The Right Wing’s Prince of Gonzo

The “Prince of Darkness”  — aka Robert Novak — who died this week of a brain tumor was the Hunter Thompson of the right, albeit with predictable differences. Thompson, like Rimbaud, espoused a total disordering of all the senses — with materials as varied as ayahuasca, LSD , cocaine and tequila whereas Novak stuck to booze. Thompson blew his brains out, whereas Novak fell prey to the Enemy Within – not Communism against which he inveighed for decades in the Cold War, but a brain tumor. Thompson was a gent from Louisville; Novak was a middle-class Lithuanian Jew from Illinois who joined the Catholic Church in the 1990s out of what he described as spiritual hunger, as surprising an admission from this brawler as discovering Mother Teresa shooting craps in Las Vegas. Thompson burned out long before his ashes were fired out of a gun in Aspen. Novak went on slugging, decade after decade until the tumor took him down. Just like the Right overall, Novak went the distance, whereas the Counter-Culture hung up the Out of Business sign sometime in the Nineties, finished off by identity politics and general self-satisfaction.  But what both Thompson and Novak understood was that journalism is drama, with themselves playing a leading role.

When I got to America in the early 1970s the supposed barricade between “factual” as opposed to “opinion” journalism was still in respectable shape in the overground press. . The “facts” marched down the news columns, resplendent in the uniform of “balanced reporting” and “objectivity”. The liberal columnists were uniformly dull, with the occasional exception of Russell Baker. The only rays of light and amusement were offered by Jack Anderson, a muckraker who had taken over the old liberal Drew Pearson column, and by the conservative political columns of Evans & Novak.

Wherever he may have originally hailed from, Rowley Evans came on as a registered member of the  East coast  elites, a lion of the  Georgetown salons. Novak was the blue collar ethnic. Together they were a formidable team, primarily because they worked extremely hard and regularly broke big stories in the column they sent out six days a week. Their book on Lyndon Johnson remains to this day an impressive monument to diligent journalism. More of a Democrat in the early  days, Novak was a friend of LBJ’s.  One’s impression was that Novak shouldered most of the stab-and-gouge duties of domestic politics, whereas Evans handled foreign affairs. Virtually unique in American journalism both mainstream and alternative, Evans & Novak offered trenchant criticisms of Israel’s conduct and support for the Palestinians, a example of courage about which Novak’s obituarists this week have remained mostly silent.

They wore their right-wing passions on their sleeves. The liberals and the left were flayed on a regular basis in vicious diatribes fuelled by leaks and lies from the FBI and CIA. The columns were often very thuggish.  It was Novak who got McGovern’s first vice-presidential choice, Tom Eagleton, to confide to him off the record that McGovern was for “abortion, amnesty and the legalization of pot”. Headlined as “abortion, amnesty and acid”, the line was extremely damaging to McGovern and helped sink his candidacy in 1972.

But their greatest strength as newsbreakers is that they were conduits of choice for combatants in the Republican civil wars that raged in those days between the so-called “moderate” Rockefeller wing and the Reaganite wing of the Republican Party.  Their columns displayed these contests with vibrant drama, replete with “secret meetings”, “late night phone calls” and the like.  Novak was extremely competitive. When journalists were asked to leave one meeting, Novak noticed on his way out  that the New York Times reporter Chris Lydon had somehow escaped notice and was about to get a scoop. Novak got Lydon evicted and the enraged Lydon promptly decked him.*

I saw Novak in action on the campaign trail in the mid to late 1970s when he was an ardent partisan of Reagan against Gerald Ford and then Bush. It was when he picked up the nickname, The Prince of Darkness polishing up his persona as saturnine misanthrope, sailing towards stardom as a roughouser of the right on CNN. He would snarl out his questions, voice vibrant with incredulity at the evasive responses.

But Novak was not Pure Yahoo like talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh and his epigones.  Limbaugh has always been a standard-issue, utterly cynical opportunist. Novak had a strong libertarian streak and once the war on Communism was won, became isolationist in instinct, opposing the Iraq war and supporting Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas.

Novak’s obituarists have almost uniformly dwelled on the “stain” that the Plame affair supposedly left on Novak’s reputation. Vice president Dick Cheney used Novak as a conduit to disclose that Valerie Plame was a CIA employee, the inference being that her status was the reason why her husband Joe Wilson had been sent to Niger, whence he sent back a report on uranium smuggling discomfiting to Bush and Cheney’s war plans.

But as Robert Lowe, the great nineteenth century editor of the London Times once wrote, “It is the duty of newspapers to obtain the intelligence of the news and instantly communicate this to the readers.” What Novak’s prissy colleagues and competitors never liked about him and Evans (who died in 2001) was that they made obvious what most journalists preferred to conceal, that their information came from self-interested sources, using the press – in this case Novak – to fight their bureaucratic wars. Particularly ludicrous was the spectacle of the liberal-left in periodicals like The Nation solemnly deploring Novak’s leaking of Plame’s name as somehow “compromising national security”, as if The Nation magazine in the 1960s had not been a trailblazer in exposing the activities of the CIA. In short, the Plame disclosure was one of Novak’s finest hours.

Novak wrote many hateful things, but I never found him hateful in the manner of Limbaugh. Novak plied his trade con amore, had passionate opinions, many of them athwart the mainstream –  and strove to promote them – all highly estimable characteristics in our business.

* Saturday 8am. This just in from Chris Lydon.

Dear Alex:

It’s not the whole truth, but it’s closer than Novak’s version.

It was at a Democratic party mid-term conference in Kansas City in 1974 and a union caucus within the larger party.  There were a lot of reporters in a big room in the old Meuhlebach Hotel, including Novak and me, then with the NYT.  I remember that Jerry Wurf of the public-employees union had touched off a p.c. and black protest by telling his delegates they were “free, white and 21” and could vote as they liked on some controversial stuff.

When things got a little out of hand, somebody said “Reporters out!” and eventually we all drifted out.  Novak, who used to write in a lot of columns that he’d been privy to yet another closed-door meeting, was furious about being outside the door.  Then he saw me.  I was conventionally dressed except that I had a little cowboy scarf around my neck, not a regular tie.  I was dressed in the Warren Beatty style that evening.  Novak railed at me that if I hadn’t been wearing that effete “ascot,” nobody would have noticed us, or known that reporters, even him with the Basset hound kisser, were in the room.

He was twitching with annoyance in that moment, pretty absurdly.  No ascot on me, and he hadn’t been in hiding.  Everybody knew he was in the union meeting till he wasn’t.  And he wouldn’t be able to pretend to have scooped anybody about anything.

Later in the evening, I heard tell that he claimed to have swung at me — not hit me but swung.  It would have been more a twitch in my direction from 8 feet away.

Later I told him if he had swung at me he be talking from a crematorium; then I offered him the first swing, anytime.  I was probably a foot and a half taller than Novak.  He knew I’d played hockey with his partner Rowley Evans.  Novak was a pro football and hockey fan, but really a spastic.  The whole thing was a joke, but it became part of his cultivated legend that he had somehow confronted me in Kansas City.  He hadn’t.  It was a non-story and little legend around a guy that had a lot of such stuff in the air about him.

Especially through Mark Shields, his pal, I had a number of dinner sessions with Novak.
The charm never got to me.  He was obsessively interested in handicapping football schedules and maybe some baksetball and baseball, too.  He’d done some terrific reporting on Lyndon Johnson while I was in college.  There was intensity and industry about him, but also a streak of fanaticism and real ugliness.

He was one of those “client driven” columnists, with a mean twist, like the famous “amnesty, acid, abortion” slur on George McGovern.  He really did seem to think that a lot of people (maybe me) were “soft on Communism.”  Not party-line libs, not running dogs of fashion, but Communists.  Later his “line” was said to get more nuanced — anti-Israel and anti-Iraq war, and such.  But he never conveyed the sense of a man really thinking about anything.  So much for the Prince of Darkness.   RIP Robert Novak.


Myth, Meth and The Georgian Invasion

A year ago, Georgian president Saakashvili sent Georgian troops into South Ossetia on a murderous rampage with civilian casualties put by Irina Gagloeva, the press minister of S. Ossetia, at 1492. A much lower number – between 300 and 400, including soldiers, has been by an investigative committee of the Council of Europe. Georgian soldiers butchered their victims  with great brutality. Kirill Benediktov, in his online book on the invasion( reports that these soldiers  were equipped – so subsequent searches of bodies and prisoners of war disclosed – not only with NATO-supplied food packages but  sachets  of methamphetamine and combat stress pills based on MDMA, aka the active ingredient of Ecstasy. The meth amps up soldiers to kill without mercy, and the stress pill  frees them of subsequent debilitating flashbacks and recurring nightmares. Official use of methamphetamine and official  testing of MDMA  in US armed forces has been confirmed in many news reports.

Whatever Vice President Joe Biden may claim, there never was any serious doubt that Saakashvili, with covert U.S. encouragement, and military training and kindred assistance, started the war. In June of this year, the German news magazine Der Spiegel ran a piece,  seemingly  based on a reading of a draft report by Heidi Tagliavini, who heads the European Union’s fact-finding commission on the Georgian war. Despite the subsequent stentorian denials of a much embarrassed Tagliavini, Der Spiegel’s editors stood by their story, that “The facts assembled on Tagliavini’s desk refute Saakashvili’s claim that his country became the innocent victim of ‘Russian aggression’ that day.”
Large numbers of Russian tanks were nowhere near the border of South Ossetia on August 7. According to Tagliavini’s draft report, as cited by Der Spiegel,  “The experts found no evidence to support claims by the Georgian president that a Russian column of 150 tanks had advanced into South Ossetia on the evening of August 7. According to the commission’s findings, the Russian army didn’t enter South Ossetia until Aug. 8.  Saakashvili had already amassed 12,000 troops and 75 tanks on the border with South Ossetia on the morning of Aug. 7.” To avoid causing any embarrassment  to the US and its allies on the anniversary, the EU report was withheld and will be published in September, shorn – so staffers confided to Der Spiegel —  of unpleasing disclosures. Two British monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe corroborated Spiegel’s  and Russian accounts of Georgia having fired the first shots.

From the opening minutes of the 5-day war, the BBC, CNN, Fox News and the other major networks bellowed in unison that this was a case of Russian aggression. Republican candidate John McCain, whose chief foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann was also a paid advisor of Saakashvili, ladled out vintage Cold War rhetoric proclaiming,  “We are all Georgians now.”Candidate Obama was not quite so abandoned, at least  in his initial reactions, prompting some to think – erroneously — that this particular Democrat might be more rational and pacific in his foreign policy. Voices of sanity in the US Congress were, as usual, almost inaudible. Rep Dana Rohrbacher, (R- Ca) was a spirited exception. “The Russians were right; we’re wrong,” Rohrabacher said at a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee.”The Georgians started it; the Russians ended it.”

Here we are, a year later, the window panes still rattling from Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to the Georgian Parliament on July 23 – whether assisted by a combat envelope of methamphetamine we do not know – to the effect that “We, the United States, stand by you on your journey to a secure, free and democratic, and once again united, Georgia.” In other words, the U.S. remains implacably opposed to South Ossetia’s desire for independence and committed to Georgian claims:  “Divided, Georgia will not complete its journey. United, Georgia can achieve the dreams of your forebears and, maybe more importantly, the hopes of your children.”  Thus did Biden express official US policy in linking hands across the decades with Stalin who forced unwilling South Ossetia and Abkhazia into an enlarged Georgia.

Biden also told the Georgian Parliament that the U.S. would continue helping Georgia “to modernize” its military and that Washington “fully supports” Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO and would help Tbilisi meet the alliance’s standards. This elicited a furious reaction from Moscow, pledging sanctions against any power rearming Georgia.  The most nauseating moment in Biden’s sortie to Tbilisi, where he repeatedly emphasized he was a spokesman for Obama, came when , on accounts in the New York Times and Washington Post he brazenly lied to Georgian schoolchildren, claiming Russia had launched the invasion. Not two weeks later , on August 4,   Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon repeated this lie in testimony  before members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

We should note here that from Clinton-time forward  Georgia has been regarded by the U.S as  strategically vital in controlling the oil pipeline to Azerbaijan and Central Asia, bypassing Russia and Iran.   Also,  Georgia could play a vital, enabling role in the event that Israel decides to attack Iran’s nuclear complex. The flight path from Israel to Iran is diplomatically and geographically challenging. On the other hand, Georgia is perfectly situated as the take-off point for any such raid. Israel has been heavily involved in supplying and training Georgia’s armed forces. The Spiegel story remarked that “Georgia had increasingly made headlines as a goldmine for Israeli arms dealers and veterans from the military and the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.”  President Saakashvili has boasted that his Defense Minister, Davit Kezerashvili and also Temur Yakobashvili, the minister responsible for negotiations over South Ossetia, lived in Israel before moving to Georgia, adding, “Both war and peace are in the hands of Israeli Jews.”

In light of the foregoing, you think McCain could have been worse, even as the war in Afghanistan escalates?

New York Times Director Probed for “Breach of Trust”

To the Sulzberger family that controls the New York Times he has been the ultimate Good German. High-flying Thomas Middelhoff took New York by storm, buying Random House for Bertelsmann, invited onto the NYT board, a member of its compensation committee. Read Eamonn Fingleton’s exclusive on how Middelhoff  has crashed to earth and how the NYT has buried the story. Amid New York’s savage fiscal crisis, guess what? The city ponies up $50 million for a nice new park for rich people in Manhattan. Read Carl Ginsburg on the High Line. PLUS Elyssa Pachico on how rural revolution in Colombia has gone digital. PLUS co-editor Cockburn on how, in Obama Time, the Israel lobby is carrying all before it. What a surprise.

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A shorter version of the first item appears in The First Post.

ALEXANDER COCKBURN can be reached at










Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.