Remembering Bob Novak

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Robert Novak of the Evans and Novak Political Report, who spent over a half-century covering Washington politics and became a star of television debate shows like the McLaughlin Group, Crossfire, and Capitol Gang, died yesterday after a year-long battle with brain cancer.

Novak was a fascinating character. He was not a standard-issue conservative Republican. He moved rightward on social and economic issues, but he never was a party loyalist. He was friendly enough with Washington pols that they fed him all sorts of insider information, but he never succumbed to the Beltway mentality.

I almost met him once. He was sitting several chairs to my right at the 2004 Republican platform committee meeting. I wrote at the time, "I thought about asking for an autograph or taking a picture, but there's something unseemly about treating a working journalist like a celeb."

Here are several profiles and tributes worth reading:

In his September 5, 2008, column, Novak wrote about the accident that led to the discovery of the tumor, his surgery and treatment, and the many political friends and adversaries who provided advice, aid, and encouragement.

Excerpts from several tributes about only-childhood as a source of confidence, his political heroes, his impact on Cold War politics, and his character, after the jump.

In Human Events, Kenneth Y. Tomlinson recalls how a Novak scoop changed the debate over American policy towards the Soviet Union:

Few journalists have ever affected this nation like Bob Novak. Take the Evans-Novak column that ran under the title "the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine" in the early spring of 1976. When I finished reading it, I remember thinking, this is quintessential Bob Novak.

State Department Counselor Helmut Sonnenfeldt had told a London gathering of American ambassadors that Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was actually necessary for world peace. In fact, Poland was a good example of the benefits of Soviet control because that had enabled the Poles to overcome their "romantic" political instincts which had led to so many "disasters in their past."

This column had almost everything. Those words were contained in an official State Department cable slipped to Novak by a highly placed source. Henry Kissinger's right-hand man was confirming that détente was code for Communist victory over freedom. Within days, candidate Ronald Reagan who was challenging President Ford in Republican primaries, declared the Sonnenfeldt Doctrine meant "slaves should accept their fate."

The obituary in his home newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, calls attention to the value of a classical college education:

Bob saw America as the inheritor, greatest manifestation and guardian of the best of Western civilization. He was introduced to those values at the University of Illinois through a freshman course on the history of Western civilization. Recalling that time in his 2007 memoir The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington, Bob wrote, "It was a golden moment for a 17-year-old boy from Joliet, leading to four years of exploration in the riches of our heritage: Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Castiglione, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Milton, John Donne, Hawthorne, Melville, T.S. Eliot -- dead white men all. How barren would be my life without that background?"

In later years, Bob became worried about the retreat from those values on the college campus. Typically, he resolved to do something about it. To help perpetuate the education of America's youth in those values and traditions, Bob in 2000 endowed at his beloved University of Illinois the Robert D. Novak Chair of Western Civilization and Culture.

In his 2008 Q&A with Barbara Matusow, Novak talked about real political heroism:

To be a hero--my hero--the person has to be in the process of risking his life or his livelihood or his way of life for a principle. That's hard to find in the political world. I've talked about the great Czech distance runner Emil Zápotek, the greatest distance runner of all time, who ended up working in a uranium mine because he supported the 1968 uprising. He was a great hero of mine--an athlete who changed his whole life for principle.

I admire a lot of people on the Hill, but are they heroes? I wouldn't say so.

I think about Pat Moynihan, who I liked and admired. He was very smart, a very nice man, and wrote all his books himself in longhand. But whenever there was a choice between political expedience and principle, he'd choose political expediency. I don't criticize him for it; he was a politician.

From the same interview, Novak on the source of his self-confidence:

It starts if you're an only child. You're told you're wonderful, you can do no wrong. My mother always gave me the impression I was going to be something successful in the world. She didn't know what, and she certainly wasn't happy with the career path I took, but she never criticized me.

A person with a mother like that ends up with a great deal of confidence, which is a good thing to have if you're going to be the kind of journalist I was. If you're just going to report on car wrecks and interview the victims, you don't need much confidence. But if you're going to make proclamations on the state of the world, it helps to have confidence--even if that confidence is unwarranted.

Novak's colleagues at Creators Syndicate, on the right and the left, remember him in a special tribute. Susan Estrich writes of the impact of Novak's work on her understanding of politics:

I discovered Bob Novak when I was in college. My political science teacher assigned us Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's classic tomes: "Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power" (1966) and "Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power" (1971).

It was like giving the Bible on baseball to a kid who'd watched the game all her life without ever really knowing what all those signals mean. This is how power works. This is how Washington operates. This is how you get someone to do something he doesn't want to do. This is what happens when people get in the room with the president

Mark Shields on Novak's loyal friendship:

But what probably is most misunderstood about Bob Novak was that beneath that gruff, sometimes menacing exterior, there was a generous and open heart. If you were Bob Novak's friend, you were always Bob Novak's friend -- even long after you had lost your power or your position or your status in Washington. He never decided his guest lists based on who was on the weekend's network talk shows. He embodied and personified loyalty.

MORE: The Wall Street Journal remembers Novak's distrust of power:

He was attracted to LBJ, but over time he became increasingly skeptical of the political class and its habit of accruing power to itself. He was a staunch anti-Communist and became an advocate for supply-side economics. His column probably reached the apex of its influence during the Reagan years, as he chronicled the battles between the Gipper's true believers and the GOP establishment that sought to defeat them. He preferred the believers.

All of this earned Novak the moniker of "conservative" in Washington's taxonomy, but above all he brought to his work a reporter's skepticism about the powerful. This is in contrast to most modern Washington journalists, who have become apologists for the federal government's dominance in American life. Novak was as hard on Republicans who failed to live up to their small-government principles as he was on Democrats who sought to expand the welfare state.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on August 19, 2009 12:28 PM.

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