Robert Novak and the Art of Red-Baiting

By JOE AUCIELLO

Right-wing journalist and television commentator Robert Novak has died after a long and vile career of political mendacity. Even in mainstream journalism, an often duplicitous business where information is ultimately presented in a way to support the class that controls it, Novak further debased the job of reporting through viciousness, deceit, and treachery.
In looking back over his life, certain events are inevitably recalled. Obituaries all refer to Novak’s slimy behavior in 2003 in publicly outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. This revelation occurred shortly after her husband, a retired diplomat, published an article (“What I Didn’t Find in Africa”) contradicting the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq had obtained uranium as part of their “weapons of mass destruction.” The effect of the article was to undermine the validity of the Bush war drive. So, when the husband showed the Bush administration was lying, Novak went after his wife, using sources from the top level of the Bush White House.
Novak’s nickname, “the prince of darkness,” was well deserved. The Associated Press obituary refers to Novak’s “pugilistic” style, while The New York Times prefers “pugnacious.” The terms are accurate. It was a style evident in his writing and in his many television appearances. These labels, however, show an undeserved kindness. Novak was the intellectual equivalent of the TV wrestler villain, the kind of guy who would gouge the eyes of opponents and who would punch with brass knuckles when the referee wasn’t looking. One could make this comparison—except the villain in TV wrestling was more likable.
“Style,” however, was never Novak’s main moral failing. His chief vice was that he used this style in a sleazy way in the service of despicable causes. For instance, what will not be recalled by the mainstream commentators was Novak’s redbaiting of the antiwar movement on behalf of and in collusion with the Nixon administration. It is instructive to learn how this operation worked.
The broad outlines were recognized at the time. Fred Halstead, a prominent Socialist Workers Party member and organizer of the anti-Vietnam War movement, explained, “Early in April [1971], the Nixon administration, aided by right-wing elements in Congress and compliant columnists, launched witch-hunting attacks of a Joseph McCarthy type in an attempt to discredit the antiwar movement.…
“On April 19, the columnists Evans and Novak singled out one of the [April 24 demonstration] endorsers, Senator Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, who was then considered to be the leading contender for the Democratic Party nomination for president in the 1972 election…”
The Evans and Novak article conjured up a frightening scenario, one designed to instill fear into the minds of Middle America, something that “would have been unimaginable a few short years ago: Hundreds of thousands of Americans marching in their capital under Trotskyist command” (“Out Now!” Monad Press, 1978, pp. 603-604).
An editorial cartoon published in newspapers throughout the country captured the spirit of this red-baiting attack. The cartoon showed antiwar protesters marching on the White House, while behind them loomed the figure of Leon Trotsky, commanding them to go forward. The idea was crude and direct: anyone who opposed the Vietnam War and planned to join the April 24 demonstration was actually the unwitting tool of Trotsky. The implication, that patriotic Americans, regardless of their opinion of the war, would shun the protests, was only too obvious. This was only one part, and the mildest part, of the federal government’s campaign to cripple the antiwar movement.
Robert Novak was a proud and unrepentant volunteer in that disgraceful effort. He did everything he could to support a war already lost but not yet over, so that thousands more soldiers and civilians were wounded or killed before the inevitable collapse of the U.S. and South Vietnamese armies.
In 1971, Halstead and other antiwar leaders could not have known the full extent of the government’s redbaiting mission and the eagerness of journalists like Novak to collude with it. In his autobiography, from 2007, Novak proudly recounts the full story. It is worth quoting at length:
“In mid-April 1971 I received a call from Nixon’s speechwriter Bill Safire. We had been talking about far leftist elements taking over the anti-Vietnamese War movement, and now Bill advised me he had interesting documents for me. The White House was one block from our office, and he walked over the papers. We met behind my building on G Street , with Safire handing me a large unmarked envelope. The envelope contained domestic intelligence reports on the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC), sponsors of a giant antiwar demonstration planned for Saturday, April 24. They disclosed that NPAC was dominated by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the party’s youth arm, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). The SWP and YSA together comprised the Trotskyist Communist movement in America. The papers listed by name prominent Trotskyites who were running NPAC and the peace demonstrations…
“I called my source at the FBI, Assistant Director William C. Sullivan, and confirmed the facts in Safire’s documents. The YSA was now the most important radical organization on college campuses, and the reborn Trotskyist Communists were the most dynamic, effective organization on the American far left.
“The relevance for Safire was Edmund S. Muskie’s endorsement of the April 24 antiwar demonstration. I called the senator, and asked whether he had checked the background of NPAC leaders before endorsing their event. He replied: ‘There is no way for us to inquire into the ideological beliefs of anybody in this organization.’ That quote was a building block for the Evans & Novak column of April 19, 1971 … “Muskie and the Trotskyites…” (Robert D. Novak, “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington,” 2007, p. 214).
Novak also revealed that “Safire’s transmission to me in April 1971 of the material linking Muskie to the Trotskyites was an authorized leak.” The decision “to use the column,” he concluded, had been made by [White House Chief of Staff H.R.] “Haldeman or perhaps even Nixon himself” (ibid., p. 217).
So, the federal agencies would spy on peace groups engaged in peaceful protest, not infrequently breaking the law in the process; the material would then be turned over to the White House, where it was channeled through the back door to a shady and politically reliable hatchet-man who would smear moderate Democrats, like Edmund Muskie, and everyone to their left—all the while maintaining secrecy about the sources. As Novak once said of his writing, “It’s shady on the ethical side.”
In this situation, his accusations were, also, simply, untrue. Consider Novak’s statement that the Trotskyists “dominated” the antiwar movement. As Fred Halstead, who was in a position to know, commented, “The SWP did not at any time hold organizational hegemony within the movement. It relied on the power of persuasion, seeking to convince others of the correctness of its proposals as these were tested in real life” (“Out Now!” p. 727).
And, despite the fear that Novak tried to stir up, isn’t it obvious that through the 1960s and 1970s some millions of people protested not because they were following orders from the Trotskyists but because they were following their conscience in opposing the war?
Novak had to admit that his work was less than ethical; what he did not say is that his dirty work was also a failure. The April 24 demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco drew hundreds of thousands of protesters and was one of the most powerful actions in the history of the anti-Vietnam War movement. This showed that, as Fred Halstead observed, “Nixon’s red-baiting techniques that had been so poisonously effective for more than two decades had finally lost their potency” (“Out Now!” p. 605).
Despite such setbacks, throughout the years Novak continued to serve Republicans in power and landed a slot as co-host of CNN’s popular “Crossfire.”
Novak was the prototype for the Limbaughs, O’Reillys, Hannitys, and others who pollute the airwaves today. They copied Novak’s bullying verbal posture, his all-too-obvious comfort with half or even quarter-truth, and ratcheted it up a few notches. When Limbaugh denounced Judge Sotomayor as a racist, it was not hard to hear the voice of Robert Novak.
Novak was also the ultimate author of one of the more brazen lies of our time. Journalist Timothy Crouse once called Evans & Novak “part-time hoke artists” who “claimed to be straight reporters with no ax to grind. Which was ridiculous. Their columns were consistently distorted by their conservative bias” (“The Boys on the Bus,” 1973, pp. 109-110).
Years before Fox News tried to copyright their trademark phrase, Novak was touting the falsehood of “fair and balanced.” To have become the ideological godfather of Fox News: that’s sin enough for anyone in a lifetime. Robert Novak is gone and he will not be missed.