Every generation of Washington columnists since Walter Lippmann has been seduced by the idea that it is better to cultivate the powerful than to expose them. The result is that the columnists continue to get invited to all the best dinner parties, but their readers are deprived of many of their best stories.
No one has ever substituted sycophancy for skepticism more successfully than Rowland Evans and Robert Novak do in their new book. The Reagan Revolution. Billed as an “inside look at the transformation of the US government,” this work provides powerful evidence of the authors' determination to transform themselves from journalists into official publicists for their newest hero.
In the world of Evans and Novak, everything about Ronald Reagan is wonderful--from his lionizing of Calvin Coolidge to his refusal to “flinch from confrontation” with the Soviets—even the conviction of his economists that plentiful food stamps have a “disruptive effect on incentives to work.” When Reagan seems inconsistent, this is proof of admirable determination; “neither ideological scruples nor personal affection would get in the way of victory.”
But the really dramatic news here is that a string of roles in B-movies is actually the best possible preparation for the most dangerous job in the world:
“The nearly thirty years spent by Reagan in the supposedly make-believe world of show business was in many ways more real than the experience of previous presidents with wide public service. He alone among recent presidents had spent his mature years in the real world, confronting daily the real bread-and-butter problems faced by his fellow citizens. . . . He had learned to cope with adversity during the lean years. . . . Those thirty years polished the intuitive judgment so indispensable to the entrepreneurial and capitalist system.”
This book is basically a cut-and-paste job of Evans's and Novak's own columns, but the modesty of these journalistic giants prevents them from revealing their sources in the body of their text. Thus when quoting themselves their habitual style is, “As reported in a syndicated column at the time . . . “ or “the same syndicated column also reported.. . .” Theoretically, sympathetic reportage is supposed to yield extra dividends for the reader in the form of that much sought-after commodity, “inside information,” but in the hands of Evans and Novak, things don't always work out that way. Last fall, for example—just days before the election, they reported that Evans's good friend, Lloyd Cutler, then serving as Jimmy Carter's counsel, was just back from Geneva. There, he had sealed “in a handshake” an agreement with the Iranians to free the American hostages. Any first-semester journalism student would have telephoned Cutler to confirm the story before printing it.
Evans and Novak, however, did not. When a Washington Post reporter took that elementary precaution, he learned that Cutler hadn't left the country that week. In fact. Cutler hadn't been out of the country at any time during the previous five months. “Rowly has said to me since that he should have checked with me,” says Cutler. “He was sorry but he said he'd heard it from ‘a very good source.’“ No wonder working reporters in Washington call them “Errors and No Facts.”
By Charles Kaiser