On Novak's Book And Colombia

May 12 is the 50th anniversary of Robert Novak's arrival in Washington to work as a reporter for the Associated Press. He's had an amazing career, which he's chronicled in a fascinating autobiography called, inevitably, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington. I've read an advance copy, and it's a terrific book, full of fascinating revelations. The book, like Novak's columns over the years, alternately infuriated and delighted me. It's also an excellent lens to examine the past 50 years of political history, like three other books on longtime Washington journalists, Robert Merry's Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Guardians of the American Century, and Ronald Steel's Walter Lippmann and the American Century, and Katharine Graham's Personal History.

These books are all wonderful reads, and they all tell you a lot not only about their subjects but about politics and public affairs in America over a long period of time. And lest you dismiss Novak as a hack reporter and TV pugilist, he's much more serious than that. Robert Caro, the multivolume biographer of Lyndon Johnson, once told me that Novak's Lyndon Johnson: The Exercise of Power, coauthored by his longtime partner Rowland Evans, was the best book he'd read on LBJ. Published in 1965, it's based on the young Novak's reporting for the AP and the Wall Street Journal on Johnson in the Senate in the late 1950s.

Novak's column today was an example of his reporting at its best. The subject is the bashing of Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe by leading Democrats on Capitol Hill. His indignation boileth over, and rightly so. Uribe is a highly successful president, elected and re-elected by large margins, who has taken on the left-wing FARC narcoguerrillas and vastly reduced their power. He is a dedicated democrat--and has been attacked by the authoritarian, anti-American Hugo ChC!vez of Venezuela. The Democrats--Al Gore, Sen. Patrick Leahy--have been bashing Uribe for his supposed support of "right-wing paramilitaries." This is an attempt to fit Uribe into an old left-wing paradigm, the idea that the masses of the Latin American people want leftist governments, that they're being prevented from getting them by right-wing militaries, and that the United States is unfortunately siding with the right-wing militaries against the people.

The problem is that this just doesn't fit the situation in Colombia at all. The paramilitaries arose when the previous president, Andres Pastrana, conceded a large swath of the country to the FARC. Uribe has reduced the sway and diminished the operations of not only the FARC but the paramilitaries as well. He stands not for some right-wing military force but for the rule of law, and the people, as they showed in two elections, are very much on his side.

The Democrats once understood this.

The Clinton administration, in cooperation with Pastrana, put together and supported Plan Colombia, with military aid to the Colombian government. It was supported by Democrats in Congress. Yet now Democrats in Congress want to paint Colombia's leader as a right-wing oppressor. Perhaps their motive is to take one more partisan slap at George W. Bush, who has continued to support Plan Colombia and has hailed Uribe's successes, and to supply a rationale for opposing the pending free-trade agreement with Colombia. But the cost of that partisan slap is, as Novak points out, to weaken the democratic and pro-American leader of one of Latin America's largest countries and to help the anti-American cause of Hugo ChC!vez.

Colombia is the third-largest country in Latin America, with 43 million people. Behind Mexico, it is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world (Spain has 40 million, Argentina 39 million). It is a country that's growing economically--and as hemispheric neighbors, we have a stake in that groth as well as in its continued success as a democratic republic. My hope is that Pastrana, who is now Colombia's ambassador to the United States, gets on the phone and sets up some meetings with congressional Democrats, and tells them how much stake we have in Colombia's success. His predecessor, Luis Alberto Moreno, now head of the Inter-American Development Bank, did an excellent job of maintaining close ties with Democrats (and Republicans) on the Hill. Pastrana clearly has some work to do.

By Michael Barone