A recent letter of mine in National Review seems to have touched a raw nerve. The subject was David Frum’s recent article in the magazine, in which he condemned various conservatives for turning against their party, their president and their country in opposing the war on Iraq. Among those he criticized was Robert Novak.

In my letter, I took exception to Frum’s description of his targets as “unpatriotic,” but analyzed separately their alleged deviations from conservative principles. Regarding Novak, I wrote:

“Robert Novak’s differences with the administration, and with most conservatives, center on Middle Eastern policy. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is grossly unfair of Novak to pose as a perfectly standard conservative and then mystify the people who trust him by bashing George W. Bush. Let’s have a little more truth in advertising.”

A few days later, in his address accepting the Phillips Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Novak complained that, “the esteemed William A. Rusher suggests I am posing – his word – as, what he calls, a perfectly standard conservative – which he considers deceptive advertising.” Novak went on to attribute this concern to his position on Middle Eastern policy, on which “the Rusher litmus test for conservatives appears to be support for the policy of the current Israeli government.”

There is a bit of simple misunderstanding here. I specifically said there was “nothing wrong” with Novak’s differing with the administration on Middle Eastern policy. What I took exception to was his bad habit of joining the liberals to bash Bush. I had in mind (and ought to have said, as I later did in an exchange of letters with him) his performance on CNN’s “The Capital Gang.”

Novak is the executive producer of that program, and can presumably shape it to suit himself. It consists of five journalists: One solid conservative (Kate O’Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review), a Murderer’s Row of three liberals (Al Hunt of The Wall Street Journal, Margaret Carlson of Newsweek, and columnist Mark Shields of, for all practical purposes, the Democratic National Committee), and Robert Novak himself. If Novak is in a good mood, that makes it three liberals to two conservatives, which is as good as it ever gets.

From time to time there is a “guest” – some senator or congressman. If he’s a Republican, O’Beirne is dropped that week to preserve the liberals’ 3-to-2 dominance. If he’s a Democrat, Carlson is dropped – and it’s still 3-to-2 for the liberals. There are rare exceptions to this lineup, which merely proves the rule: The liberals must dominate every program.

The really painful occasions for a “standard conservative,” however, are the ones on which Novak decides George W. Bush is wrong. These include not only discussions of Middle Eastern policy, but also a good many topics in the fields of terrorism and homeland security. Viewers are then treated to the spectacle of the three liberals warmly welcoming Novak’s assistance, while the balance of the show sinks to 4 to 1 against the remaining pro-Bush conservative.

Bob Novak has been around Washington for 46 years, and can safely be credited with knowing what he is doing. My guess is that he feels he has earned the right to go off the conservative reservation when he wants to, and I cheerfully endorse his prerogative. But he should give a little more thought to the people who look up to him as a conservative icon and therefore expect him, not unreasonably, to give the grand old cause an even break.

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