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tv   [untitled]    May 26, 2012 12:00pm-12:30pm EDT

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this week on history bookshelf an interview with late columnist and author robert novak from his home in washington, d.c. mr. novak talks about his memoir "the prince of darkness" 50 years reporting in washington. the interview took place in 2007. robert novak died in 2009 due to complications from brain cancer. this is the view of the u.s. capitol from robert novak's patio. did it give you inspiration for your new book? >> it always gave me inspiration, the capitol in this great city where i've been for over 50 years now. >> you look down pennsylvania avenue. how has it changed since you came here 50 years ago? >> oh, it's changed tremendously. just where we are now there was a department store, little stores, shops, two-story
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buildings and the great visionary who changed pennsylvania avenue was pat moynahan, who lived in this building just up there in the next apartment. under the pennsylvania avenue project. it's really much more like pierre la font, the designer of washington wanted it to be, instead of something that looked like a third rate provencal town. >> take a look at some buildings around here. what were they like when you first came here? >> they haven't changed on this side. on that side of the street, they've been here for a long time. it's the buildingings on this side of the street that have really changed. they're all new and right down there they're building the museum, which is going to be a terrific thing. canadian embassy is down there. on, this is just a gorgeous street. the archives building was -- they call it market square. actually the market was across
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the street there. the washington market. and in 1929 in the heart of the depression they built the archives building and the united states tore down the market. that's a place where every american should visit and see the great documents, declaration of independence and constitution. >> so, you sleep across the street from all those major documents? >> that's the justice department. janet reno lives down an apartment down here. she and her body guards used to walk over to the justice department every morning. four little guys and big, tall janet reno. >> why did you decide to buy an apartment here and live here? >> we lived in the suburbs in montgomery county for almost 25 years, but our children finished college. i heard the commute was
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horrible. i wanted to live in the city somewhere. we looked around a few places but my dear friend senator pat moynahan told me i had to move in here. he was the first person to live in this building. so, we got this place. >> we came here to take a look at what you write, how you write, what you read. will you show that to us? >> surely. >> okay. >> tell us about this room. >> this was originally supposed to be a bedroom. we turned it into an office for me. it's one of -- it's three places i write. i have an office downtown, down
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about ten blocks on pennsylvania avenue. this is -- this is 801 pennsylvania avenue. and my office is 1750 pennsylvania avenue, the other side of the white house. and i also have an office at fenwick -- we have another home at fenwick island, delaware, so i write in all three of them. fascinating thing, of course, you use a laptop and you can carry it from place to place. you don't have to have big computers in each place. >> when did you start using a computer? >> started using a computer in about the -- i think the early '90s -- no, i think it was the '80s. yeah can, surely it was the early 80s we started using a computer. we had the very primitive -- we called them radio shacks or trash '80s, very primitive computers, but i've been
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using -- i like computers. i never could use an electric typewriter, those were too complicated for me but i love these computers. it makes writing so much easier. >> how does your thought process work in terms of your relationship with your laptop? >> oh, very well. on the laptop you can experiment, you can -- you can transpose, you can change. it isn't a hard thing to take a pa paragraphs, throw them ahead or behind and transpose all kinds of material. i couldn't begin to -- sometimes when i have a mechanical breakdown and i have to write something in long hand, which is very rare, hasn't happened for years, i have a hard time thinking. >> how do you transmit, then, that writing to your publishers as you were writing this book? >> e-mail it.
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>> total e-mail? >> uh-huh. >> did you ever have a sitdown with your -- with your editors? is. >> oh, yes. jed down y the editor at crown forum, and i've known jed for a very long time. we had -- he was the third editor i had at crown forum. not because they couldn't get along with me but they left the company for other jobs. as i'm sure you're aware, there's an enormous amount of turbulence in the book industry. i'm just delighted jed has been there for several years. he's been very patient with me. the problem with this book, unlike the five previous books that i've done where i really wrote out order and just on specifications, i decided i just -- in a relatively long
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life, i'd just write everything. so it's just what i wrote. the manuscript was unpublishable because it was too long. the problem was how to get it down to size. it took really short of three years to write the manuscript and then a year to cut it. >> a year to cut it? >> uh-huh, yes. >> what was that process like? >> well, it's very -- a very painful process. it was in several steps. my son-in-law is christopher caldwell is a very fine writer and journalist and great editor. he was kind enough to start off by editing the early chapters, which he felt were much too long because people wanted to get me to washington. they didn't want to hear what i was doing in the early part. and he cut that down, but he could not devote the time beyond that. i think he gave me a pattern of what i should do. i then went through the whole
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manuscript laboriously and i cut it but it was still much too long. then we hired bill schultz, who was a close personal friend of mine. also he was the washington editor of the reader's digest for many years when evans and novak articles, we were what they call roving editors of the reader's digest. we did four articles a year. he was the principle editor. very fine editor. the original manuscript before the very first cut would have run about 1400 pages in a book, which is ridiculous, of course. it's a very thick book as it is right now, over 600 pages. a lot of people told bill schultz this would be the end of our friendship, but on the contrary i knew it had to be cut. i knew i couldn't make the cuts. just like saying you have too many children, you have to throw a certain number into the pond.
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but i knew it had to be cut and i was sorry things were cut. i think i disagreed with him on three or four small points. he exceeded my wishes on that, but on the whole he made the cuts. it was a great experience. i just -- i spent have spare moment writing this. it was -- i just loved writing it. a lot of wrirlgts have to be set up, have the right time, the right circumstances and soft music playing. i can write anywhere because i'm an old wire service guy and writing a column on deadline. so, this book was written -- was written here, was written in my other two offices, was written on trains, was written on
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planes. for most of the time i wrote the book i was at cnn and i had to spend all days -- i was the executive producer of capital gain, had to spend all day at cnn in an office. there were some dead time. i could write about 1,000 words, 500 boarwords, 200 words at the office in cnn. so, it was -- it was a book written on the fly. >> did you write it kron log logical logically? >> yes, i did. and sometimes i would -- there would be an item about something, i would say, oh, my goodness, i thought that happened ten years later. and then i'd slash it back in a previous chapter. >> i notice you have a pad of thomas moore. >> yes. i have a -- i'm a catholic convert. large chapter in the book on
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that. in the three places i write i have a picture of thomas moore every place. he's my patron saint when i was converted, which was only -- only nine years ago. >> what does that mean, a patron saint. >> you pick a saint for your -- that's your standard when you became a katrina rick convert or you become a catholic. even if you're a cradle catholic. he was a saintly person. he was a believer in peace, which i am. he was -- he distrusts government tremendously. he eventually went to the execution, which i hope i don't do, because he would not succumb to chief politics at the tile. he is my i todol, my hero.
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i'm sure he wouldn't approve of journalism we have today, but i try to think of something that would not embarrass him when i write something. >> of your previous books, which was your favorite? >> well, the political biography of lyndon johnson was the best thing i ever did. it was a joint product with roy evans. i was 36 years old. it's the kind of book i couldn't write now. it's really a good book. an excellent book. >> why couldn't you write it now? >> i had over 200 interviews. roy and i had over 200 interviews and there's so much detail and so much work went
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into if. beyond the interviews in the book we reported those days so meticulously on everything. the book i would write now, i don't think i'll write any more biographies, if i did it would be much more impressionistic. this was detail. -- wrote in the book, robert carroll, in his biography of johnson, the senate majority leader, cites our book repeatedly in footnotes and in the text. he wrote a very nice autograph for me praising our book, which i quote. i was very proud of that. it's something every writer does that he's most proud of.
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that was that book. >> in writing with rolen evans, there's a lot of him in this room. what was that like? talk to writers today who collaborate and all of them have different stories on how the collaboration process worked. how did it work for you? >> don't forget we weren't just collaborating on a book. we were collaborating on a column, collaborating on television. so we had -- we were with each other every day. we didn't have separate offices. we were in the same office. and we had a fight every day. every single day we would fight over something. usually they weren't quiet. there was yelling. our secretaries in the outer office would sometimes think we were coming with gloves, but i have said we fought about everything but money. that's not entirely true. once or twice we had an argument
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about money, but very rarely. it was usually about issues, but not so much agreeing on whether this was a good position or bad position. what we were going to write, who was going to write it, who was going to go on a trip, that kind of thing. >> did it make your writing better? >> yes, it really did. it was a great discipline. there's great discipline in writing a book, too. we assigned each other chapters. we would write a chapter, hand it to the other person and he would edit it, rewrite it, break it down, deconstruct it, if you want to say. sxo so it kept you on time because, you know, you didn't want to say really, gee, i don't have the chapter ready. that would be too embarrassing. but it also -- it was an editor, as we had for the column,
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somebody -- a very -- we were critical of each other, noisily critical of each other. so, it was a very interesting experience. the editor on two of our books was a man named roy gutwell and he was almost like a third collaborator. we would often finish a chapter in our office late at night and yelling at each other and shouting and he would mediate the differences. so, it was an interesting experience. >> what about writing about his funeral? was that difficult for you to write about? >> yes, it was. extremely difficult. to tell you the truth, i had not planned to write a column about
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it. i thought it was too tough. then i got a call from fred hyatt, the editorial page editor at the -- i don't know if he was the editorial page editor or not. i'm not sure he had taken over, but whoever was at "the post" called me up -- >> "the washington post," uh-huh. >> -- and said for my next column did i want to write about roly, if not they would write an editorial. i thought, i better write an editorial. not that they wouldn't do a good job but i had some special things to say. i also gave the funeral eulogy at -- i was -- >> you write about that. >> yes, i do write about it. and i was not -- i was not his best friend. i wasn't even really his friend at all. we came from very different social backgrounds, but i said
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in the book, more like friends, more like brothers. didn't always get along. and i was touched that he wanted only two eulogyists other than the pastor of his church giving a is sermon, that was me and his wife katherine. she didn't want to do it. so i was the only eulogyists. she said, try not to make it a tear-jerker. i tried to keep it on the light side. he was a great writer and patriot. he was a marine combat veterans. enlisted in the marines from yale. he loved this country and one of the upper class from protestant
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ascendancy who wanted to make something of himself. not because he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth but because he lives the country. he started as a -- his family's father was a new deal liberal. his family had always been democratic. he started as a liberal. but i think he grew more -- as some people say, i seduced him into becoming a conservative. other people say that it was his arabist friend at the state department. it wasn't. it was his view of what was best for the country. he really, in many, many ways, ended up as more conservative than i was. >> who taught you how to write? >> i started writing as early as i can remember. we had a neighborhood newspaper, which my mother typed up. and i was -- i tell in the book that i was -- i was a would-be
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and failed athlete and ended up as manager of the track team in high school. and as a duty the coach gave me to submit stories for the newspaper. and i new a lot about a newspaper then so this was -- a lot of things have happened in my life for-d tutous and that was serendipitou suchlt as track manager to write the stories and get published. one thing about the book that may disillusion a lot of people, many of the skoops i have is not because i listened to c-span, i hear investigative reporters talk about how they go through tons of documents. and i believe them. but a lot of the scoops in this book, somebody just laid -- gave it to me, you know. somebody called me up.
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you have to be smart enough to know what's accurate, what's not accurate, what's interesting, what's not interesting, what's important, what's not important. but most scoops, big ones, are not done by fas tid yous investigation but by somebody giving you a tip. >> you mentioned your mother typed the newspaper, the neighborhood newspaper. what influence did she have on your writing? >> well, my mother -- i was an only child, which a lot of people realize after they've spent ten minutes with me, but she was devoted to me from the time i was born until the day she died. she died over 90. so, he had had -- she was enormously supportive of me. my father was a chemical engineer and he couldn't imagine anybody making a living at
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journalism. on the other hand, i wasn't very good at science in school. so, he didn't know how i was going to make out. but my mother had great confidence in me. and once i started writing when i was working for the track team, manager of the track team and writing stories, i would write them in longhand, she would type them up for me. and the newspaper thought i was such a good writer, they asked me as a kid to come in on saturday mornings and help with the sports news. and take scores from the small towns around the region on basketball. so, i get them and i got first call comes in. i said, what should i do? he said, sit down at the typewriter and write a story. i never typed in my life, see? so, i learned. so, i devised a system that i still use. >> you don't use the regular
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system of typing that we learned in school? >> no, that's my own. what is it? >> it's weird. i use four fingers on my left hand and one finger on my right hand. why? don't ask me why. i can go really fast. >> really fast? >> i'm very fast. i make a lot of mistakes but with spellcheck, doesn't matter anymore. >> back to this room. if someone were looking in on this and thinking about 50 years that you've been writing, they might call this sparse. do you consider it sparse? >> yeah. >> why? >> well, it is -- my wife insists that it be -- it not be too messy. my office downtown -- my office manager keeps it pretty clean, too. and my wife keeps the other office clean. so, women make me -- don't like a lot of stuff all over.
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we have boxes and boxes of material in storage which came out of storage when i was writing the book. they're back in storage now. and if you would come in here when i was writing the book it would look a lot different. you wouldn't say it was sparse, you would say it was messy because of these boxes of lergts, material, and a whole other series of boxes at my office downtown and then another series of boxes at the beach. so i had this proliferation of material. >> to what degree did the books on this -- in this book case reflect your reading? >> well, some of them are and some of them aren't. i'm always reading a lot of different books at one time. i mean, the book that has had the most impact on me, which i read for the first time in
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the -- in the army, was "witness" by whitaker chambers. i have this copy of it. i believe i have -- yeah, i have the -- i have the preface. starts early in 1953 active duty in u.s. army -- this had an enormous impact on me. the second book with the most impact on me "how the world wor works". >> how old were you, do you remember, in general? >> yes. i read that in 1978. had a huge impact on me. which i talk about in my memoir. that was a -- i think the three
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points in my -- four points in my development as a human being were reading "witness" by whitaker chambers and then in 1976, i voted for reagan over ford in the maryland primary, which was -- had always been considered -- a lot of people thought i was a liberal democrat, i was registered republican. but i was considered liberal. that was an amazing change. and then after that, the night before that i became a supply sider reading the book and then a catholic convert in 1996 -- 1 5. >> did that come from reading? >> no. that came from the holy spirit.
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which was a long process. i write about that in the book, too. >> in this book case here, i wanted to ask you about a couple of things. first of all, you have the most -- the series of will and aerial durant. talk about their influence. >> well, i read all of them. i love them. i started reading them in the army. >> who were they? >> popular historians. always not in good flavor with the -- with the -- with the established historians. very easy reading. and they just -- they're very popular in their day. they were also supply siders. before there was a supply side. but they really believed that heavy taxation and heavy government was a curse.
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>> they were always interested from many, many hundreds of years ago of the great leaders who lifted the burden of government off people. so they. -- i don't know if i have it in this room or at the beach, but i also -- i read -- again, i started in the army as i read the decline of the roman empire. it's three huge volumes. i took a long time to read the third one. i used to read at the beach on the sand. he was a great historian in the style and the interest of it. he was a reporter.
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i was fascinated by that. those are some of the books. >> i notice there's fiction up here. hemingway? >> i thought i was going to be -- i wanted to be a novelist. and hemingway was a newspaper man, as you know. of course, i loved reading him. i loved "the sun also rises" particularly. the thing that -- and i majored in english literature at university and i took a lot of courses in creative writing. and what really made me decide i could never be a good creative writer was one of my very good friends, a classmate, went to a lot of courses with me both in literature and in writing was stanley elkin, we started together. one of the great novelists of the 20th century. he was


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