"He was wrong on everything, but we had such incredible fun"

Those who knew Robert Novak, or just his work, talk about his life and his reporting


Vincent Rossmeier
August 19, 2009 12:30AM (UTC)

Conservative columnist Robert Novak died Tuesday of cancer at the age of 78. Known most recently for his involvement in the outing of CIA officer Valerie Plame, Novak was a famed Washington insider and reporter for decades. Here's a look at how Washington and the media world are already reacting to his death.

Washington Post: "He was a committed conservative, but he was not easy to characterize. He supported tax cuts, small government, supply-side economics, military strength, free trade and liberal immigration, while opposing the Iraq war and often being highly critical of Israel -- or at least its policy with regard to Palestinians ... Much of what he wrote was not so much ideological as it was simply telling ... Mr. Novak spent much time in his final years fending off accusations of perfidy for revealing the name of CIA 'operative' Valerie Plame in a column on her husband's criticism of Bush administration policy on Iraq. It was never clear why a writer who opposed the war would be colluding with the administration on the matter (this was the gist of the accusations), and as the story played out, that wasn't the way it happened. Mr. Novak said that, looking back on it -- all the struggle, legal expenses, acrimony and pain caused to others -- he might have done well to leave that somewhat peripheral disclosure out of his column. Looking back on Mr. Novak's career as a reporter who relished reporting what he'd found out and couldn't even contemplate retirement from all the combat it provoked, we kind of doubt he would have."

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Eleanor Clift, Newsweek: "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."

Chicago Sun-Times: "We at the Sun-Times will remember Bob as a generous friend and colleague, a tireless workhorse, an innovator in journalism and an example of how to practice our profession. His most enduring legacy, though, may well be his work to pass down generation to generation his love of this country, its traditions and its values that guided his life and work."

Al Hunt, Bloomberg News executive editor: "He was wrong on everything, but we had such incredible fun ... Bob couldn't have been a lawyer or a professor — you can't imagine Bob as anything else besides the kind of hell-raising journalist that he was. Bob didn't hide his views as a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. But he was incredibly hard on hypocrisy from the right. He never cared much that he wasn't invited to White House dinners, even by Republicans — it was almost a point of pride."

Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff: Novak was "a good friend and a fine reporter. We spent many hours talking about the ins and out of Washington and Chicago politics together, and I will miss his friendship greatly."

Adam Bernstein, Washington Post: "He earned [the nickname 'Prince of Darkness'] in the early 1960s for what he called his swarthy looks, poor skills as a raconteur and 'grim-visaged demeanor.' He said that his unsmiling pessimism was a stark contrast with the upbeat spirit of the Kennedy administration and its many admirers in elite journalism circles and that he was a strikingly different type of Washington insider than his business partner Evans, a debonair Georgetowner at ease on the city's dinner circuit ... Mr. Novak was considered by many Washington colleagues to be far more generous than the scowling character he assumed on television debate programs such as CNN's 'Crossfire,' but he said the more combative aspect of his personality was heightened on television."

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John Boehner, House Minority Leader: Novak “made remarkable contributions in the field of journalism and to the American political landscape ... it is hard to imagine Washington without him.”

Sam Feist, CNN's political director: "If you were a friend of Bob Novak's, you couldn't have a better friend."

Conor Clarke, The Atlantic: "Novak was, to be perfectly honest about it, the least pleasant person I've ever interviewed. He didn't shake my hand upon entering or leaving his office, and expressed fairly open contempt when I asked him a question about the Valerie Plame affair. His response was: 'You can't imagine how tired I am of answering those questions.' And then he proceeded not to answer the question."

Markos Moulitsas, Daily Kos: "Sad to see Bob Novak die. I was a huge fan. Perhaps the last conservative writer who tried to be an honest reporter."

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Dave Cook, The Christian Science Monitor: "Love him or hate him, conservative journalist Robert Novak was one of the most influential Washington journalists of the past half century."

Douglas Martin and Jacques Steinberg, The New York Times: "Mr. Novak relished making outrageous comments. He once complained that his Thanksgiving dinner had been ruined by seeing so many homeless people on television. Always combative, he left CNN in 2005 after storming off the set in a row with James Carville, the Democratic strategist and commentator. He later contributed to Fox News ... Morton Kondracke, a colleague on the talk program 'The McLaughlin Group,' once characterized the role Mr. Novak played so enthusiastically as 'the troll under the bridge of American journalism.'"

Fred Barnes, The Weekly Standard: "Robert Novak terrified Washington. Elected and appointed officials, Democrats and Republicans, lobbyists and self-styled defenders of the 'public interest' -- few were comfortable when Novak had them in his sights. Nor should they have been. The reason was simple: Bob Novak didn’t play political games. He wasn’t partisan. If he came across useful information about anyone, it would appear in his syndicated column ...It’s not too much to call Novak journalism’s last honest man in Washington. Ideologically, he was conservative, the more so the older he grew. He was quite up front about this. But he didn’t cover for his allies or mistreat his adversaries. If a conservative Republican disappointed him, Novak would let you know."

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Johanna Neuman, Los Angeles Times: "In an interview in 2007, [Novak] predicted with regret the first line in his obituary, lamenting to PBS' Charlie Rose that his [column on Valerie Plame] was 'a very minor story compared to some of the big stories that I have had. But ... that's going to be in the lead of my obituary, and I can't help it.'"

Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader: Novak had "the kind of keen insight that can only be gained through years and years of dedication to a craft ... He was a Washington institution who could turn an idea into the most discussed story around kitchen tables, congressional offices, the White House and everywhere in between."

Kate O'Beirne, The National Review: "My dear friend Bob Novak faced his illness with a remarkable fortitude and his typical forthright honesty ... It was once impossible to have a casual conversation with Bob without him pouncing on a random remark if he spotted that a tidbit of news had been shared. For decades, his work ethic was legendary, his schedule exhausting. He was a voracious reader. His illness exposed what he held most dear, and that was his family, his faith, his Army service. He never failed to express his gratitude to Geraldine. In the midst of such suffering, there was such grace. Bob Novak was a devoted husband and father, a loving grandfather, a loyal friend — and an extraordinary journalist. He will be missed terribly."

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David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union: Keene said that Novak helped to make supply-side economics a key component of former President Ronald Reagan's economic policy. He said Novak was "a giant of the profession" who "gave respectability and visibility to conservative ideas and positions in the 1970s, when they were mostly dismissed."


Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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