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Novak on Clinton-Obama, 'Prince of Darkness'

Robert D. Novak
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, November 26, 2007 2:00 PM

Washington Post columnist Robert D. Novak was online to discuss his book, " The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington," his controversial recent column about the Clinton and Obama campaigns, the Valerie Plame case and more.

The transcript follows.

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Robert D. Novak: Robert Novak standing by...

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Floris, Va.: Here's what I've never understood about the Valerie Plame Wilson issue. Most reporters don't print information without having at least two sources. Did you have more than one source regarding Mrs. Wilson's CIA status before you published the information in your column?

Robert D. Novak: You must not have followed the case very closely to ask that question. I have answered it in my columns, in my memoir and in many TV and radio interviews. My three sources were Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, presidential aide Karl Rove and CIA spokesman Bill Harlow.

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Washington: I read your Nov. 5 column online. It did not appear in the print edition of The Washington Post on that date, at least not the edition delivered to my residence. How and why was the column on that Monday not published? Was that your decision, or a Post editor's decision? I read your book and found it first-rate.

Robert D. Novak: Thanks for the compliment. The column was omitted by The Post's editors because of space considerations.

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Washington: Mr. Novak: this gift idea was on Salon.com today: Face time with Novak -- Your conservative friends will know you care when you spend $595 to give them face time with the devil himself. Twice a year, political columnist Bob Novak, the legendary Prince of Darkness, holds an intimate gathering with 70 paying guests called the Evans-Novak Political Forum. The proceeds go to ... Bob Novak. ("Me," he once answered when asked whom the events were meant to benefit.) Special guests are promised; past cameos have included Harry Reid and Dick Cheney. Spring events are typically in April, the fall version in September. Check here or here for ticket information -- and in the meantime, you can use our handy Holiday Coupon to send an IOU."

My question is -- do you consider yourself a journalist or a commentator/pundit? If you consider yourself a journalist, should you ethically be doing this sort of thing? If you consider yourself a commentator/pundit, would you be covered by a journalist shield law?

washingtonpost.com: Gifts for the political junkie (Salon, Nov. 26)

Robert D. Novak: I am both a journalist and a commentator-pundit.

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Toronto: Good afternoon. Why is there such an aversion to paying taxes among conservatives -- how else can a country maintain the infrastructure and services necessary for long-term prosperity?

Robert D. Novak: If you enjoy paying taxes so much, you're more than welcome to pick up mine as well. I think the Treasury would take a check from a Canadian.

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Chambersburg, Pa.: Do you think that Joseph Wilson's information about yellow cake from Niger was correct? Did he do the job that he was asked to do?

Robert D. Novak: Pretty poor job, as the material released now indicates. Based on his report, you could not definitely Iraq was not seeking yellowcake uranium.

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New York: How can you blame the evangelicals for being attracted to Huckabee? The rest of the GOP roster must leave them no outs. Do you think that after the primary is decided they will just align with the nominee, or will they opt out of the election, as Dobson threatened early on?

washingtonpost.com: The False Conservative (Post, Nov. 26)

Robert D. Novak: Either I'm a poor writer or you're a poor reader. I tried to make clear that the evangelicals exert a dangerous influence because they are interested only in a limited number of social values and not broader conservative issues.

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Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.: In your mind, what is wrong with being a "liberal"?

Robert D. Novak: Absolute nothing. I just don't agree with liberal doctrine.

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Springfield, Va.: Good day Mr. Novak. As someone who holds a security clearance, we are reminded all the time about keeping secret information close to the vest; I can't make a distinction between worthy secrets and dirty secrets, and I'm breaking the law if I give it to you. Why is it okay (not illegal) for a journalist to publish what he knows to be classified information, no matter how he came into possession of it? I understand freedom of the press and all that, but why does this fall under that protection?

Robert D. Novak: If you want to make the person who receives and publishes classified information liable to criminal prosecution, change the law. But you cannot prosecute such a person under present law.

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New York: Do you like being called "The Price of Darkness"? How did you earn the name?

Robert D. Novak: It doesn't bother me. I was given the nickname by a friendly journalistic colleague 48 years ago because he thought I was preternaturally pessimistic and critical for such a young reporter.

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Boston: Mr. Novak, your autobiography was wonderful. You had mentioned that when you wrote the first draft of it that the book came to about 1,500 pages. Is there any chance that those 700-or-so extra pages ever would be published in some larger edition of your book? It may sound like a strange request, but for people who follow politics closely it would be very nice.

Robert D. Novak: It was about 1,400 pages, which was long enough. I doubt any of it will ever see the light of day, but who knows?

Thanks for the compliment.

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Kennewick, Wash.: Why should I consider you nonpartisan?

Robert D. Novak: Only because so many Republicans think I am a pain in the neck.

Robert D. Novak: Only because so many Republicans think I am a pain in the neck.

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Kennett, Mo.: How do you rationalize the Bush administration's need for secrecy and the way the administration used you to out Ms. Plame? The end justifies the needs.

Robert D. Novak: I was not used. The information was given me by Deputy Secretary of State Armitage, who was out of phase with the White and, like me, a critic of the Iraqi intervention.

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San Francisco: Isn't it true, though, that CIA spokesperson Bryce Harlow asked you twice not to publish Valerie Plame's name? How can this request from a U.S. intelligence agency to a presumably patriotic American be construed to make him a "source"?

Robert D. Novak: Bill Harlow, not Bryce Harlow.

He confirmed to me that she worked for the CIA in the Counter-Proliferation Division.

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Arlington, Va.: Please describe the qualities of your ideal next president of the U.S. and how each of the prominent candidates "stack up." My wife loved your book!

Robert D. Novak: My ideal candidate would support limited government, low taxes and a strong but prudent government; would be able to communicate with the American people; and would be electable. In my view, no current candidate meets those standards, and I find it difficult even to rate them.

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Just wondering...: You're 77 years old. When are you going to hang it up?

Robert D. Novak: Not 77 until Feb. 26.

I'll keep working as long as I enjoy it.

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Washington: In the past in your column, you have referred to the poor as "losers." This is obviously counter to Catholic teaching on issues of social justice, going back to the 19th century and De Rerum Novarum. How do you reconcile your conversion to Catholicism with your conservative views on issues like social justice?

Robert D. Novak: I follow Scripture and Catholic doctrine rather than the latest theories by the Jesuits and the like.

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Maryland: Actually the fellow from Toronto had a good question, which you didn't really answer. Why do you think that we can cut taxes and run a real war against terrorism at the same time? At some point, someone has to pay for the several trillion that we have spent on the war and will be spending in the future. Isn't it selfish and short-sighted to put that burden on our children and grandchildren when we can afford to pay the taxes to cover the war now, but just don't want to do so? You certainly can afford the taxes, but don't want to pay. It is just that simple.

Robert D. Novak: Let's be candid. People like you a) always want to raise taxes and b) want to use taxes to redistribute income.

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Elko, Nev.: Will Harry Reid be defeated in 2010?

Robert D. Novak: It could happen. It has happened to Democratic Senate Majority Leaders before -- Scott Lucas, Ernest McFarland, Tom Daschle.

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Alexandria, Va.: If more than one person confirms that they heard a "rumor" but you are not able to confirm the underlying story as fact, would you still report the story as a rumor? Have the Internet and the blogs changed the rules of what can be reported as a fact in a reputable newspaper?

Robert D. Novak: No, I would not report a rumor that could not be verified. But the Internet does.

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Denver: Have you rethought the admiration you expressed for Ambassador Joseph Wilson in the column that he still claims ruined his wife's life?

Robert D. Novak: Yes, I was much too kind to him.

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Kure Beach, N.C.: Given that Bill Clinton is a proven perjurer and disbarred attorney, does his record help or hurt Hillary? Is she just guilty of being married to Bill or, as many suspect, as devious as Bill?

Robert D. Novak: I think Sen. Clinton's candidacy should stand on her own grounds rather than her husband's. But the truth is that many of supporters back her because of her husband.

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Minneapolis: I found your book very entertaining reading. Since you finished writing it, it has been disclosed publicly by the government both that Valerie Wilson was a covert employee by the CIA's own standards, and that investigators determined early on that she was in fact a "covert agent" covered by the Intelligence Identities Protection Act -- in part because, contrary to what you say in your book, she indeed had performed missions abroad undercover in the period immediately preceding the public blowing of her cover in your column. She was not, as you assert in your book, a desk-bound analyst at CIA headquarters. (And by the way, it is investigators' and prosecutors' responsibility, not the CIA's, to determine whether Wilson was covered by the IIPA legislation.) How does that change your view of the case and of your own role in it? Have you revised your view of whether what you did was regrettable?

Robert D. Novak: Special Counsel had three years (and millions of dollars) to determine whether anybody violated the IIPA. Of course, nobody did.

Also, do you take seriously the claim that a person driving her car every day from her home to CIA headquarters at Langley was a covert agent?

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Rockville, Md.: What do you consider the best part of your job? And has politics gotten better or worse over the last 40-plus years?

Robert D. Novak: The best part is revealing important, interesting information that nobody else knows.

I'm it's gotten worse, and I hope that is not the predictable reaction of somebody who is 76 years old.

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Annandale, Va.: Government wastes money that it gets through taxes. In your opinion, is government spending on social causes more wasteful than military spending? I tend to think that both waste funds at same rate and think that we could be just as safe with less military spending.

Robert D. Novak: I agree.

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Woodbridge, Va.: How do you see Ron Paul fitting into the puzzle on the right? Do you see it as Goldwater libertarians reclaiming the party from the social conservatives?

Robert D. Novak: Paul is a conservative libertarian.

I don't think the libertarian strain in the party is very strong today.

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New York: As a Catholic, do you think it's a good thing that we have a majority of Catholics on the Supreme Court? Would you be in favor of an all-Catholic/all-Mormon/all-Atheist Supreme Court, or does it not matter?

Robert D. Novak: I wouldn't mind an all-Catholic, all-Jewish or all-Muslim court as long as the justices resembled Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas.

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Alexandria, Va.: Will you root for Illinois or Maryland in College Park on Wednesday night?

Robert D. Novak: Absolutely neutral.

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Laguna Niguel, Calif.: Any chance "Capital Gang" will be revived for the current campaign? Perhaps as a podcast a la Slate's gabfest? I bet you could find a good sponsor.

Robert D. Novak: No revival. But you can catch Al Hunt, Margaret Carlson and I every weekend on Bloomberg TV on what amount to a mini-mini version of the "Capital Gang."

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Arlington, Va.: Mr. Novak, haven't read your book, don't plan to, so if you answer this question there I apologize in advance for my ignorance. I'd like to know exactly why you walked off the set of "Inside Politics" after being teased by James Carville? Seems that you've dished out a fair share of bull yourself, and I was just wondering if you had any insight as to why you can't take it when it's dished back at you?

Robert D. Novak: The full explanation is in the book. I was just sick and tired of Carville. Anyway, my day at CNN was finished after 25 years before that incident. They had cancelled all my programs, and I knew that my contract would not be renewed when it expired four months later.

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Re: Toronto and Maryland: You still aren't answering the question. How can the United States pay for the war on terror, as it is currently being fought, without raising taxes?

Robert D. Novak: By cutting all government spending.

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St. Paul, Minn.: Do you support capital punishment? If so, how do you reconcile it with your Catholic beliefs. Just as importantly, how do you think the Catholics on the Supreme Court justify it?

Robert D. Novak: There is no Catholic doctrine against capital punishment as there is against abortion.

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Minneapolis: Anne Kornblut, who now works for The Post, reported back when she worked for the New York Times that you'd been questioned again some time after Rove testified before the grand jury in October 2005. Your book only mentions testifying much earlier, in early 2004. Was that report incorrect, or did you leave the later testimony out of the book?

Robert D. Novak: I testified only once to the grand jury, which is reported in the book.

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Bowie, Md.: Did you know Kennedy was having extra marital affairs when he was alive?

Robert D. Novak: Everybody did (that is everybody in the news business).

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Boston: How does domestic warrantless wiretapping square with limited government, and how is it justified between January 2001 and Sept. 11, as reported?

Robert D. Novak: I am uneasy about eavesdropping on American citizens, unless absolutely necessary for national security.

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Framingham, Mass.: When you decide to leak a certain news, do you consider the consequences of that leak to the benefit for an intended party? Or you have discussed that with said party before you leak that news?

Robert D. Novak: I am not a leaker but someone who is the beneficiary of leaks. Given than alternation, the answer to your questions is no and no.

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Anonymous: Favorite liberal? Is it Kinsley?

Robert D. Novak: Certainly not Kinsley. Maybe Al Hunt.

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Washington: Where should the limits be in a "limited government"?

Robert D. Novak: The Constitution sets some good ones, though they are largely ignored.

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Elmwood Park, N.J.: I know you're a sports fan, so it's in that spirit that I ask this question: If you were absolutely forced to wager serious money, which "horse" would you put it on: Clinton? Romney? Other? Also, do you sense that Bush Jr. and Bush Sr. seem to be sitting back and taking it easy on Hillary, almost as if the two-ex presidents have some sort of understanding?

Robert D. Novak: Clinton.

No,the Republicans would just as soon keep the Bushes on the sidelines.

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Mesa, Ariz.: When you refused to name your source, it seemed like most of your colleagues in the press abandoned you. How does/did this affect your current reporting?

Robert D. Novak: Not at all.

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Muncie, Ind.: Trent Lott announced his retirement from the Senate at the end of this year. Presumably Gov. Barbour will appoint a Republican to replace him, and there will be a special election in 2008. How do you think this changes the 2008 Senate landscape?

Robert D. Novak: I think Mississippi is a seat the Republicans are likely to retain.

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Washington: Mr. Novak, how likely do you think it is that McCain can get the GOP nomination, given the fluidity of the race and his many stumbles?

Robert D. Novak: I admire John McCain in many ways and I don't want to bury him prematurely. But he is a very long shot right now.

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Bozman, Md.: As someone who has suffered John McLaughlin's tyranny, I am thankful that you exposed him in your book. Is there anything about John McLaughlin that you'd like to add now that you couldn't fit in "The Prince of Darkness"?

Robert D. Novak: I think I put in my book everything about McLaughlin that's fit to print.

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Indianapolis: Is lobbying a healthy thing for American politics? Why? Is our system of justice enhanced or diminished by the constitutionally prescribed grand jury process?

Robert D. Novak: Lobbying is a necessary evil for American citizens to protect themselves against any every expanding government.

The grand jury is a messy process, but I think it would be superior to anything that Congress would devise to replace it.

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Ellicott City, Md.: There is a Catholic doctrine against the death penalty. The Pope has spoken on the subject and it is in direct conflict with the 6th Commandment

Robert D. Novak: That is not Catholic doctrine. It does not constitute a sin.

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Woodbridge, Va.: Any ideas on why Fred Thompson's campaign has not taken off yet?

Robert D. Novak: I was surprised how inept Fred has been, particularly because in failing to organize his thoughts. Going on the Fox News Channel yesterday to attack Fox suggests a dysfunctional candidate.

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Edinburg, N.Y.: I miss you on "Crossfire," even though I disagree with practically everything you say. You say that many Republicans dislike you too; which GOP figures have you been particularly hard on?

Robert D. Novak: Ford, Nixon, Gingrich, Boehner, Dole, Frist, Hastert, Jim Baker, Howard Baker -- and many more.

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Worthington, Ky.: Who was Evans?

Robert D. Novak: The late Rowland Evans Jr., a great reporter and my partner for 30 years.

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Chicago: I live in Mark Kirk's district (Illinois's 10th). Do you see him as a potential Senate candidate one day or perhaps governor? How can Illinois Republicans regain ground in this state?

Robert D. Novak: Maybe. I don't prescribe how failed politicians can save themselves.

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Arlington, Va.: Would you care to speculate on Trent Lott's surprise announcement today?

washingtonpost.com: Lott To Resign By End Of The Year (washingtonpost.com, Nov. 26)

Robert D. Novak: The first impression is that he is quitting to get under the wire of the new lobbying restrictions. If he was going to quit, he should not have run for re-election last year.

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Anonymous: What's wrong with Kinsley? Seems like a bright fellow.

Robert D. Novak: Read my book.

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Power brokers: Who were the key individual GOP power brokers who solidified support for George W in 1999 before the official nomination, and who do these people support today?

Robert D. Novak: It was a Who's Who of the GOP. Many of them of them were for McCain this time, but he crashed and burned on the immigration issue. The Republicans are accustomed to having an anointed candidate and so are in disarray without one this time.

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Follow-Up: So as a libertarian, do you think that government spending should go no further than the four corners of the Constitution? Should a true libertarian advocate for getting rid of, say, agriculture subsidies and homeland security grants?

Robert D. Novak: Definitely get rid of agriculture subsidies. Homeland security includes lots of waste.

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New Paltz, N.Y.: Mr. Novak, do you ever worry that the press isn't able to cover governmental failings responsibly because of the loyalty developed from decades-long relationships (I expect everyone in Washington goes to the same parties and clubs, shops in the same markets and attends the same churches, etc., and has been doing so for years)? Is there a better way? I'll add that this sort of conflict isn't limited to life in the District -- it happens everywhere, and problems do result (Moyers's show on the present scandals in Alaska is a perfect example).

Robert D. Novak: It used to be even worse than now. In the 19th Century, Washington journalists had moonlighting congressional staff jobs.

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Robert D. Novak: Thanks for your interesting questions. It was lots of fun, and I'd like to do it again some time.

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