Remembering Washington's Loved Ones
Above the Fold
Nothing brings out Washington’s passion for mediocrity like the death of one of its favorite pundits.
When syndicated columnist and long time TV personality Bob Novak died last August, he was lionized by David Broder, praised by Howard Kurtz, and given a mostly friendly obituary in The New York Times.
Nowhere in in The Times or The Post could you find a hint of the fact that Novak and his late partner Rowland Evans had pioneered the corruption of Washington journalism, by charging lobbyists to attend annual conferences populated by sources corralled by the columnists–sources who felt compelled to attend, lest they fall out of favor with two of Washington’s most successful opinion makers. (It was this model that the Atlantic Magazine has emulated for several years, and which Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth briefly, and disastrously, embraced last summer, until the newsroom rose up in disgust, forcing Weymouth to abandon it, at least temporarily.)
What you did learn from his loving colleagues after Novak died was that he was “notable… for the energy with which he tackled his assignments” and “his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it” (Broder); that Fred Barnes thought he was “ideological but not partisan at all” and that he “prided himself on being a shoe-leather reporter” (Kurtz); and “he was also a great reporter who liked a good story even more than his ideology” (The New York Times.)
Now it is true, as any knowlegeable Washington octogenarian will tell you, that Novak was a great reporter when he covered Capital Hill for The Wall Street Journal–in the late 1950’s. But that was five decades ago. When he switched from reporter to columnist, Novak’s pieces were so riddled with factual errors that he and his partner Rowland Evans quickly became known as “Errors and No Facts.”
In one of dozens of famous non-scoop-scoops, the column reported days before the 1980 presidential election that Jimmy Carter’s White House counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had just flown back from Geneva, where he had secured a “handshake” agreement with the Iranians to release the American hostages in Teheran. Had the columnists taken the elementary precaution of telephoning Cutler before writing that, they would have learned that hehadn’t been out of the country at all–since the previous summer.
LAST WEEK, IT WAS DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN, with the death of Bill Safire, the Nixon flak turned Times columnist, whose hiring by Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger ssent shivers through the rest of The New York Times at the end of 1972.
But Safire quickly won over his Washington bureau colleagues by feeding them the scooplets that he didn’t use in his own column. And while Nixon was still in office, he occasionally got a special leak–as he did the day the White House gave him the transcripts of an early set of Nixon tapes, several hours before other news organizations received them.
Last week his Times colleague Maureen Dowd caught Washington’s mood with a worshipful column extolling Safire as “a man who loved women,” wrote novels “full of zesty sex scenes,” and had “none of the vile and vitriol of today’s howling pack of conservative pundits.” Her kicker was to declare him a “mensch”–the ultimate Yiddish compliment, which, in this case, could not have been more inappropriate.
Only Slate’s Jack Shafer suggested Safire’s true nature: “A human hybrid of flack, hack, speechwriter, book author, novelist, and politician, he answered to nobody but himself, and for all his alleged skill as a reporter, he never asked himself any tough questions.” Many years ago, writing in Newsday, Sydney Schanberg made a similar point, when Safire suddenly embraced Al D’Amato for his ethical zeal, because he was investigating Bill Clinton’s alleged misdeeds in the Whitewater affair–even though, as Schanberg pointed out, the New York Senator had “perhaps the most dubious ethics record of any figure on the national scene.”
(Full Disclosure: when I was the press critic at Newsweek, I wrote a piece accusing New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal of using the paper to “reward his friends and punish his enemies,” after he commissioned Times reporter John Corry to write a 6,500 word apologia for Jerzy Kosinski on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section. Corry’s piece was a response to an article in The Village Voice, which had accused Kosinki of not being the sole author of all of his novels. Corry suggested that the writers at the Voice had been duped by a Polish government campaign defaming the emigré author–because he was an anti-commnist. Almost every senior Times critic told me they were horrified by Corry’s piece, because they believed it had been motivated solely by Rosenthal’s close friendship with Kosinski. But Abe’s other close friend, Bill Safire, responded to my criticism with a column which attacked me for attacking Abe–and extolled Corry’s article as “a piece of cultural sleuthing worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.”)
David Broder unwittingly identified the real problem with writers like Novak and Safire, when he described Novak as one of those reporters who “cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama they loved.” Broder meant that as a compliment, of course, even though such a posture actually makes it impossible to practice real journalism. George Orwell, the antithesis of this kind of pundit, once explained to Stephen Spender that he didn’t “mix much in literary circles” partly because “I know from experience that once I have met & spoken to anyone I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to.”
The one person toward whom Safire almost never showed any “intellectual brutality” was his first important patron, Richard Nixon. Safire labored in Nixon’s White House with Pat Buchanan, and togther they wrote the speeches that vice president Spiro Agnew delivered in the mid 1970’s, which inaugurated the right-wing war against the mainstream press, which has been waged so successfully ever since then.
When Abe Rosenthal died three and a half years ago, Safire was one of the speakers at his funeral, at Central Synagogue in Manhattan.
He recalled that Rosenthal often said that he wanted his epitaph to be, “He kept the paper straight”–words which actually appear on Rosenthal’s grave stone.
Then Safire recalled being in The New York Times newsroom in the summer of 1974, on the day when the news came over the wire that Richard Nixon had decided to resign. According to Safire, the entire Times newsroom had erupted in applause.
There was only one problem with this anecdote, as I pointed out to Safire on the synagogue’s steps when the funeral was over: it never happened. I was in the Times newsroom for twelve hours that day, because I was Abe Rosenthal’s news clerk, and there was never any applause to celebrate the president’s resignation. If there had been, Abe would surely have fired any reporter who had put his hands together at such a moment.
Like many of Safire’s own columns, this was another story “too good to check”–but he used it anyway, because it worked so well to confirm his life-long prejudices.