Conservative columnist and former CNN “Crossfire” creator and host Robert Novak who had the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” has died of cancer at age 78.
Novak’s columns were sometimes controversial, but one fact could not be denied: he was an old-school journalism guy who did his homework and had sources and didn’t just do columns just containing his own opinions. His conservatism was his world view prism but when you read a Novak column you knew he had done some solid reporting.
And when he created “Crossfire” for CNN, he became one of the panel, resisting the temptation to have it become known as Novak’s show. He was often blasted by other panel members on the often passionate show he created). Here’s what Lynn Sweet at Chicago Sun Times, his journalistic alma mater, writes about him:
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, one of the nation’s most influential journalists, who relished his “Prince of Darkness” public persona, died at home here early Tuesday morning after a battle with brain cancer.
“He was someone who loved being a journalist, love journalism and loved his country and loved his family, Novak’s wife, Geraldine, told the Sun-Times on Tuesday.
“Bob was always the pro, no matter what he had going on he was always at the ready to help out on stories, and he broke more than his share. Even as he became a national figure he was always proud to be part of the Sun-Times and we were proud of him,” said Don Hayner, Editor in Chief of the Chicago Sun-Times.
Novak’s remarkable and long-running career made him a powerful presence in newspaper columns, newsletters, books and on television.
On May 15, 1963, Novak teamed up with the late Rowland Evans Jr. to create the “Inside Report” political column, which became the must-read syndicated column. Evans tapped Novak, then a 31-year old correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, to help with the workload of a six-day-a-week column.
Evans and Novak were the odd couple: Evans a Philadelphia blue blood and Yale graduate; Novak from Joliet, Ill. who attended the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana campus.
Novak, editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, is perhaps best known as the longtime co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” from 1980 to 2005.
He announced his retirement in August 2008, less than a week after he struck a pedestrian with his car in downtown Washington, telling the newspaper his prognosis was “dire.”
Novak was the first to reveal the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame. His 2003 column came out eight days after Plame’s husband, Joseph Wilson, said the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq.
Evans retired in 1993, but Novak kept writing on the paper that had been his home paper since 1966.
A PERSONAL NOTE: In my blog posts on TMV over the years I was sometimes highly critical of Novak. But I always respected him because he was a journalistic role model: someone who did the homework as opposed to just sitting back and telling you what he thought about stories he read. When you read a Drudge exclusive reporting post, there is a good chance it will turn out to be false and vanish with no correction. Those seemed more partisan operative items. But Novak, whether people loved him or hated him and his columns, generally did reporting and had a solid network of sources, particularly within the GOP.
But there is another reason why I always had a soft spot in my heart and professional admiration for Robert Novak, no matter what I ever posted on news in which he seemed to be involved.
In 1970, while a student at Colgate University, I had been a supporter of the Vietnam War. Once Richard Nixon invaded Cambodia and it seemed as if there was no “secret plan” I became anti-war and felt politically snookered. During a national anti-war Washington rally that spring, Colgate University students were picketing the State Department demanding that William P. Rogers resign as Secretary of State in the Nixon cabinet — or from the Colgate Board of Trustees. So here I was, a known conservative on campus, going to my first anti-war rally.
A friend and I decided to ski the demonstratin and rather than clamor just go and visit some Congressmen and talk versus confront about the war and where it was going and where it should go. At once point, we walked near an office building and who was there but (the late humor columnist) Art Buchwald, eating a sandwich that dripped all over his shirt. We talked with him and he was very nice.
And the Novak came out of the same building.
I recognized him and we said hello.
“Where are you guys from?” he asked us.
We told him Colgate University.
“Colgate University? You’re doing that protest against Bill Rogers? That’s the dumbest protest I’ve ever seen!”
And he proceeded to take the time to talk with us about the war, how we saw it (he seemed intrigued that I had been on the campus’ conservative newspaper and turned against the war after supporting it for so many years). He chatted with us for about five minutes. But there was no rancor..no hatred…no demonization…nonegative characterization to try to discredit the other person or put them on the defensive. He was talking about an issue with some college students — and not talking down to them one bit.
So, over the years, when Robert Novak was at the center of controversies, no matter what they were, no matter how much I might disagree with him (on I always realized: this was a role model as a columnist who did his homework, a writer who wanted to be in the thick of breaking news, and as a human being — someone could could engage others without hating them if they saw things differently.
A vanishing breed is minus one more member of the breed.
UPDATE: Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift has this MUST READ tribute to Novak. She often locked horns with him on Crossfire. Among other things, she writes about how bravely he faced his terminal illness:
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.
And then there’s this that sums up his role in journalism:
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.
UPDATE: Here’s a far different impression of Novak, much later in his life.
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.