hotel men's room explains why President Ford's defense budget is in grave trouble." Then came open primaries, C-SPAN and the celebrification of what used to be backroom advisers.

Insider journalism wasn't the only casualty of this transformation. So was the political novel. Potboilers like "Advise and Consent" and "Seven Days in May" depended for their popularity on their familiarity with the hidden Washington of political strategists, lobbyists and reporters for whom everything was off the record. Today those once-shadowy figures blab and blog their way to fame.  Why rely on a novelist's depiction of a fictional James Carville when the real one is all over CNN?

If you want the thrill of a behind-the-scenes potboiler, look for a book like "The Da Vinci Code" or its imitators. As I've written before, the sacred precincts of the Vatican are an even better setting for skullduggery than the Oval Office or the Senate majority leader's hideaway. Conspiracies are still being hatched in smoke-filled rooms, but these rooms smell of incense, not tobacco. (Is that part of the reason Novak converted to Catholicism?)

Photo credit: AP Photo / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

-- Michael McGough


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