On television, we were rarely on the same side. Bob Novak reveled in his hardline views. I was one of those bleeding-heart liberals whose views he routinely ridiculed. It was the mid-'80s, and we would sometimes drive out together on Friday afternoons to the NBC studio to tape The McLaughlin Group. The top would be down on his LeBaron convertible, and he always wore his Chicago Cubs cap. I considered him a friend, and he was instrumental in getting me on the show, which at the time was all male.
His office was on the same floor as NEWSWEEK's Washington, D.C., bureau, in a building just one block from the White House. He'd been there since 1964; I was a relative newcomer, arriving a dozen years later. We shared the elevator and a copying machine and enough face time in our comings and goings over the years that I thought we were buddies. But when that red light came on atop the camera to signal that the taping had begun, more often than not, he would lunge forward, wag his finger in my face, and ascribe some terrible left-wing transgression to "Eleanor Clift and her ilk."
On TV he earned the moniker "The Prince of Darkness," first conferred upon him by a NEWSWEEK reporter, the late John Lindsay, who covered Capitol Hill, but to friends and colleagues, he could be a pussycat. He counted many liberals among his closest friends, and when he was diagnosed in 2008 with a brain tumor, he wrote, "I thought that 51 years of rough and tumble journalism had made me more enemies than friends, but my recent experience suggests the opposite may be the case." Novak, who was 78, died Tuesday.
Among those who surprised him with their well wishes was Sen. Ted Kennedy, who is also battling brain cancer, and whose wife, Vickie, encouraged Novak to undergo the same aggressive surgery and protocol of chemotherapy and radiation as her husband. "I have had few good things to say about Ted Kennedy since I first met him at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, but he and his wife have treated me like a close friend," Novak wrote in a column in September 2008 that explained the bizarre behavior that led to the detection of his tumor. He had struck a homeless man on a busy street in downtown Washington and tried to drive away. Accused of callous disregard for human life, he said he never saw the man, a first clue that something was wrong. The next day he got lost on his way to the dentist, a trip he had made many times. A brain scan revealed a mass, and the oncologist told him he had six months to a year to live.
Novak credited his ability to withstand the shock of learning of his death sentence to his Roman Catholic faith. A secular Jew, he converted in 1998, with Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, among others, in attendance. At a reception afterward, Moynihan, playing off Novak's reputation as a heartless critic of programs for the poor, declared, "Well, Novak is now a Catholic. The question is: when will he become a Christian?" When it came to championing low taxes and smaller government, Novak never deviated from the conservative script. But he was hesitant to go to war in Iraq, a position that put him at odds with much of the GOP leadership, even as the Plame affair irrevocably colored his career.
He wrote thousands of columns, and yet he will be most remembered for his role in revealing the identity of a covert CIA operative. Novak was the reporter who blew Valerie Plame's cover when he wrote that she had suggested that her husband, Ambassador Joe Wilson, travel to Niger to assess the validity of claims that Iraq had tried to buy nuclear material. The episode turned ugly, with Plame's career ruined and her husband's criticism of the Bush administration's Iraq policy gaining much broader public attention. Bush critics still have trouble understanding how Novak eluded responsibility for what he did, but that doesn't mean he didn't pay dearly. He was ostracized by many and lost his standing in the journalistic community, along with his lucrative gig at CNN. Fox News picked him up, but he would not again achieve the status or the income he had once enjoyed.
Novak wrote in his 2007 memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, that being a journalist was his only life's ambition. And he worked at it, putting in long hours, traveling, working the phones, cultivating sources. He was a shoe-leather reporter happy to leave the Georgetown dinner-party circuit to his longtime writing partner, the late Rowland "Rowly" Evans, a Yale grad and pedigreed WASP. Rowly's and his wife's ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, Novak noted, but soon after. Novak was the grandson of immigrants and a graduate of the University of Illinois. His sartorial tastes can best be described as scruffy, but that didn't matter in building the kind of symbiotic relationships at every level, from high to low, that made him a must-read for so many decades in Washington. He was the ultimate insider journalist. President Lyndon Johnson hosted Novak's wedding reception and sent a private plane to Texas to pick up the bride's family. Novak's wife, Geraldine, was one of LBJ's secretaries.
His conservative evolution shaped his opinions but never dampened his enthusiasm for reporting. He wrote of his pride when Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, kept his column when he could have dumped "the old guy." Hiatt said he always learned something new from a Novak column. In the crowded media universe, that's a hard standard to uphold.