A Proud Memoir from 'The Prince of Darkness'In his new book, Robert Novak chronicles his singular career as a reporter, columnist and commentator. He offers his take on the Washington political scene — his turf for five decades.
Robert Novak was a commentator for CNN for 25 years. He is now a familiar face on Fox News and a commentator for Bloomberg News. The Prince of Darkness is his sixth book.
Photo courtesy of CNN
Photo courtesy of CNN
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Book Tour is a new Web feature and podcast. Each week, we present leading authors of fiction and nonfiction as they read from and discuss their work.
Robert Novak's new memoir, The Prince of Darkness, chronicles the columnist and commentator's singular career — in 2001, he received the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award for lifetime achievement in journalism — and gives his take on the Washington political scene that has been his turf for five decades.
"The Prince of Darkness" is the nickname a fellow reporter gave Novak for his pessimistic outlook on the future when he was a young journalist covering politics at The Wall Street Journal.
Despite that moniker, Novak, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism 11 years ago, insists he has an optimistic view of his purpose: "The Lord has a mission for me, and I'm trying to fulfill it."
Optimist or no, Novak may be best known for his willingness to court controversy. He even calls himself "a stirrer-up of strife;" the phrase comes from Dante's Inferno, and Novak says it describes the "proper role for a journalist," even if it's not always a comfortable one.
He writes that his 2003 column revealing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame — and the firestorm that followed — involved some particularly uncomfortable times.
"I came under constant abuse from journalistic ethics critics, from some colleagues, and especially from bloggers," Novak writes. "I have written many, many more important columns, but the one on the CIA leak case will forever be part of my public identity."
The author was again in the spotlight when he walked off the set of CNN's Inside Politics after a run-in with Democratic strategist James Carville. Novak says his 25-year relationship with the cable network had already been undermined by his part in the Plame affair, and he retired from CNN shortly thereafter. He's now a familiar face on Fox News and a commentator for Bloomberg News.
Novak follows his own brand of conservative politics. Born into a family who opposed FDR's New Deal, he nonetheless cast his vote for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s. Now, while he believes in what he calls "limited government, low taxes, and individual economic freedom," he has drawn ire from hard-line Republicans for his stand against the war in Iraq.
Still, Novak stands proudly by his journalistic philosophy — namely, "to tell the world things people do not want me to reveal, to advocate limited government, economic freedom, and a strong, prudent America — and to have fun doing it."
And yes, he means "fun."
"For the sober-sided younger generations of journalists, having fun may seem unserious," he writes. "But ... I had a terrific time fulfilling all my youthful dreams and at the same time making life miserable for hypocritical, posturing politicians and, I hope, performing a service for my country."
The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington
Robert D. Novak
Hardcover, 672 pages
List price: $29.95
Chapter 19 — Vietnam
Turning age thirty-nine in 1970, I was a Korean War-era veteran who never had heard a shot fired in anger and a major Washington correspondent who had never covered a war. The time was past due for me to go to Vietnam, but I was in no hurry. My rationalization was that Rowly, the old marine combat veteran, was covering Indochina for us with annual trips starting in 1965.
However, suddenly and inexplicably, my partner early in 1970 told me he would travel to Vietnam no more. "That opens the way for you to go to Vietnam, Bob," Evans told me. "I really envy you." If he envied me so much, I wondered, why didn't he keep going himself?
I arranged a four-week trip to Southeast Asia in April 1970, mostly in Vietnam with a few days in the secondary battleground of Laos. I didn't plan to go to Cambodia, where nothing much was happening under the "neutralist" (mainly procommunist) Prince Norodom Sihanouk, and where it was difficult for a Western journalist to get an entry visa.
The high point of my first trip to Vietnam was getting acquainted with one of the most remarkable figures I have encountered in a lifetime of meeting strong personalities: John Paul Vann, then the senior U.S. government official in the Mekong Delta. He had been lionized in the American press by such disparate journalists as the dove David Halberstam and the hawk Joseph Alsop.
Vann was forty-six years old, a small, wiry man whose humble appearance belied the reality that he was one of the world's great antiguerrilla tacticians. While many U.S. Foreign Service officers assigned to Vietnam's pacification program went "cowboy" with slouch campaign hats and M-16 rifles slung over their back or .45 pistols at their belt, Vann dressed in nondescript civilian clothes and carried no weapons.
Neil Sheehan, David Halberstam, and Malcolm Browne were young reporters who worked closely with Lieutenant Colonel Vann in 1963 in telling the world about the foolish conduct of the war. By 1970, his old reporter friends thought Vann had changed. He thought they did not understand that conditions in Vietnam had changed. Actually, their goals had always differed. The journalists, who in 1963 joined Vann in denouncing the way the war was being conducted, never shared Vann's determination to prevent a Communist takeover in Vietnam.
I had been in country four days when I met Vann at IV Corps headquarters in Cantho in the Mekong Delta. He told me he had been ordered by "Abe" (General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander) to take me along for the next three days, and Vann was not particularly happy about that.
"This won't be a pleasure trip," he told me. "I'll be moving fast, and right into 'Indian Country.' Or you can make your own schedule. I'll get you a chopper and an officer escort and you can go anywhere you want in IV Corps." Despite Vann's reputation for risk-taking, I could not pass up a three-day tutorial from the leading American expert on Vietnam.
The Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of Indochina and birthplace of the Vietcong insurgency, had changed radically since 1963 when Vann was a principal source for Halberstam, Sheehan, and Browne. American heavy infantrymen then were destroying the delta in their futile quest of sleek, Motivated Communist guerrillas. Seven years later IV Corps was more Vietnamized than anywhere else, with the Vietcong on the ropes.
Those three days were routine for Vann, but high adventure for me. Vann traveled through IV Corps from dawn to dusk in a U.S. Army helicopter (often taking the controls himself). South Vietnamese district officials were not alerted in advance of Vann swooping down to interrogate, chastise, and exhort them. As promised, he took me into "Indian Country" — such as Kienthahn District, where a fragile government presence had just been established and where, Vann told me, the Vietcong still ruled the night.
After our frosty beginning, Vann reverted to his normally garrulous self. I took an immediate liking to him, and I think he may have reciprocated. Vann was famous for getting by on four hours of sleep a night, and I had trained myself in college to make do with five or six hours. In overnight talk sessions, one night in sleeping bags under the stars, I was instructed by John Vann.
From the start, Vann told me, U.S. authorities had told the Vietnamese to step out of the way while we Americans won this war — quickly. He said General William Westmoreland, Abrams's predecessor, was a disaster with no appreciation of Vietnamese nationalism and dreams of parlaying the war into the American presidency. Lyndon Johnson, supporting Westmoreland all the way, was hopeless, Vann added. Not until recently, Vann told me, had Washington permitted ARVN units to be given M-16 automatic rifles in place of obsolete World War II-vintage M-1s. Now, he wanted regional militiamen to get M-16s as well. He said Vietnamization was the only hope for a non-Communist Vietnam to survive.
Had I, he asked, noted the differences between the districts we visited? Kienthanh, where we found militiamen gambling in filthy barracks in the middle of the day, was ready to be overrun by the enemy. A few kilometers away, Kienhen district's militiamen were in high morale, going out on all-night patrols (a rarity for ARVN forces). "The soldier in South Vietnam," Vann told me, "is as good as the American, really better because he is harder. After all, he comes from the same stock as the VC. The problem is the officers. Most of them are terrible." To survive, he said, South Vietnam must develop a better officer corps that did not rely on American air power.
That was the biggest lesson of my first visit to Vietnam. The dozens of ARVN officers I talked to all over the country were products of the French colonial system who had fought against their country's independence. They opposed departure of the American troops and told me they could not survive without U.S. helicopters and bombers, assets they could not count on forever.
A month before I left for Southeast Asia in 1970, an unexpected event in Cambodia in which the United States played no part significantly altered the region's political climate. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's saxophone-playing, playboy chief of state, had tried to keep his country out of war by appeasing North Vietnam. He permitted fifty thousand NVA and Vietcong troops to use Cambodia as a supply base and refuge in the Vietnamese war. By early 1970, however, Sihanouk protested to Hanoi that it had violated his hospitality by continued infiltration of forces into his country. In March, he went to Moscow to implore the Soviets to intervene with Ho Chi Minh. Lieutenant General Lon Nol, the Cambodian premier and army supreme commander, took advantage of the prince's absence to lead a right-wing coup deposing Sihanouk. The new government immediately demanded withdrawal of all Vietnamese troops.
My CIA briefers in Langley said the Agency had nothing to do with the Cambodian coup, and I believed them. They also admitted they did not know exactly what was going on in Cambodia. They advised me to stay out of Cambodia, asserting what I could learn there would not justify the danger of entering such an unstable situation. (Seventeen Western journalists, three of them Americans, would be seized in Cambodia by Communist forces in 1970, many never to return.)
When I arrived in Saigon, my plans changed. I encountered a former colleague from the Wall Street Journal, Jim Wallace, a professional foreign correspondent now working for U.S. News & World Report. His wife, Haya, went everywhere with him, and they now made their home in a single room at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. But Jim told me the action was in Cambodia, and they soon would be leaving for Phnom Penh.
So was much of the Saigon press corps. It was impossible to get an entry visa for Cambodia with the country's consular service in disarray after the coup, so reporters were just showing up in Phnom Penh. I rearranged my schedule to go to Phnom Penh — without documents or appointments there — and I entered a French colonial town that was pure Graham Greene. Phnom Penh until then had been untouched by war and was bereft of American influence. There were few automobiles and Southeast Asia's most beautiful women gracefully pedaled their bicycles through city streets. A large opium den operated openly in a city lacking reliable means of communication with the outside world. The Hotel Royale, where everybody stayed, was run-down but betrayed a former elegance.
The Wallaces had been there a week when I checked in. Something was happening in Cambodia, but nobody could be sure what. This was not Vietnam or Laos where U.S. authorities did their best to make life easy for me. The daily briefing at the Defense Ministry reported great battles with Cambodian forces devastating the NVA. The briefer was named Am Rong — appropriate as he dispensed pure fiction.
There were no U.S. aircraft to take me where the action was. American reporters, usually in groups of two or three, would hire a car with driver and interpreter at a daily rate of ten dollars in town and twenty-five dollars in the countryside (with a premium of one hundred dollars if shot at). All the air-conditioned Mercedes sedans had been taken by the time Wallace got to town, and he managed only a timeworn four-door Chevrolet Impala, with a two-man crew that was a little slow on the uptake.
Daniel Southerland, a young reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, joined Wallace and me to split costs three ways and we set off early one morning to find the war. When we reached the Neak Leung ferry station on the Mekong an hour out of Phnom Penh, there was a line of Mercedes sedans carrying reporters, immobilized by what they saw. I had never seen anything like it, and neither had reporters with extensive experience of war.
We saw an endless procession of dead bodies — thousands of them-floating down the river. We thus learned of a genocidal slaughter in process. The dead were ethnic Vietnamese, not invading troops but civilian residents, some of whom had lived in Cambodia for generations and now had been slaughtered by their fellow Cambodians, ethnic Khmer, and dumped in the river. We were close enough and the river was moving slowly enough so that we could see facial wounds and death mask expressions.
The Lon Nol government had been exhorting the populace to patriotic fervor against intruding Communist Vietnamese troops. The populace reacted by turning on their harder-working Vietnamese neighbors, whose economic success they envied.
Late in the afternoon, we located the headquarters of the Cambodian Army brigade holding the provincial capital of Svayriengville. We were told the colonel commanding the brigade was just finishing his daily siesta(!), but if we could wait ten or fifteen minutes, he would be more than happy to see us. The fifteen minutes stretched closer to forty-five, but we had put in so much time we figured we had best wait it out.
We found the colonel wearing a silk dressing gown and offering us cognac. He proceeded with an extended monologue in what sounded to me like pretty good French. Two decades earlier, he said, he was a lieutenant in the French colonial army, which he said always administered a beating to the Communist Vietminh (neglecting to mention that the Vietminh won that war). It was the colonel's fancy that the Communist commanders he faced now were the young officers he claimed to have defeated in the 1950s. "We know these Vietcong as we know our household dogs," he told us. Surrounded on three sides by these "dogs" and facing encirclement as he sipped cognac, the colonel was a fool.
Wallace, Southerland, and I were in nearly as much danger as the colonel. We had wasted so much time at brigade headquarters that night was falling with a lot of ground for us to cover before reaching the Neak Leung ferry.
It was pitch-dark as we traveled down a lonely country road and heard a burst of automatic rifle fire. The driver slammed on the brakes. "You idiot!" shouted Wallace. "Accelerate, accelerate! Don't stop" The driver could not understand a word of English, but the interpreter relayed Jim's instructions and we sped out of danger.
When we arrived at Neak Leung, we found it deserted. The ferryboat was tied to its moorings, and the ferryman was nowhere to be seen. The only person around was a teenaged boy who told us the ferryman had gone home for the night and that he had no idea where the ferryman lived. The boy then took off running into the darkness, whether to stay away from possible trouble or to alert Communist troops we did not know.
Smart enough to appreciate our situation, the driver began to sob. "Shut up!" Wallace yelled. But I felt like sobbing myself. We faced a night without lodging in the Cambodian countryside filled with hostile guerrillas, who by now probably were aware of our whereabouts. Then, out of the night, we heard truck engines. Guerrillas don't travel by truck. It was a Cambodian Army company, with the ferryman in tow. It might as well have been the U.S. Cavalry to the rescue as they carried us across the Mekong.
When we finally got to the Hotel Royale in Phnom Penh, we found Jim's wife, Haya, beside herself. In these pre-cell phone days, we had no way of informing her that we were safe. Late as it was, eight of us went to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate our narrow escape. Peking duck never tasted so good.
I flew to Honolulu to join Geraldine for a week's vacation in the outer Hawaiian islands. Upon arriving in Honolulu, I had a morning appointment on April 30, 1970, with the Commander in Chief, U.S. Forces in the Pacific (CINCPAC), who had nominal authority over the Asian wars. I didn't expect to learn much from him, but I scheduled the meeting anyway because I knew and liked the current CINCPAC, Admiral John S. McCain Jr.
Admiral McCain had been chief of Naval Information at the Pentagon during the first year of the Evans & Novak column and had been helpful to me. We found we were neighbors on Capitol Hill, and we saw each other occasionally at social events. His father, John S. Sr., was an admiral who commanded a World War II task force in the Pacific. His son, the future senator John S. III, was a naval aviator who was a North Vietnamese prisoner of war while his father was CINCPAC.
In the Honolulu office where Geraldine joined us, the admiral gave me the standard Vietnam briefing, charts and all. I told him of my experience in Cambodia and suggested the military situation there was so bad that the country would become more of a sanctuary for the NVA than ever before. McCain tensed up, a surprise because he always had been open with me. When I pressed him with more questions about Cambodia, he waved me off and said: "Bob, I just can't talk anymore about this. All I can say is watch the president's speech tonight."
Actually, it was afternoon time in Hawaii when Nixon addressed the nation and the world. Geraldine and I watched from our Honolulu hotel room as the president announced a joint incursion of U.S. and South Vietnamese forces into largely unpopulated areas of Cambodia to remove it as a sanctuary for the NVA. In a month of intense reporting in Indochina, I had not heard a whisper of this. What shocked me was Nixon's rhetoric.
We will not be humiliated. We will not be defeated. If when the chips are down the U.S. acts like a pitiful helpless giant, the forces of totalitarianism and anarchy will threaten free nations and free institutions throughout the world. It is not our power but our will that is being tested tonight....
This attempt at Churchillian prose or at least Eisenhower's D-Day declaration was exaggerated for an eight-week border raid. It was to be in and out, with no attempt to stabilize the Lon Nol regime's rule. Laird wanted only South Vietnamese troops used in Cambodia, arguing this was the opportunity to show that the ARVN could stand up to NVA regulars. General Abrams wanted a combined U.S.-ARVN operation, because he felt the South Vietnamese could not perform the mission by themselves. Abrams won the argument. We analyzed what had happened in a column where Rowly and I pooled our information:
...[O]ne high-ranking civilian official told us in Vietnam: "Abe just doesn't understand Vietnamization." He and other civilians feel Abrams and the uniformed military are missing an essential point of Vietnamization-that South Vietnamese troops must take over from the Americans not when they are ready, but ready or not. Otherwise, the South Vietnamese never will be ready.
The "high-ranking civilian official" was John Paul Vann. When I saw him in Vietnam the next year, Vann told me he feared the failure to make the Cambodian incursion an all-ARVN operation reduced the confidence of the South Vietnamese high command with dire implications for the future. The excellent performance of South Vietnamese troops inside Cambodia showed that Laird and Vann were correct and Abrams and the other generals were wrong. The cost of using American troops was, as Laird had predicted, a regeneration of the antiwar movement in the United States and a decline in support for the war that would have tragic consequences four years hence.