Saturday, August 22, 2009

R.I.P. "Prince of Darkness" (Well . .. Sort Of)

Robert Novak (a.k.a. "The Prince of Darkness") died this week. He’s best known as one of a cadre of conservative talking heads, but he was a talking head before it was cool to be a talking head (with the exception of David Byrne). Before opinionated punditry ruled the airwaves and cable channels, there were only a few outlets where you saw this sort of ideological bloodsport in its raw form. CNN’s Crossfire was one such place, and Novak was a longtime participant, often facing off against Michael Kinsley.

When I first started to become truly engaged in politics, such shows were a major turn on. People yelling at each other! What could be cooler or more fun?

While I agreed with Novak on almost nothing, I always at least though of him as intellectually honest. He actually believed what he said and didn’t lie about his reasons for believing it. For that, at least, I found him so much better than, say, the likes of Ann Coulter, who I often think of as little more than a pigeon in a Skinner Box. As the bird could be trained to peck at a lever to get a reward of a pellet of food, I think folks like Coulter have found an audience for their brand of vitriol and reap the rewards from it, but don’t actually believe what they say in any deep sense. They certainly don’t think through it in any depth. I can’t stand Coulter not so much because I disagree with most of the political positions to which she pays lip service, but because I think she is an utter and complete cynic who doesn’t truly care much about political issues, but is more than willing to churn out bombastic nonsense and sell it to people as actual cogent thought. Caveat emptor, indeed!

Novak, however, was a true believer, and for that, I could respect him even if I disagreed with him. Or at least I could for a while.

Then 2000 happened.

When I heard Novak died, the first thought that came to mind was not his assist on outing a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, the incident he was most known for in recent years, but something he said on one of those talking head shows he helped pioneer.

During the recount of 2000, I was watching one of those Capital Gang/Crossfire/McLaughlin Group shows. They were doing a story on the “Brooks Brothers Revolt,” the allegedly spontaneous outpouring of outrage by conservatives at how the recount was being handled.

Of course, it turned out that most of the protestors yelling and screaming outside courthouse offices were paid Republican operatives, many of whom found jobs in the Bush administration and/or conservative think tanks and lobbying groups.

Anyway, one of the panelists was bemoaning the fact that these demonstrations had, at least in one case, devolved into violence. A hapless county official who was taking a sample ballot to members of the media to use as a visual aid in reporting the story was set upon by a mob of pro-Bush supporters who accused him of trying to smuggle ballots out of the office where the recount was happening. They roughed him up pretty well.

So, one commentator on the show (I think Mark Shields or Al Hunt) was saying how appalling it was that in the United States of America, you’d see violent mobs attacking election officials who were just doing their job.

You’d think that this would be a statement that anyone could get behind. And almost anyone could, except Bob Novak.


The implication was that, regardless of his innocence of any wrongdoing, this guy deserved a beatdown simply by virtue of being a public employee.

That was the moment Novak went from being someone I respected despite disagreeing with to being someone I found loathsome.

Now, I don’t know if Novak truly thought that a government employee, simply by virtue of his job, deserved to be set upon by thugs, or if that was just rhetorical red meat he was throwing to far-right conservatives who relish seeing government as the enemy, and he got carried away.

Either way, it was despicable.

I often had the fantasy of being on that panel when Novak said that and responding, “So, you think government’s a bad thing so anyone who’s a part of it deserves to get beat up? Fine, I think radical conservatism is causing incredible damage to our country. It’s a bad thing. You’re part of it. So, how about I beat you to a bloody pulp right hear and now? That okay by you?”

Of course, I wouldn’t have actually said that, even if for some reason they had decided to invite some anonymous editor of educational materials from Iowa City to weigh in on the 2000 election on national television. First, I’m not that quick with a quip. Second, joking about physically harming someone because you disagree with them on politics, even in jest and even to make a point about how disgusting it is to do so, is simply wrong.

But that’s okay, since Novak himself destroyed his own ethos with that comment. He revealed himself not as a political thinker and commentator, but as a bully, someone happy to use his position to put people in danger to score cheap rhetorical points. His involvement in the Plame affair was therefore hardly shocking.

Having lost both parents to cancer, I don’t wish that dread disease on anyone, and I would rather he hadn’t died. And I would still put Novak a notch or two above empty-headed poseurs like Coulter who play-act at punditry.

But I’d be lying if I said I thought the public sphere was rhetorically impoverished by Novak’s passing.


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