Goodbye, Novak and Hewitt



Today I invite you to link my new freelance commentary piece, assessing the stormy career of the newly-deceased Robert Novak. I want to add several observations:

Midway through the piece, I mention that a lot of top Washingtonians leaked information to Novak just to stay on his good side. That was a nice way to put it. He actually thrived, during his print column heyday, by practicing a semi-benign form of extortion. He made it clear to people that if they didn't cooperate with him as sources, he would be apt to treat them as targets. Karl Rove once showed up at a party for Novak wearing a button that said, "I'm a source, not a target."

And in addition to my discussion of how Novak thrived as an increasingly conservative commentator in the early days of cable TV (the early '80s), I could easily have mentioned how he also served during that period as a willful transmission belt for the Reagan devotees of supply-side economics. Actually, that's an understatement; he was a virtual gatekeeper and ideological cop. As Republican strategist Roger Stone tells the story, some party leaders wanted Ronald Reagan to dump some of his supply-side tax-cut proposals prior to his autumn 1980 faceoff with President Jimmy Carter. A Reagan aide called Novak to find out how the columnist might react to such a decision, and how he might treat it in his column. Let's just say that Novak's response inspired the Reagan team to stick with the game plan. In Stone's emailed words, "Bob Novak didn't just report the news, he shaped it."


And speaking of deceased media bigwigs, most of the commentary about Don Hewitt, the CBS legend who died yesterday at 86, has focused on his four decades as the impresario on 60 Minutes, TV's longest running show. But I'll offer something else, about his presence at a key historical moment:

Don Hewitt produced the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960, a television milestone. Shortly before the two candidates took the stage, Hewitt checked them out in person. He judged that Kennedy would look great on camera, having been made up with something called Max Factor Creme Puff. Then he went to see Nixon. Nixon looked terrible - wan, pasty, gray. Hewitt went to Nixon's people, and asked whether perhaps it would be wise to put some makeup on the guy. They said no. The show went on, Nixon looked terrible, and Kennedy was judged the clear winner by Americans who watched.

If only the Nixon people had listened to Hewitt, who knows, maybe history would have been different. In any case, they sought instead to make Hewitt the scapegoat, and demanded that he be removed from the future debates. CBS refused.

Years later, as David Halberstam tells the story in his book The Powers That Be, Nixon appeared on a CBS show produced by Hewitt. Nixon asked him all kinds of questions about makeup, and Hewitt told him that the best kind of makeup was a deep natural tan. "In years to come," wrote Halberstam, "Hewitt often wondered whether he was responsible for Nixon's houses in San Clemente and Key Biscayne."