Q: The atmosphere in politics today is so bitterly partisan. What do you ascribe that to?
A: I don’t agree that partisanship is more bitter now. In the 19th century, the overriding issue was slavery, and there was no more partisan issue than slavery. Preston Brooks, a proslavery Democratic congressman from South Carolina, walked onto the Senate floor and beat Charles Sumner, the antislavery leader of the radical Republicans, almost to death with the metal end of his cane. Now, that was partisan.
Q: You mention the names of a lot of sources in “The Prince of Darkness,” which is practically a who’s who of everybody in government or politics over the past 50 years. Who were the most skillful leakers, the ones who really knew how to give good leak?
A: The word “leaker” has an ignominious ring. It connotes giving you something you shouldn’t have. I think I should have everything. So there are no leaks – there are sources.
Q: In your memoir, you describe an early meeting in the Oval Office with Reagan in which he quoted a couple of obscure 19th-century British free-trade advocates and some little-known modern Austrian economists. How underrated intellectually do you think Reagan was?
A: He was extremely underrated, particularly by the press. The press was very derisive. They were derisive of Eisenhower, too – they thought he was just another Army officer – but the attacks on Reagan were harsher. He was portrayed as stupid, uneducated, out of his element. I think he was very well educated and understood a lot of things. He was also very flexible in his policies – too flexible for my taste.
Q: You’ve described yourself as a hero worshiper in a field that doesn’t have many heroes. Who were your heroes?
A: To be a hero – my hero – the person has to be in the process of risking his life or his livelihood or his way of life for a principle. That’s hard to find in the political world. I’ve talked about the great Czech distance runner Emil Zapotek, the greatest distance runner of all time, who ended up working in a uranium mine because he supported the 1968 uprising. He was a great hero of mine – an athlete who changed his whole life for principle.
Q: You’ve had a chance to look back on your life and think about what you’ve done that was good and what was bad. What stands out?
A: Looking back, I tried to find out what the politicians were up to, which is a difficult job. I find that politicians as a class are up to no good. Looking back on my life, I regret I was so determined to do that. I ended up writing a lot of political trivia, which really made my reputation. I think when people stop me now and say they miss my column, what they’re talking about is the behind-the-scenes trivia – the kind of thing that made me acceptable to people who disagreed with me. But I think I would have been better off to write about tax cuts and abortion and less about inside politics.
Q: Only those issues or others?
A: I was very negative about the invasion of Iraq. That’s another subject I should have written more about, explained more. I thought the war was unjustified. But my stand led to a Novak-hates-his-country piece in the National Review, which caused me a lot of grief and cut me off at the White House. I should have explained more about why I took the position I did.
Q: Let’s talk about the Valerie Plame affair, which caused you so much grief. If you had it to do over again, would you reveal who she was?
A: If you read my book, you find a certain ambivalence there. Journalistically, I thought it was an important story because it explained why the CIA would send Joe Wilson – a former Clinton White House aide with no track record in intelligence and no experience in Niger – on a fact-finding mission to Africa. From a personal point of view, I said in the book I probably should have ignored what I’d been told about Mrs. Wilson.
Now I’m much less ambivalent. I’d go full speed ahead because of the hateful and beastly way in which my left-wing critics in the press and Congress tried to make a political affair out of it and tried to ruin me. My response now is this: The hell with you.
I bet Mr. Novak recovers from his recent surgery and returns to work so he can report on the Obama presidency.