We think of Novak as the right-wing attack dog we see on television and there is truth in that impression. But I also remember the young Bobby Novak of 1957 and the capital which we then both covered.
The envelope? Well, I'll get to that.
I'd arrived in D.C. 16 months before Novak and was assigned by Fairchild Publications to cover Capitol Hill along with Bob Barr, a skinny, hyper-energetic veteran of the Washington scene who took me around that first day to show me how things worked and then decided, on his own, that the sensible thing to do was let me cover the Senate while he handled the House. And for the next three years, that was how it worked.
Novak recalls that when he got there the Senate Rackets committee was engaged in an "uproarious" investigation of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa, a series of lengthy hearings to which Bobby was assigned and which "put me in personal contact with John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Barry Goldwater, Edward Bennett Williams and Pierre Salinger-heady stuff for a 26-year-old."
So it was. And for all of us in those wondrous days when Camelot was just a place where King Arthur lived.
Eisenhower was in the White House, playing golf and going to the hospital, and so the action was pretty much on the Hill where Sam Rayburn ran the House and Lyndon ran the Senate, and maybe the country. He'd had a heart attack of his own and used to stuff an inhaler up his nostril on the floor during debates and snort loudly. Joe McCarthy had been censured but still stumbled about drunkenly looking for a reporter to buttonhole and peddle his view of events. Theodore Francis Green was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, well past 90, and used to doze off while Secretary of State Foster Dulles testified and had to be nudged awake by young Bill Fulbright of Arkansas.
A Michigan congressman named Clare Hoffman boasted that all his suits were made without a single pocket so he could never be accused of pocketing a bribe. Sen. Welker of Idaho was another drinker and liked to offer a testimonial speech from time to time on the subject of Harmon Killebrew, "the only son of Idaho to play major league baseball." Several senators, of the Southern persuasion, still were wearing string ties. And the color barriers were still so freshly down that Sen. Ellender of Louisiana, who often had reporters over to his apartment to sample his own, very good Cajun cooking, once in my presence referred to some snapshots he was showing around as "white & black photographs."
Novak recalls Washington as "a little more Southern and far less New Yorkish than today," the Capitol wide open "without the need for photo ID cards and security checks." There were courtesies exchanged in those days and less party line polarization, but Novak repeats, with a small glee, Sen. Bob Kerr's calling Homer Capehart, to his face, "a rancid tub of ignorance."
In the press gallery, Bill White of The New York Times played endless games of gin and was regularly fleeced by the gallery attendants. Al Drury typed away on yellow copy paper on a gallery typewriter, writing the novel that would win him the Pulitzer a year later, "Advise and Consent." Joe Alsop was about, affecting carpet slippers and occasionally a cane. Scotty Reston was the Times bureau chief. Back then, there were three daily newspapers in Washington and the Post just one of them and not yet great. Ben Bradlee was a Newsweek correspondent. The Journal of Commerce was as big as and maybe as influential as The Wall Street Journal.
Fairchild Publications, for whom I toiled, had 20 reporters in the bureau. No one had ever heard of Marion Barry. You could park. And Georgetown was a sleepy village where I had a one-bedroom apartment on N Street next door to the Odd Fellows home for $65 a month. I didn't have a TV yet and used to go to the National Press Club to watch. And you could take the trolley to Griffith Stadium to see the Redskins.
Oh, yeah, the envelope from Washington. From the White House, actually. An invitation from Mrs. Clinton to lunch this Thursday. It was nice of her and I wish I could go. I like Washington in the spring, and it's fun to be asked to the White House for lunch and remember how it was when we were young, Bobby Novak and all of us.