Robert Novak, whose “confidential” sources helped him light the match that set off the Plamegate wildfire, is now on the Internet blithely hawking “confidential” sessions with Washington’s power elite. He’s only asking $595 a person. The invitation says: “This meeting is 100% off the record.” The e-mail letter goes on to explain that the secrecy is necessary so that the speakers can speak candidly and tell the truth. The truth, in the nation’s capital—that’s certainly worth $595.
Actually, the truth-dedicated Novak has been running these one-day conferences for decades. Sources believe it’s an effort to supplement the paltry income from his syndicated column, his political talk shows on television, and other entrepreneurial sidelines. You’ve all heard of cottage industries. Novak’s conglomerate is more of the gated-community variety. You’ve probably guessed: He’s very much in favor of reducing taxes on the rich.
I had heard of his multinational enterprise, but I’d never been invited before. Then suddenly, about a month ago, among other spam-like mass mailings that land in my “bulk mail” folder, came the invitation by e-mail. It arrived via the conservative website of Human Events, which is apparently helping Bob—that’s what his friends call him—with his retirement plan. Anyway, the invitation said I better hurry up and send in my $595 right away. “Seats are filling up,” it went on, explaining that “to help allow enough interaction with each of our attendees, only 70 people are allowed to attend the Forum.”
The four-page invite came from Tom Winter, president and editor in chief of Human Events. He referred to Novak as “my friend.” Winter wrote: “Given the limited number of attendees, the stature of the speakers, and the confidential nature of the meeting, this Forum is rarely publicized. In fact, in its 30-year history, the Forum has always been and will continue to be one of Washington’s best kept secrets.”
As anyone who has followed Novak’s career is well aware, he’s a man who knows how to keep a secret—and when to reveal one. When he published that column on July 14, 2003, disclosing the identity of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent and creating the scandal that will not die, he said he was doing it as a journalist who believed in the public’s right to know. That’s Bob for you. He’s a regular John Peter Zenger.
Tom Winter’s e-mail said, “You are among the very few to be invited to the upcoming Evans-Novak Political Forum.” (Rowland Evans, Novak’s
journalism partner for many years, died a few years ago.) This forum—Novak puts on two of them every year—is to be held at Washington’s “exclusive” University Club on September 22.
The request for my presence was very tempting. The letter from Winter began: “Dear friend, When was the last time you sat in a room just a few feet from the likes of Vice President Cheney or Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, asked a question and got a straightforward answer?” A straightforward answer. Just the thought of witnessing one in Washington sends a tingle up the spine.
Suspense, too, hovered over the invitation. You see, Novak doesn’t tell you in advance who the “confidential” speakers are going to be. “To get the absolute best, most interesting speakers at every Forum,” the letter explained, “Bob Novak waits until the last possible moment to invite many of the speakers. He wants to make sure his guests benefit from the most current topics possible.” The letter, though, did provide a list of some past speakers. Karl Rove, a regular Novak informant, was one of them. I hope he comes this year. It would be good to hear what Rove has to say—since he’s also involved in the Plame scandal—before the indictments are handed up by the grand jury. A special prosecutor is just now finishing up an investigation into whether someone broke the federal laws against releasing classified information and putting people such as CIA agents at risk.
Novak’s lawyer says his client is not a target of the investigation. Still, others in the journalism community would like Bob to explain what his role actually was and lift all the mystery. He hasn’t been talking much lately; he says he’s acting on the advice of his lawyer. A couple of weeks ago, he did say, “Bullshit,” as he walked out in a huff from the set of one of his own CNN shows. But nothing since then. Maybe he’ll come clean at the off-the-record forum and someone will leak it afterward. As Bob always says, the public has a right to know.
While I was mulling over whether I could go to this elite, $595 event—there’s not a lot of money in newspaper tills this day for large expenses—I got another e-mail from Tom Winter. It turned out to be the same e-mail. The seats were still “filling up.” I guess the response hasn’t been huge. Super-secret sources say Bob’s ratings may have slipped.
Still, there are some real perks for attendees. For instance, lunch is included for your $595. And there’s a door prize. Eight of the attendees will be chosen “to have cocktails with Robert Novak and the hosts of Tech Central Station, James Glassman and Ken Adelman, followed by dinner at the famous restaurant The Palm on Sept. 21st, the evening before the forum.”
The invitation doesn’t say whether this bonus evening is off-the-record too. Maybe not. Maybe the drinks will loosen everybody up. I’ve seen Jim Glassman talk a lot on television. And Ken Adelman likes to speak too; his listed lecture fee is “$10,000–$20,000.”
As I was reading over the invitation again, I got a jolt—a couple of lines I’d missed on the first go-around: “Each speaker speaks briefly about the issues of the day, then opens the floor to questions—any questions. The answers are frank and open, because there are no reporters.”
No reporters? So why did they invite me? Was it just a mistake? I should have known better.
For emphasis perhaps, there’s an addendum to the e-mail where the forum’s ground rules are listed, as if in some FBI directive: “No recording devices will be allowed. You may expect increased security.”
Those certainly don’t sound like requirements laid down by a journalist. Is Novak really a reporter?