Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Conservative Columnist Robert Novak Dies at 78

Robert D. Novak, 78, a Catholic convert, an influential columnist and panelist on TV news-discussion shows who called himself a "stirrer up of strife" on behalf of conservative causes, died today at his home in Washington of a brain tumor first diagnosed in July 2008. Mr. Novak's "Inside Report" syndicated column, shared for 30 years with the late Rowland Evans, was important reading for anyone who wanted to know what was happening in Washington. Mr. Novak and Evans broke stories about presidential politics, fiscal policy and intra-party feuds. Their journalism, which reported leaks from the highest sources of government, often had embarrassing consequences for politicians.


  1. Re: Al's Robert Novak Interview and Jimmy Carter

    Robert Novak told Al that Jimmy Carter was "the worst president in my time" and Ronald Reagan was the best. But Jimmy Carter did lots of things a conservative like Novak should have liked, and Ronald Reagan -- well, maybe he's overrated.

    Carter deregulated the airlines (The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978). Remember the Civil Aeronautics Board? It's gone because of Carter. Carter also deregulated trucking (The Motor Carrier Act of 1980) and railroads (The Staggers Rail Act of 1980). Carter began to phase out interest rate limits imposed on Savings and Loans by Regulation Q, and he eliminated some of the restrictions on banks (The Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980). Also, Carter lifted the federal ban on home brewing of beer and wine in 1979.

    Carter began the phase out of oil price controls starting on June 1, 1979. Complete price decontrol was scheduled for September 31, 1981. (When Ronald Reagan took office in January 1981, he ordered complete price decontrol starting February 1, 1981 -- eight months ahead of Carter's schedule. Conservatives give Reagan all the credit for decontrolling the price of oil, but the credit really belongs to Carter.)

    Carter appointed Paul Volcker to be Fed Chairman in August 1979. Volcker's new tight money policy, announced on October 6, 1979, resulted in high interest rates in 1980, but is now credited for solving the inflation problem. Reagan would courageously "stay the course" initiated by Carter even though the unemployment rate reached 10.8% in late 1982. Again, conservatives like Milton Friedman give Reagan all the credit. But Carter's selection of Volcker to head the Fed initiated the new monetary policy. Look up "The Volcker Disinflation."

    [A personal aside: I think baby boom demographics played a large role in the stagflation of the 1970s in addition to bad economic policies (notably Nixon's effort at wage and price controls) and oil disruptions caused by our foreign policy in the Middle East. The baby boomers came of age in the 70s and early 80s; they needed jobs and housing and cars, and it took awhile for the economy to absorb them. After that the economy soared, except for the brief 1990-1991 recession. Now baby boomers are old and worn out, and they'll become a drag on the economy. We might not see a robust economy like we saw over the last 25 years.]

    Back to Jimmy Carter. I'm sure Novak criticized Carter for creating the Department of Energy and the Department of Education, breaking education off from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which is now the Department of Health and Human Services. I agree they were bad ideas. However, Novak's favorite president, Ronald Reagan, promised to get rid of the new education department, but he failed -- just like he failed on abortion, both as governor of California and as president.

  2. Re: Al's Robert Novak Interview and Jimmy Carter (cont.)

    Novak said that Carter "didn't understand the Cold War, where he really had severe defeats." Novak is too harsh. After nine straight years of declining real defense spending, Carter had four straight years of real defense spending increases. He cancelled the B-1 bomber in favor of cruise missiles and the B-2 stealth bomber. (For those of you who like to sit back with a home brew and watch America kicking Muslim ass, you can thank Carter.) I think Congress showed more enthusiasm for defense spending increases than Carter did, but those are the facts. Yet you'll hear silly conservatives say that Carter destroyed the military. Ridiculous nonsense.

    You might be surprised to learn that Carter signed a directive on July 3, 1979, providing aid to the Afghan opposition movement (the Mujahideen) six months before the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. This is in the book "From the Shadows" by our current Defense Secretary Robert Gates and confirmed by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Advisor. It wasn't a lot of aid, but conservatives accuse Carter of doing nothing.

    [Another personal aside: For all of Ronald Reagan's spending on defense and his wonderful rhetoric about freedom, he didn't win the Cold War. Give credit first to Communism itself (command economies don't work), second to Eastern Europe's proximity to a prosperous and free Western Europe, and third to the brave people of Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, including Pope John Paul II, who stood up against tyranny. The Soviet Union was destined to fall, regardless of what we did. In the 1970s, Catholic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan predicted its collapse. In a January 1980 speech on the Senate floor he got more specific: "The Soviet Union is a seriously troubled, even sick society. The indices of economic stagnation and even decline are extraordinary. The indices of social disorder -- social pathology is not too strong a term -- are even more so. ... The defining event of the decade might well be the breakup of the Soviet empire."]

  3. Re: Al's Robert Novak Interview and Jimmy Carter (cont.)

    Novak said that Carter's "handling of the Iran hostage crisis was abominable." I'll agree with Novak if he means the failed rescue attempt. It failed miserably and killed eight servicemen. Carter's aggressive National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, favored the mission, but his more reasonable Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opposed it. Vance resigned after the mission failed. But Carter did eventually get all the hostages out. He negotiated for their release using Algeria as a broker. But I've heard silly conservatives, like Michael Medved, say that Iran released the prisoners when they did because they feared Ronald Reagan. That's laughable.

    Now did Carter "pull the Persian rug out from under the Shah" as Dinesh D'Souza likes to say? Let's review some history. In November 1977, Carter hosted the Shah at the White House amidst tear gas from D.C. police trying to quell Iranian protesters. A month later the Carter's visited the Shah in Tehran. On New Year's Eve, Carter toasted the Shah: "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership and to the respect and the admiration and love which your people give to you." A week later, thousands in the city of Qom demonstrate against the government, resulting in several deaths. Carter continued to send military aid well into 1978. But In late summer and fall the worker strikes and student protests became intense. At the time, I worked with two young Iranian electrical engineers in California, and they definitely hated the Shah.

    So, what did conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza want Carter, an evangelical Christian to do? Tell the Shah to start killing protesters and strikers? Suppose the Shah could have hung on. Would his problems have simply gone away? Of course not. So he fled the country in January 1979. The Shah had health problems in 1979 and needed quite a bit of medical care. The hostages were taken after Carter allowed the Shah to enter the country to get medical assistance -- shades of 1953, a big mistake. The Shah died in Egypt on July 27, 1980, while Carter was still president. This was destiny.

  4. Re: Al's Robert Novak Interview and Jimmy Carter (cont.)

    What about Israel? Interestingly, Novak agrees with Carter on the issue of Israeli occupation of the West Bank. In fact, Novak may be even more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause than Carter. But Carter betrayed the Palestinians when he was president.

    Carter (and Anwar Sadat) sold out the Palestinians in the 1978 Camp David Accords. Early in his presidency Carter insisted on a comprehensive solution to Middle East problems, including Israeli-Palestinian issues. He said that a peace settlement would be impossible without adequate Palestinian representation. But Israel, knowing that a divide and conquer strategy works in their best interest, pounded Carter into submission -- no Palestinian representation. And when it was all said and done, when Sadat, Begin and Carter finished up, there were two separate agreements: one, a clearly defined framework for peace between Israel and Egypt; the other, a vague promise of "negotiations" to resolve the Palestinian problem. The agreement called for providing full autonomy to the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza, but it was just boilerplate. Israel continued to build settlements in the occupied lands, and negotiations broke down. Big surprise. In 1981 members of the Egyptian military with ties to the original Egyptian Islamic Jihad assassinated Sadat.

    Here's one result of the Israel-Egypt peace treaty signed in 1979: the U.S would send billions of dollars in aid to both Egypt and Israel. 1986 was a good year for Israel in terms of U.S. aid, and the arithmetic is easy. In 1986 there were 3.6 million Jews in Israel and we sent them $3.6 billion. Yep, that's $1000 for each Israeli Jew. In todays dollars, that would be almost $2000. And we got excited when the government gave us a $300 tax rebate a few years ago.

    All in all Carter deserves an average grade, like Reagan.