Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Re: Robert Novak’s “Prince of Darkness.”

December 12, 2007

Re: Robert Novak’s “Prince of Darkness.”

Dear Colleagues:

About thirty-five years ago or so, I stopped reading Evans’ and Novak’s’ columns. They were just too reactionary for me. Reading their stuff was like forcing oneself to read the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal. Yuck. I guess the last straw for me might have been when I realized that George McGovern could not possibly win the 1972 race because Evans and Novak would not let him win. They won. He lost. The rest of us lost too, since we got Nixon again. To reiterate, yuck.

Nor did I ever watch Evans or Novak on television. Their shows had just too much yelling and screaming and knee jerkism on each side to suit me. Once again, yuck.

So, when Novak came out with his autobiography, (the aptly named) Prince Of Darkness, there was no way I was going to buy that book and provide this guy with even one red cent of royalties. But then I saw him on television discussing his book, and the book sounded pretty interesting even if Novak is reactionary. I still didn’t buy the book, though. Then I saw him on TV a second time discussing the book, and again it sounded very interesting. So I broke down and bought the book, and have now read it.

Prince of Darkness is not a great book. It is not filled with unusual insights. It is basically, in my judgment, a series of vignettes, hundreds of them, about people who usually were famous in my lifetime, or, if not famous, at least politically active. Fifty or 100 years from now, maybe even only five or ten years from now, or even two years from now, nobody will remember the book, since it is, as said, basically only a collection of brief vignettes about the famous or the politically active. Thucydides or Lytton Strachey, Novak isn’t.

Yet, for some of us who were politically aware from the 1950s onward, the book is interesting, and for precisely the same reason it will not be remembered: it is filled with stories about the people of our time. Many of the stories, and/or the Novakian views they illustrate or call forth, have been described in book reviews. The reviews of Novak’s book may be more thorough, more what book reviews should be, than most are. So there is no need to reiterate the vignettes or views here, at least not most of them.

The only comment Novak made which I guarantee -- like George Foreman, I guarantee it -- has not been picked up elsewhere is his statement that his uncle, Sid Novak, was a legendary Chicago High School basketball coach. This interested me because I still regard Chicago, and Illinois, high school basketball of the mid 1950s as among the most important aspects of world history, and my memory of the name Sid Novak was very vague at best and of where he coached -- the name Crane Tech somehow came to mind -- was even vaguer. So I emailed Ira Berkow, who frankly must know everything that is or is not worth knowing on this and many other subjects, to ask him about Sid Novak. The word came back from Ira that Sid Novak was a legend and he had been at Crane Tech. I’ve now asked Ira why Novak was a legend -- did he win endless championships like Morgan Wooten at DeMatha in the Washington, D.C. area? -- and am awaiting Ira’s reply.

Other than the comment about his uncle Sid -- which was probably of no interest to any other reader -- I was taken with the fact that Novak goes out of his way to say what a horrible guy he himself is. He admits repeatedly, he in fact proclaims, that he is very dislikable, is a former big time drunk, is a guy with a serious gambling problem, is a man who at times lied to his partner, who in turn lied at times to him or withheld important information from him, is a man who lied to some others too, is a guy who got into physical fights -- brawls, is obsessed with money (one good thing he does, though, is that he translates amounts of money he received for various things in former years (e.g., the early 1960s) into their equivalents today, which gives one a sense of the realistic magnitudes he is speaking about and should be done by other writers), and is to the right of Genghis Khan. Never has a person written so extensively on what a bad person he himself is, as far as I know. As Churchill might put it, never have so few written so much that is so bad about such a small number. Novak deserves some credit for this, one imagines. If nothing else, it shows at least some self awareness, even if the self awareness never caused him to change.

Since he is appropriately hard on himself, I suppose Novak is entitled, as it were, to level the continuous blasts he directs at others. There are so many political, governmental and journalistic figures of the last 50 years whom he regards as liars, hypocrites, stupid, money hungry (a fine trait that, if memory serves, he thinks began to become a big time phenomenon in the 1960s, which is not far from when this writer would place it), big mouths, drunks, dullards, backstabbers, and general all around schmucks. To me, his views on the political class -- which Twain called our only native criminal class -- and the journalistic class seem right on. (With regard to their being general all around schmucks, one has to laugh at a story Novak tells about John McLaughlin, whom Novak thinks a world class putz whom he “came to loathe.” Not wanting to waste a single moment waiting for a limo when he returned to Washington via air, McLaughlin would have a flunkie awaiting him at the arrival gate. When the flunkie spotted McLaughlin, “he would notify a colleague driving the limo via mobile phone: ‘The eagle has landed! The eagle has landed!’” Can you believe it? “The eagle has landed!” If memory serves, that statement is what was radioed back when the lunar lander touched down on the moon.)

A few nights ago, I heard Lou Dobbs say on TV, when recently interviewed extensively at the Princeton Club in New York City, that Americans do not want to vote for any of the people who currently are running for president. One thinks Dobbs right, and when you read Novak’s book you might also think that, in a system which is comprised so extensively, even almost exclusively, of the kinds of despicables whom Novak finds everywhere in Washington and the state capitols, such a horrible choice as we now have is only to be expected.

One of the interesting things all this brings up is why, since he finds so many and so much to be so horrid, Novak made his life living among, socializing with and writing about such awful people and things. Well, it was generally a pretty good living. It is what he knows how to do. He plainly loves a good fight. He got to live and work among, and sometimes affect, the high and mighty of the world. And, one suspects, he is simply the moth drawn to the flame. This last, indeed, is probably the most important, the overarching reason. But whatever the reason or reasons, I suspect we should be glad that he did it and could therefore write his book. For the book so vigorously debunks so many who, as lots of us feel, richly deserve all the debunking that any and all can offer.

 This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at

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