Prince of darkness

Published 8:25 pm Thursday, August 2, 2007

Many, if not most, college commencement addresses are essentially special interest advertising.

Politicians, political activists, judges and bureaucrats tell the graduating students how it is nobler to go into “public service” — that is, to become a politician, political activist, judge or bureaucrat, instead of going into the private sector and producing goods and services that people want enough to spend their own money for them.

Would anyone invite someone from McDonald’s to be a commencement speaker and tell the students how it is nobler to eat hamburgers or to sell hamburgers?

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Parents who want to counteract politically correct commencement speeches — often after four years of politically correct indoctrination on campus — might include among the things they give their graduate a new book titled “The Prince of Darkness” by columnist Robert Novak.

This book gives Novak’s eyewitness accounts of the numerous Washington politicians and bureaucrats he has dealt with as a journalist for more than half a century.

There is no way you can come away from this book thinking that there is something nobler about “public service,” as it actually exists, rather than the pretty picture painted by those who want to puff themselves up as members of a high-toned profession.

Even those of us who never had any grand illusions about politicians can come away from this book shedding any remaining illusions we might have had about some of our political heroes in both parties.

Novak covers not only what they said and did in public but also what they said and did in private — and why. He turns over a lot of rocks and shows what has been crawling underneath.

Novak became a Washington journalist back in the days of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. But neither they nor the political leaders of today escape his unsentimental scrutiny.

Most of these big political figures turn out to be very petty, self-centered, spiteful, shallow, deceitful and incompetent. Novak spells it out in eyewitness detail from behind the scenes.

Nor does he let the media off the hook, including himself. Novak notes how often his own judgments and predictions proved to be wide of the mark, and how his drinking and other shortcomings led to bad results for himself and those around him.

This is history as it happened, without spin or an agenda.

The term “prince of darkness” was one that some applied to Novak himself because of his unsentimental view of politics and his detached and reserved personality.

Novak must have seemed especially Satanic to those politicians whose public image he punctured and whose misdeeds he exposed in his writings — all based on inside information that he specialized in getting.

In a city full of smiling and glad-handing phonies, Robert Novak tended to keep his distance emotionally from those he reported on, even while he dealt with them face to face, receiving their news leaks and off-the-record comments on what was going on in Washington.

Novak was never that close personally, even with Rowland Evans, who co-authored the Evans and Novak syndicated column that put them both on the map as top-tier journalists.

There are individuals, here and there, in both politics and in the media whose good qualities are recognized in “The Prince of Darkness.”

Indeed, many of those who did foolish or terrible things also had some good qualities, which this book points out. Moreover Novak has a few heroes of his own, both in politics and journalism.

While Novak notes in passing some of his own views on particular policy issues, and how those views changed over the years, this is not a book advocating any particular ideology.

While older people with much experience in life may be better able to appreciate this outstanding book, it should be especially valuable to the young in presenting a realistic and three-dimensional picture of the world.

They can get a lot of enlightenment from a prince of darkness.

To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His Web site is