In Wal-Mart's Image
The "values" of the largest private-sector employer in the U.S. are shaping our national economy -- and that's a very bad thing.
Harold Meyerson | September 11, 2009
In Wal-Mart's Image
The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business by Nelson Lichtenstein, Metropolitan Books, 311 pages, $25.00
Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America by Lawrence B. Glickman, University of Chicago Press, 403 pages, $45.00
The story isn't part of the official Wal-Mart creation epic, but it tells us almost all we need to know about the company's approach to the interests of its employees and the laws of the nation. Around the time that the young Sam Walton opened his first stores, John Kennedy redeemed a presidential campaign promise by persuading Congress to extend the minimum wage to retail workers, who had until then not been covered by the law. Congress granted an exclusion, however, to small businesses with annual sales beneath $1 million -- a figure that in 1965 it lowered to $250,000.
Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton's response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn't exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.
Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check," he told them.
Besides its Dickensian shock value, this story -- told by Nelson Lichtenstein in his new book about Wal-Mart -- points to a phenomenon of wider significance. The company that was willing to break the law to avoid paying the minimum wage is now the largest private-sector employer in the nation and the world, with 1.4 million employees in the United States and 2 million overall, more than 6,000 stores, and revenues that exceed those of Target, Home Depot, Sears, Kmart, Safeway, and Kroger -- combined. By virtue of its size and its mastery of logistics, Wal-Mart is able to demand low prices from its thousands of suppliers and thus inflict low wages on their employees. Its low prices have also forced reductions in wages and benefits at the unionized supermarkets with which it threatens to compete.
As the unionized General Motors was big enough to set the pattern for the employment of nonprofessional Americans in the three decades following World War II, Wal-Mart is now so big it is setting the pattern today. Each created a distinct national buying public for its goods that was far larger than its immediate work force: in GM's case, workers who could afford to buy new cars; in Wal-Mart's, workers who could afford to shop nowhere except Wal-Mart. With Wal-Mart's rise, the same traditional values that underpinned Sam Walton's cheating and threatening of his workers -- contempt for Yankee laws and regulations, and a preference for the authoritarian, low-wage labor system of the South -- have become more the norm than the exception in America's economic life.
For the past year, Americans have focused, and understandably so, on the ways in which Wall Street has misshaped the American economy, how finance has grown large over the past 20 years as manufacturing has shrunk. But the rise of finance is just half the story; it takes the rise of retail to complete the tale. Both Wall Street and Wal-Mart played a central role in the deindustrialization of the United States: 40,000 U.S factories were closed between 2001, when China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, and 2007, during which years Wal-Mart's Chinese imports tripled in value from $9 billion to $27 billion.
The rise of Wal-Mart, and the national economy it has shaped in its image, is a story that Lichtenstein, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is eminently suited to tell. He's also the author of The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, a biography of United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther that is one of the definitive accounts of the rise of the unionized, high-wage, mid-20th-century economy that Wal-Mart has done so much to destroy. The Retail Revolution now tells the story of how Walton, strongly abetted by Ronald Reagan, pulled down the world that Reuther, strongly abetted by Franklin Roosevelt, created. It is not the definitive scholarly history that Lichtenstein's Reuther biography is, but it is surely the best account we have of Wal-Mart's metamorphosis from a backwater chain to the nation's dominant corporation, and it contains more direct reporting than is normally found in the works of historians. The story of Walton's minimum-wage evasion came from Lichtenstein's interviews with former Wal-Mart executives.
Lichtenstein's account of Wal-Mart's rise isn't uniformly negative. Walton and his top lieutenants, following in the footsteps of such American economic icons as Henry Ford, can point to hugely important business innovations that stand alongside their social primitivism. As Ford revolutionized production, so Walton revolutionized distribution and logistics -- the business of getting the product from the plant to the store in the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way possible. Well before other retailers, he understood the potential of the barcode for tracking the supply and demand for products. He changed warehouses from giant storage rooms to distribution centers where products arriving from ports or plants were turned around and delivered to stores within a day. He invested in more computer technology and communications satellites than his rivals, and developed better data on which goods moved and how best to sell them than their manufacturers (even venerable firms like Proctor & Gamble) possessed. Once Wal-Mart became America's retail giant, he compelled suppliers like P&G to seek Wal-Mart's approval for new products and its help in crafting them. The data also enabled Wal-Mart to manage its stores from its corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, reducing store managers to foremen under constant pressure to sell more and spend less.
But Wal-Mart's distinctive identity came from fusing its brilliant use of new technology with its rigorous adherence to the old exploitative Southern labor practices. The Southern traditionalism of Walton and his lieutenants dictated that the stores' managers would be men and its salesclerks women, and no federal statute or class-action lawsuit has been able to dethrone that tradition yet. Wal-Mart is also famously, pathologically anti-union, but its antipathy toward its nonunion work force is no less remarkable. The firm prohibits overtime pay (even before the current recession, the average Wal-Mart employee worked 34 hours a week), offers health-insurance plans that fewer than 50 percent of its U.S. workers opt to purchase (the most common plan contains a $3,000 annual family deductible, a great deal of money for workers making a little more than the minimum wage), and keeps its labor costs down to 10 percent of sales, in contrast to levels of 11 percent to 13 percent for its discount retail competitors.
Annual turnover among employees is huge -- 40 percent in most recent years, though in the late 1990s, when unemployment was low, it reached a staggering 70 percent. Wal-Mart seldom discharges employees, an act that would require it to pay penalties if the government found a pattern of excessive firings. Rather, it simply gives its workers such unwieldy schedules and such impossible work loads that quitting, like low prices, is an everyday constant. So, as Lichtenstein documents, is employee theft -- a problem that Wal-Mart addressed by locking in its night shifts until public exposure brought that practice to an end.
Wal-Mart has succeeded brilliantly throughout the NAFTA nations. It has become the biggest retailer in both Canada and Mexico (and it staved off unionization of its Canadian stores by closing down the one whose workers voted to go union). But it had to withdraw from Germany, where the laws regulating hours and wages made its normal business practices impossible, and has also fared poorly in Japan. As Lichtenstein notes, in nations such as Germany and Japan, where high disposable incomes are "shared relatively equally throughout the population, Wal-Mart's EDLP [Every Day Low Prices] policy is not so much of a trump card." Wal-Mart's efforts in Germany were not helped by the fact that its policy of encouraging workers to call in anonymously to report on misdeeds (including union sentiments) of their fellow workers reminded Germans of the late, unlamented Stasi.
Wal-Mart's more serious failure of market penetration remains its inability to break into America's major coastal cities or Chicago. There, the specter of its superstores -- stores that include supermarkets, whose success has already given Wal-Mart 30 percent of the U.S. retail food market -- poses a direct threat to unionized supermarket workers. In 2003, Southern California supermarkets, after decades of mutually profitable labor relations, told the United Food and Commercial Workers that they would have to reduce wages and benefits to compete with Wal-Mart, and, after breaking the union's strike, imposed a contract in which new hires were offered not the traditional health insurance package but one modeled on Wal-Mart's. At the time, the proportion of Southern California grocery workers with health insurance stood at 94 percent; by 2007, it had declined to 54 percent.
After that defeat, the unions and its allies fought back, convincing city councils and governmental agencies in big East Coast and California cities to use zoning ordinances and bans on big-box stores to keep Wal-Mart out of town. Public indignation over the company's labor practices has also contributed to its inability to enter blue-state markets.
With its stock price stagnant for nearly a decade due in part to its failure to expand to blue-state America, and with Democrats now in control in Washington, Wal-Mart is currently undergoing a great cosmetic makeover. It has announced it will develop a green profile for all the products it sells and has even proclaimed its support for an employer mandate in any emerging health-reform package. What it is not willing to relinquish is its die-hard opposition to unions and labor-law reform, its existential commitment to the Southern model of labor relations. Wal-Mart cannot thrive in a nation where prosperity is broadly shared, and it will do all it can to keep that from happening.
That wal-mart has been waylaid in part by the political expression of indignant consumers should come as no surprise to readers of Lawrence Glickman's Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America. As Glickman, a history professor at the University of South Carolina, makes clear, Americans have a long, if largely forgotten, history of supporting political causes by withdrawing their patronage from certain stores or products -- including efforts by abolitionists to establish stores that sold clothing free from the taint of plantation cotton, and by Southern slavers to boycott products made in the North. Of particular interest are the efforts that Glickman has uncovered of urban Southern blacks to resist the coming of Jim Crow by boycotting newly segregated municipal streetcar lines at the turn of the century -- including a Montgomery, Alabama, streetcar boycott 55 years before Rosa Parks sat down in one of the front seats of a Montgomery bus.
But it is one thing for Glickman to rescue these campaigns from history's dustbin and quite another for him to give them an importance that most of them do not deserve. In the battles for the abolition of slavery, for worker rights and for civil rights, the actions of sympathetic consumers seldom amounted to more than a sideshow. Glickman sometimes makes too much of them, and when he turns his attention to the battle for consumer rights during the 1960s and 1970s, he accords it a centrality that other historians of the time might have trouble recognizing. Ignoring the pivotal role that the politics of race played in the demise of the mid-20th-century Democratic majority, he writes that "Great Society liberalism was defeated in large measure because of its association with consumerism." What we learn from this assessment is that Glickman may have been immersed in this topic for too many years.
PRINT THIS ARTICLE
EMAIL THIS ARTICLE
SEND A LETTER TO THE EDITOR
Also by Harold Meyerson:
A Battle of Wills
Keeper of the Liberal Flame
The Shipping Point
The Never-Ending Labor Wars
The Life and Death of Online Communities
What Max Baucus Can Learn From the Labor Movement
Chicken Little Goes to Europe
Don't Know from Adam
Left Without Labor
Tags: Culture & Books, Labor and Unions, Working America
Most Recent Articles:
In Wal-Mart's Image
By Harold Meyerson
September 11, 2009
How Van Jones Will Help Win the Health-Care Fight
By Terence Samuel
September 11, 2009 | web only
Health Care Reform Gets a Booster Shot
By Paul Starr
September 11, 2009 | web only
There Goes the Neighborhood
By Alyssa Katz
September 10, 2009
Nativism Versus Security
By Ann Friedman
September 10, 2009
Saturday, September 12, 2009
Friday, September 11, 2009
Mrs. Palin, Quit Makin’ Things Up!
After I read Sarah Palin’s Facebook page response to the President’s speech on health care reform, I had to walk away and count to ten-in Russian. You may say, why bother? She’s not relevant. She’s the pin-up girl for crazies.
Last night, a man with a gun attempted entry into the Capital. Rep. Joe Wilson yells, “You Lie”, and teabaggers think it’s porn. The radical right, who celebrate the assassination of Dr. Tiller and protest their children hearing the encouraging words of a black president, LOVE Palin. She does nothing to denounce their idiocy, she revels in it. I write about her now because of who she represents — very dangerous people.
Here is her statement with my response.
SP–After all the rhetoric is put aside, one principle ran through President Obama’s speech tonight: that increased government involvement in health care can solve its problems.
SM–Nope, not what he said…so, to borrow a line from one of your fans, “You Lie!” Many suspect you did not write your Facebook response, but for argument’s sake, I will assume you did.
SP–Many Americans fundamentally disagree with this idea. We know from long experience that the creation of a massive new bureaucracy will not provide us with “more stability and security,” but just the opposite. It’s hard to believe the President when he says that this time he and his team of bureaucrats have finally figured out how to do things right if only we’ll take them at their word.
SM–Hmmm, reminds me of Homeland Security and cavity searches to get on a plane. Or illegally wiretapping Americans…or, yellow cake uranium and WMD, or…maybe you’re just projecting.
SP–Our objections to the Democrats’ health care proposals are not mere “bickering” or “games.” They are not an attempt to “score short term political points.” And it’s hard to listen to the President lecture us not to use “scare tactics” when in the next breath he says that “more will die” if his proposals do not pass.
SM–It is a sad fact that 14,000 people lose their health insurance every day in this country. Less coverage means less treatment means more people die…it’s simple math. In fact, an estimated 18,000 Americans die every year because they are uninsured. Scare tactics? That’s rich…I am a survivor of the Alaska Pageant circuit and if “scaring the be-Jesus out of old people” were a talent, you would’ve worn the crown. The President (remember, he won the election) basically called YOU a liar last night.
SP–In his speech the President directly responded to concerns I’ve raised about unelected bureaucrats being given power to make decisions affecting life or death health care matters. He called these concerns “bogus,” “irresponsible,” and “a lie” — so much for civility. After all the name-calling, though, what he did not do is respond to the arguments we’ve made, arguments even some of his own supporters have agreed have merit.
SM–First off, who’s “we”? Do you have a monkey in your pocket or are you referring to your ghostwriter? I’m quite sure President Obama didn’t respond simply because of you. Name calling? Like when you said, Obama was “Pallin’ around with terrorists”? Or, “he’s not like us”? You are an irresponsible liar and fear monger-President Obama was right. If you’re going to take credit for changing the conversation, then own the labels that you so richly deserve.
SP–In fact, after promising to “make sure that no government bureaucrat ….gets between you and the health care you need,” the President repeated his call for an Independent Medicare Advisory Council — an unelected, largely unaccountable group of bureaucrats charged with containing Medicare costs. He did not disavow his own statement that such a group, working outside of “normal political channels,” should guide decisions regarding that “huge driver of cost … the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives….” He did not disavow the statements of his health care advisor, Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, and continuing to pay his salary with taxpayer dollars proves a commitment to his beliefs. The President can keep making unsupported assertions, but until he directly responds to the arguments I’ve made, I’m going to call him out too.
SM–“Unelected, largely unaccountable group of bureaucrats” – like your ethics board? You, Madam, came between adequate care to Alaskans and their doctors with your negligence to those citizens who needed medical care. On your watch, ALASKANS DIED. If you want to call the President out on his policies, expect you will be called out as well. Why the hell should he “respond to the arguments” you’ve made? You’ve become a simple shill for the wealth-care industry.
SP–It was heartening to hear the President finally recognize that tort reform is an important part of any solution. But this concession shouldn’t lead us to take our eye off the ball: the Democrats’ proposals will not reduce costs, and they will not deliver better health care. It’s this kind of “healthy skepticism of government” that truly reflects a “concern and regard for the plight of others.” We can’t wait to hear the details on that; we look forward to working with you on tort reform.
SM–You haven’t come up with one idea on how to help people. As governor, you signed a bill that allowed the state to monitor and record every pharmaceutical taken by Alaskans. You, Madam, grew BIG GOVERNMENT and invaded the public’s privacy. On my radio show, I begged you to veto that bill. Your party is paid well to grease the wheels for industry…there’s a word for that-the merging of government and corporate interests…it’s called fascism. I know your supporters won’t understand the word, hell, at least one of them misspelled it on a t-shirt. Google it.
SP–Finally, President Obama delivered an offhand applause line tonight about the cost of the War on Terror. As we approach the anniversary of the September 11th attacks and honor those who died that day and those who have died since in the War on Terror, in order to secure our freedoms, we need to remember their sacrifices and not demonize them as having had too high a price tag.
SM–You have embarrassed Alaskans long enough. Stop it. My pop was moose hunting on 9/11. He didn’t even know it had happened for several weeks – but he knows Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. Even G.W. Bush admitted as much. Where were all the teabaggers on the Iraq War? Shame on you. How dare you. I don’t know what the daily worry of another terrorist attack is for Americans, but there is another terror that keeps at least 40 million minds busy. The terror that they, or one of their loved ones will become sick and they won’t have the money or insurance to have adequate treatment. You, Madam, don’t live in this state of fear, but it is real. Healthcare Reform is another war; a war against the corporations who make a profit from denying services.
SP–Remember, Mr. President, elected officials work for the people. Forcing a conclusion in order to claim a “victory” is not healthy for our country. We hear you say government isn’t always the answer; now hear us — that’s what we’ve been saying all along.
SM–Remember, MRS. Palin, you WERE an elected official. YOU QUIT! You’ve been saying the government isn’t always the answer…well, you certainly weren’t the answer. You proved that the wrong person at the helm is dangerous for the American people as well as the planet. “Forcing a conclusion in order to claim a “victory” is not healthy for our country.” NO KIDDING – does the banner “mission accomplished” ring any bells?
SP– Sarah Palin
SM–Thank you for not signing Governor…really, I mean it, thanks.
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
There's no hypocrisy here at all. Republicans simply believe that they deserve a different standard than liberals, do. Republicans are part of the ruling class generally, you see, or at least believe they are, so when they misbehave, it's not a potential threat to society the way misbehavior by *those* people might be...
It's the equivalent of how, when someone is walking down the street with a traffic cone on their head, talking to themselves, you describe them as "eccentric" if they're rich and "crazy" if they're poor.
So when a liberal or Democrat cheats on his wife, it's "indicative of a pattern of immortality and dishonesty". When a Republican or conservative cheats on his wife, it's "an isolated, one-time-only moment of weakness for which Jesus has already accepted my heartfelt apology."
CAUGHT ON TAPE!!.....CA Assemblyman Michael Duvall; HOT MIC convo about sex 'a lot' and 'spanking'
Friday, September 4, 2009
Why We Need Government-Run Universal Socialized Health Insurance
Reverse Nazism and the War on Universal Healthcare
Diary of a Mad Law Professor
August 26, 2009
If you are watching the healthcare town-hall ruckuses with only common dictionary meanings in your head, you will be struck by the protesters' general incoherence and outright nonsense, bearing no rational connection to the actual draft of the healthcare bill. As Representative Barney Frank demanded of one constituent who likened the bill to Nazism, "On what planet do you spend most of your time?"
But if you listen as though deciphering pig Latin and realize that this demographic is speaking from a well-managed, near-hypnotic looking-glass world where every word from the mouth of a Democrat (or a liberal, or a Latina, or a Canadian) is a lie, a betrayal... then it all makes sense. Their world truly has been turned inside out, by the election, by the economy, by the precarious conditions that threaten us all. But for those whose sense of identity has been premised on a raced, masculinist, conservative Christian hierarchy of American power, the world must seem even more emotionally terrifying than any actual facts would indicate.
So reversal is key to understanding what's going on. It's not just "lies"; it's the expressive angst of people whose felt power relations have been turned upside down. It's not factually accurate, but this is how they feel. Obama is Hitler! Health insurance for all means euthanasia for me! "My" country is suddenly "their" country.
Of course, there are special interests who profit from the magnification of these fears. Betsy McCaughey, a former shill for a medical instruments company, is the original source of the "death panel" rumors. From the beginning, big pharmaceutical and insurance companies, with an almost inconceivable amount of money to spend, have been muddying the waters. Think about the recent revelation that Merck secretly financed the publication of a fake medical journal that was designed to look objective but merely touted the supposed benefits of its products--and included "paid advertisements" for the company's drugs. What is truth in such a corrupt hall of mirrors?
But what does the bill actually say? A quick summary of the most contentious point: the act would provide reimbursement if you seek medical counseling about end-of-life decisions. This option allows you to plan what you would like to have done in the case of catastrophic or terminal illness--nothing forced about it. All extraordinary measures will continue to be used to resuscitate someone whose wishes are unknown: feeding tube, intubation, cracking ribs to defibrillate, whatever it takes. By contrast, it is private, profit-motivated insurance companies--which deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions and restrict one's choice of doctor, medical treatments and length of hospital stays (based on actuarial tables)--that bear the greatest resemblance to a mulching euthanasia machine. When nearly 50 million US citizens live without any health coverage, how on earth could a purely voluntary public option be considered throwing people under the bus?
Let me acknowledge the genuine ideological and moral misgivings behind some of the protests. Many libertarians hate anything the government does, no matter how monopolistic or quasi-governmental the power of pharmaceutical and insurance companies. But they are a minority and not generally the bloc using the language of reversal and code. Similarly, there are those with genuine moral or religious qualms: "prolifers" who, if they believe that life begins at the molecular moment of conception, could also think that any end-of-life consultation is against God's will. This would be the same line of reasoning followed by those who wanted Congress to keep Terri Schiavo on life support no matter what. While I can certainly respect that as a belief, it is clearly even more of a minority position than libertarianism. In addition, it requires strong-armed government intrusion over the wishes of patients or family; and it is totally unsustainable as national public policy.
All of this is complicated but surely, with a bit of listening, comprehensible to the average citizen. So how do we connect the reality of our dismal life-expectancy and health-cost statistics to the hysterical sobbing of people who come to town-hall meetings furious that "the insurance companies won't be able to make a profit"? Much of the epic woe is not about healthcare or public options. It's about roiling resentments that need to be dressed up as something else, the coded mummery of Halloween monsters hybridized into new chimeras of hate. It's about fear that precious resources are being transferred to "alien" others. Fear that the gains of others are ill-gotten, leaving the lonely patriot survivalist as victim, "thrown away," trash. In these fiery monologues, even our president is figured as conspiratorially alien-birthed, from a galaxy far, far away, who's just pretending to be one of "us."
This morning I saw a picture of President Obama dressed as Hitler, complete with little mustache, tacked high on a tree trunk. At first it seemed jaw-droppingly ridiculous, sociopathically paranoid. But if the rule of reversal is what's encoded in that image, all people of good will must worry that what's really at stake for some of our gun-toting, demagogic fellow citizens is nothing less than America's very own Weimar moment.
About Patricia J. WilliamsPatricia J. Williams, a professor of law at Columbia University and a member of the State Bar of California, writes The Nation column "Diary of a Mad Law Professor." Her books include The Rooster's Egg (1995), Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (1997) and, most recently, Open House: On Family Food, Friends, Piano Lessons and The Search for a Room of My Ow
Journalist and television personality Robert Novak died August 18. I think it's time to do him the honor of taking his life's work seriously.
I got to know Novak a bit in the late 1980s while writing a magazine profile of him, and another of his then-colleague John McLaughlin while researching a book on the history of punditry. I found myself immune to Novak's charms--as he was to mine--but I don't begrudge the fact that many people in Washington did not. Novak was an extremely popular figure within the capital; and while I extend his close friends and family my sincere sympathy, as a historian of journalism I worry that his myriad personal connections may have the effect of obscuring the historical record with regard to his actions. With that in mind, here are a few aspects of Mr. Novak's career that have received short shrift during the past week:
§ While six journalists were approached by Bush officials to reveal Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent, only Novak did so. This even though Bill Harlow, the agency's spokesman at the time, warned Novak, as he later testified, in the strongest possible terms that Plame's name should not be made public lest it endanger the operations and people with whom she had been secretly associated. Though Novak refused to admit it in public, he gave up his source almost immediately to Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation while other journalists--who did not out Plame--languished in jail and legal limbo. When, after the case ended, CNN finally prepared to ask Novak about his actions, he screamed "Bullshit!" on the air and stalked off the show before the questioning began. He never returned to the network that had paid him and promoted his analysis for more than two decades.
§ While Novak freely ignored the patriotic requests of his government when it suited him, he did not mind being used for the purpose of passing along its lies. During the Iran/Contra imbroglio, then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams lied to Novak about US involvement in Central America's civil wars, which paved the way for Abrams's criminal conviction for lying to Congress. Yet Novak told me at the time that he "admired" Abrams, who was "lying for reasons of state" while "a lot of people were out to get him." In another column, Novak admitted to lying to protect Watergate-era criminal Charles Colson in defense of Richard Nixon. Novak also burned sources when it suited his needs--as when he put their names in his 2007 memoir. So it should not have surprised his colleagues when he demanded that CBS News reveal the origin of George W. Bush's alleged draft record despite the network's pledge of secrecy to its sources.
§ Novak also ceaselessly promoted the lies of the "Swift Boat Veterans" about John Kerry, both on television and in an admiring review of their movement bible Unfit for Command. He did so without revealing that his son, Alex, was in charge of the book's publicity or that the book's publisher, Regnery, was owned by the very same person whose company, Eagle Publishing, distributes the $297-per-year "Evans-Novak Political Report."
§ Long before the Washington Post tried it, Novak profited personally by inviting high-profile sources to give off-the-record briefings to CEOs and wealthy individuals who paid exorbitant fees for the privilege of their presence. Journalists were barred from these meetings, which featured top government sources discussing the financial implications of their policy decisions.
§ Novak engaged in sexual as well as political McCarthyism. In one column, he and his partner, Rowland Evans, ominously referred to "the alleged homosexuality of one Democrat who might move up the succession ladder." The Republican National Committee was waging a parallel (and equally dishonest) whispering campaign against Tom Foley, the presumptive Speaker of the House, that relied heavily on phrases like "out of the liberal closet." When I asked Novak about this at the time, he went off the record to blame it entirely on Evans, insisting he had not even read the column before it appeared. He then went back on the record to defend the attack before returning to what was then his favorite topic: passing along rumors about John McLaughlin, then in the process of settling a sexual harassment claim by one of his young female underlings.
§ Novak, who converted from Judaism to Catholicism, hated Israel with a ferocity extremely rare in American public life. He titled one Bethlehem-based column "Worse Than Apartheid" and lauded Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud as a "freedom fighter." Alone in the punditocracy, he promoted Louis Farrakhan. In December 2002 he wrote, "The greatest U.S. assistance to Israel would be to overthrow Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime...and [this] is a major reason U.S. forces today are assembling for war." It should come as no surprise, given these views, that Novak was a supporter of Ron Paul's 2008 presidential candidacy.
I never got the chance to ask Novak about any of his recent actions. He dropped out of a joint C-SPAN appearance we had long scheduled, and when he learned he was to debate me at the University of California, Santa Barbara, during the Plame investigation, he withdrew at the last minute, causing the event's cancellation at considerable expense to our hosts, despite signed contracts and full payment made in advance. (The debate was eventually rescheduled with Tucker Carlson taking his place.)
Senator Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, says of Novak that this is a man who served as "a beacon of truth and light" in American politics. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes adds, "It's not too much to call Novak journalism's last honest man in Washington." Forgive me, but I fear that statements like these say far more about the present moral and intellectual state of our insider Washington establishment than they do about the life and work of Robert Novak.
* Get The Nation at home (and online!) for 68 cents a week!