Patterico's Pontifications


A Fascinating Read for any Political Junkie

Filed under: Books,Government,Media Bias,Politics,Public Policy — WLS @ 12:28 pm

[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. 

26 Responses to “A Fascinating Read for any Political Junkie”

  1. Well somebody or something has sure poisoned the well over the last 40 years or so. I would say that the Goracle’s “sore loser” loser’s attitude in 2000 was a major setback for civility in political discourse. Nixon did not go back and demand that Mayor Daley put all those dead democrat voters back in their resting place in the Chicago graveyards from whence they’d risen in November 1960 to give/steal the election for JFK.

    Mike Myers (2e43f5)

  2. decline of civility in the discourse between political opponents in Washington DC?

    When was this mythical time of civil discourse in Washington, D.C.?

    In the run up to the Civil War, maybe?

    alphie (015011)

  3. No, Staunch Brayer. It was before you started infesting blog threads.

    Paul (f54101)

  4. When was this mythical time of civil discourse in Washington, D.C.?

    During World War II, the Republicans did undertake numerous opportunities to undermine the American war effort and did not preemptively prepared surrender plans to the enemy like modern day Democrats.

    Perfect Sense (b6ec8c)

  5. When was this mythical time of civil discourse in Washington, D.C.?

    In the run up to the Civil War, maybe?

    A few examples: Nixon and JFK’s friendship in the 50’s; Reagan and Tip O’Neil getting together for drinks at the White House.

    Politics has not always been about the personal–there was a time in the not-so-distant past when Congresscritters from both sides of the aisle would get together with their families for fun. Remember the annual Congressional softball games? That was before the kooks on both extremes got the media microphones and started demanding loyalty to their ideals, not to the country or to the Congresscritter’s conscience or intelligence. In my mind, it started with the anti-war movement in the late 60’s and the rise of the “Moral Majority” in the 80’s was the backlash. Now, most D’s and R’s are afraid to be seen together for fear of losing votes, at least according to what they can see reported in the MSM.

    Joel (adb8be)

  6. Haha,

    You guys have nostalgia for a time that never existed I see.

    Life is just one big, phony Country song…

    alphie (015011)

  7. You guys have Scott Thomas Beauchamp has nostalgia for a time that never existed I see.

    There. Fixed it for you, Staunch Brayer.

    Paul (f54101)

  8. WLS,

    Fascinating. Thanks for the excerpts. I think I’ll go get the book.

    DRJ (8b9d41)

  9. I’m about a third of the way through it and agree with you. It is a fascinating read. Novak really is one of a kind in terms of staying pretty close to objective journalism.
    I was surprised about his assessment of Goldwater as a candidate. Just my opinion but Republicans would do well to read the book and they may see some parallels between today’s climate and that of forty years ago.

    voiceofreason (8a9d83)

  10. Come on, Paul,

    Robert Novak, the guy who outted a covert CIA agent for partisan reasons, is, quite possibly, the lamest concern troll ever.

    After looting the country for 4 unchecked years, the neocons say it’s time to return to an imaginary time of bi-partisan cooperation?

    Before the Democrats spoiled everything?

    Too funny.

    alphie (015011)

  11. Come on Alphie,

    Outed a covert agent? You know Novak didn’t do that. It was Richard Armitage.

    voiceofreason (8a9d83)

  12. I agree, DRJ…it is fascinating to get a first-hand account of the political inner workings set in motion decades ago that still affect us today.

    Paul (f54101)

  13. WLS: Thanks for this first episode in a running book review!

    With due respect to Novak, however, the split within the Texas Democratic Party between conservative (LBJ-protégé) Gov. John B. Connally and populist/liberal Sen. Yarborough was obvious without respect to anything Novak or any other Washington pundit might have said about it. Yarborough was a reliable supporter on New Frontier domestic programs, but he was just as likely to be a gadfly to JFK on foreign affairs, as Yarborough later proved in spades during the Johnson Administration. Yarborough’s liberalism, including his anti-Vietnam War position, eventually led to his defeat in the 1970 Texas Democratic primary by Lloyd Bentsen.

    And I don’t doubt that showing support for Yarborough was one reason for the November 1963 trip, but there were certainly others. Texas was, and is, an enormous source of fund-raising opportunities for candidates from both parties (which is why you’ll see Hillary Clinton in Texas these days). LBJ certainly had his fingers on large parts of that pulse, but JFK was independently interested.

    Kennedy also wanted to shore up his support in Texas and Florida (the latter of which he had visited earlier in November 1963) because of concerns that his civil rights proposals might make those states go Republican in 1964. Kennedy had only carried Texas by 46,000 votes in 1960, notwithstanding the presence of favorite-son LBJ on the ticket. (Wags said that with LBJ’s fate at stake in any important election, however, there would always be at least a 40,000 vote margin, at least until Duval County and other parts of South Texas ran out of corpses willing and able to vote Democratic in alphabetical order.)

    Kennedy also wanted to run in 1964 against a “hard Right” candidate like Goldwater, not someone like Nelson Rockefeller. Dallas was famously the home of John Birch Society right-wingers like retired general Edwin Walker (whom Lee Harvey Oswald had already tried, unsuccessfully, to assassinate). Visiting Texas, and Dallas in particular, was a thumb to the hard Right’s eye, intended both to show that Kennedy wasn’t awed by the hard Right and, perhaps less directly, to begin framing the 1964 election as being between their values and his. The enthusiastic crowds in Dallas, of course, were what led Nellie Connally to say the last words JFK would ever hear: “Mr. President, you certainly can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you!”

    Beldar (1b82e4)

  14. Beldar — thank’s for adding to the political history of the era. Like I said, it was before my time and I’ve never had occassion to look at it before.

    I may not have been clear in my recital of the story, but Novak was only relating the news which his column broke, and that was LBJ’s secret plan to back/fund Jim Wright in a run against Yarborough. I don’t think Novak would disagree with you that there was a well known split in Texas Democrat party. But for LBJ to effectively declare war on Kennedy by having LBJ’s machine back a challenger to a key Kennedy supporter, and for that to be reported in a syndicated column all over the country, had to take relations in Texas and Washington to new levels of frostiness.

    Novak doesn’t claim in the book that the column was the sole reason for JFK coming to Texas. I’m not sure my post is clear on that point. He simply says that the column was just one more bone of contention between them.

    WLS (077d0d)

  15. Novak’s anecdote regarding JFK’s November 1963 trip to Dallas…

    Over at Patterico’s Pontifications, guest-blogger WLS promises a multi-part review of Bob Novak’s wickedly titled new memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington. I’d be delighted to review the book myself, if only Mr. Novak’s …

    BeldarBlog (72c8fd)

  16. His book is about Algore?

    Oh, Darkness. I thought it was The Prince of Dorkness.

    I'm Geekier (9efea5)

  17. WLS: You’re welcome for the additional context. If I didn’t make clear originally, I should now:

    Novak’s anecdote is indeed valuable in an of itself — which is why I’m grateful for your summary of it! Many of JFK’s biographers and other historians of the period have noted that some people within the JFK Administration or otherwise close to JFK specifically warned him not to go to Dallas in November 1963. And the John Birch Society had just published an ominous black-bordered advertisement in the Dallas Morning News that some construed as an implied threat on the president’s life. Novak’s story is, at a minimum, valuable in presenting at least one other explanation for why Kennedy shrugged off those warnings.

    Beldar (1b82e4)

  18. The columnist was Walter Lippmann, not Lippeman.

    dchamil (a9f512)

  19. dchamil — LAUGH, you’re right.

    But, more hysterically, I remember double checking the spelling on Google, and still came away with it wrong.

    wls (aad074)

  20. I was in my twenties and remember the 60’s as a time of hope for new things, loved John K. and admired his wife. What I experienced is that the darker elements of the Left took over the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement and turned them into a “hate fest” that has gotten worse as the years have gone by. King asked us not to go there in his “I have a dream…” speech but we went there anyway…look at us now: hatred spews from everywhere that the tinfoil hatted leftist loons are.

    Sue (33bc8c)

  21. Maybe its you that changed, Sue?

    alphie (015011)

  22. Listen up, you retarded telephone pole. Can you honestly believe that the Democrats of today in any way resemble the Democrats of JFK? The only similarity I can see between JFK and today’s Dems is in what their party is named. As far as principles go, JFK would clearly lean towards the Republican party.

    JD (815fda)

  23. JD,

    Reality, not the usual wingnut fantasies.

    Consider what today’s “Republicans” would have done with Jack Kennedy’s affairs…then ponder which party has changed…and has turned hate-filled.

    From Gen. Eisenhower to Chickenhawk Georgie…quite a decline.

    alphie (015011)

  24. The Dems have fallen from their once proud tradition of JFK to losing 2 consecutive elections to a guy they call dumb, and having won only 3 Presidential elections in the last 30 years. Bravo.

    JD (815fda)

  25. He was better than the current crop by far; Stylistically he was Edwards; substantitively he’s Hillary in terms of the policy views. but consider his record; he gained the office by running to the right of Eisehower; supposedly endorsing the right of Cuban nationals to take
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    narciso (c36902)

  26. jd — and they won two of those three with only 42% and 49% of the popular votes cast.

    WLS (077d0d)

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