Robert Novak, 1931-2009: “Bye-Bye Sourpuss!”



In memory of Robert Novak, the ace political reporter who died earlier today, below follows a reprint of a column from almost exactly a year ago, written shortly after he’d announced his retirement due to the brain cancer that ultimately claimed his life. Novak’s fight with cancer was consistent with the man’s working method–he exceeded expectations after a diagnosis presumed to be imminently fatal. Instead, he was even able to return to work, sparingly, later in 2008; his courage was rewarded by getting to watch the major changes that have occurred in this country over the past year. To paraphrase Diamond Dallas Page: You may have loved him, you may have hated him, but you will never forget Robert Novak. RIP.

Bye-Bye, Sourpuss!

The sad news of Robert Novak’s pending demise offers yet another opportunity for those who remain to ponder our world as reflected in the life of a major figure in this history of American journalism. He was, above all else, an exemplar of tradecraft. Words are, first and foremost, instruments of control—or, at least, influence—and Novak’s application of them, for better and for worse, has shaped the future he will not live to see.

Novak, now 78, was old-school down to the nucleus of individual cells in his bone marrow. Never met him myself, but I would bet my tab at Steamworks that the man’s feet carried the permanent smell of shoe leather. Seriously, who else but Robert Novak would title his own memoir The Prince of Darkness? Working first with the late Rowland Evans, and alone since the 1980’s, Novak wrote one of the longest-running political column of his time. He “achieved” the contemporary record upon the death of William F. Buckley in February; it ended after 45 years, two months and 20 days.

His final week in the business really sucked. He got fed bogus information that John McCain intended to time the naming of his running-mate for Barack Obama’s now legendary first foreign tour. When it didn’t happen, Novak cut a promo on his sources and his days were numbered from there. A couple days later he hit an elderly pedestrian, in broad daylight at a prominent Beltway intersection, and just left; he was eventually stopped by a bicyclist, who just happened to be a high-level Washington lawyer who may or may not have already known him, and subsequent tests revealed a malignant brain tumor. That would explain why he didn’t know he’d hit someone, and also why he believed anything coming from the McCain camp. Robert Novak3

Novak was unabashedly ideological; his slants and biases were never concealed, but he rarely did anything that was cruel and unfair. Except, of course, for the time he got caught up in that Yellowcake hype and passed a poison meme about Valerie Plame, for which he and his associates paid an awful price—expulsion from the federal government, for certain officials, and the beginning of the end of Republican control of Washington. Never mind that what he wrote was true, though stated sloppily; that operation was a catastrophic blow to his reputation that he hadn’t time enough to work through. 

It says something of the man’s character that he was willing to tangle with a woman who can shoot her initials into a wall with an Uzi—allegedly—on behalf of an administration that he was always skeptical of. Like so many of his peers in recent years, Novak traded his credibility for access. His last five years were as good as the 40 before it (and isn’t everything good after a 40?), but tainted by his association with a war that he didn’t have any real passion for. It was not even a month ago that this writer spent damn near an hour trying to sell the skills of Novak on a colleague who had touted the vastly inferior hack David Brooks as the current high-water mark of political columnists. That two such writers could even be rationally compared speaks directly to the dangerous condition their business, and our country, is currently in.          

Novak’s situation is, in his professional parlance, “perilous.” He made the formal announcement after suffering a seizure at Cape Cod, where he had presumably gathered his loved ones to tell them. It remains unclear whether the accident or the seizure was the impetus for the tests that revealed his cancer, but maybe he already knew. Novak’s May 15 column contained an ominous note: “I would like to die in the saddle without retiring. … I cannot write a column without reporting, and hope I can continue to do so and newspapers see fit to print me so that I can celebrate my 50th anniversary. In case I don’t make it, however, I thought it proper to note 45 years of columns.”

Robert Novak

It’s about over now, that era, those days when journalism was populated with giants and wizard wordsmiths who functioned at the highest levels of American Power. As is typical of election years, the attrition rate among journalists has been intense, but Novak, like Tim Russert, cannot be replaced, merely remembered. It is an unfortunate consequence of the serious work he’s done that many people will celebrate his death and hope he suffers on the way out. (A list might start with all the people who lost money, and worse, working with Brewster Jennings.)

August 4, 2008


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