[Posted by WLS]
I’m referring to Robert Novak’s recently published memoir of his 50 years reporting on politics, “The Prince of Darkness.” I highly recommend it to anyone who likes politics — especially politics from an era before you were old enough to understand.
I’ve been reading or watching Novak since the mid-1980’s when I came of age politically while living in Wash. DC., and was fond of watching him as a member of the original cast of The McLaughlin Group.
I haven’t sat down to read his book in big chunks, so my progress through it has been slow — but that has only extended what has been a very pleasant exercise.
I’ll post some of the anecdotes from the book as I find them over the next few days — not ordinary stuff, but some of the really significant events he describes.
But, here’s just a little background for those of you who aren’t familiar with the journey Novak has made over the course of a half-century in Washington:
Novak reports that he voted for Kennedy over Nixon in 1960, and Johnson over Goldwater in 1964. He has been married for almost 5 decades to a native Texan who was a secretary for LBJ when he first met her. LBJ threw them a wedding reception at the Vice-President’s large house in D.C. — this was before the V.P. had an official residence.
Novak states that when his column with Rowland Evans first started in 1963 — about 6 months before the Kennedy assassination — the “Evans & Novak Report” was widely perceived as a left-of-center column that simply gave voice to the views of the Kennedy Democrats in Washington. Evans was a particularly close friend with Robert Kennedy, and the closeness of the friendship was not understood by Novak until after Evan’s death when Novak had a chance to listen to tapes of an “Oral History” Evans recorded with a biographer.
There is an incredible anecdote about an E&NR column that sparked an incident that seems to have contributed to JFK making the fateful trip to Dallas in late Nov. 2003. Novak doesn’t come right out and say that their column caused Kennedy to take the trip to Dallas, but the circumstances suggest it.
Novak received a tip from a Texas confidant of his wife that LBJ was secretly planning to put the weight of his vast Texas political machine behind a run by Jim Wright — LBJ’s Texas protege’ and future Speaker of the House — to run for the Senate in 1964 against an incumbent Democrat Senator, Ralph Yarborough. Yarborogh was an extreme liberal with whom LBJ had long clashed when they were both in the Senate, and Yarborough was clearly in the Kennedy camp after the 1960 election. The E&N column detailing LBJ’s plan to go after Yarborough was published on November 8, 1963, and titled “Johnson v. Kennedy.”
The column made JFK very unhappy because Yarborough was one of the few southern Democrats that JFK could count on for unqualified support of his New Frontier programs. After the E&N column was published on Nov. 8, and knowing that Johnson’s muscle against Yarborough put Yarborough at risk, Kennedy scheduled the swing through Texas for the benefit of showing his support for Yarborough’s reelection, and to try and short-circuit LBJ’s plan. That trip, as everyone knows, ended with JFK’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22 — two weeks after the column first ran.
A second anecdote that I read this morning involved an E&N column that created a tremendous controversy in 1966 (I think that was the year — if wrong, I will correct it after I look at the book again).
Novak had recieved from another journalist a near verbatim transcript of an off-the-record conversation between Secretary of State Dean Rusk and senior officials at the Washington Post. The Post was the biggest liberal defender of LBJ’s prosecution of the Vietnam War.
Rusk had been Kennedy’s Secretary of State, and remained in that position after LBJ became President. Rusk was a Southerner, and a vocal advocate of the use of military force to combat the spread of Communism. He consistently and forcefully defended the decision to go to war in Vietnam, which put him at odds with much of the Kennedy inner-circle as LBJ prosecuted the war that JFK started.
In the off-the-record session with the Wash.Post execs, Rusk lashed out in the most extreme terms against the “keepers of the Kennedy flame” — led by Robert Kennedy — who had turned on LBJ over the Vietnam war. He desribed the anti-war movement then getting started at universities as being instigated by communists on the faculties, and made the anti-war political left out to be communist dupes.
This column created a firestorm on a variety of fronts — not the least of which was because the Post was the Washington paper that carried E&N which was syndicated, and made it look like someone at the Post had broken the “off-the-record” groundrules in giving E&N a transcript of Rusk’s comments.
What Novak points out for the first time in his memoir, however, was that the leak of the verbatim transcript of the meeting came to him through an intermediary, but the source was none other than the leading liberal commentator of the time, Walter Lippeman. Lippeman was retiring and heading back to New York an avowed opponent of the war and completely disgusted with LBJ. Lippeman had attended the session with Sec. Rusk, and was so appalled by what Rusk said about the anti-war elements of the Democrat party and former members of the Kennedy Administration who were against he war, that he leaked the transcript to the third party for the purpose of seeing it published somewhere.
Novak says this public rupturing of the doves and hawks in the Democrat party in the mid-60s was really the turning point in terms of the decline of civility in the discourse between political opponents in Washington DC that has continued to the present day.