Remembering breakfast with the 'Prince of Darkness'

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Love him or hate him, conservative journalist Robert Novak was one of the most influential Washington journalists of the past half century. He passed away at his home Tuesday morning.

Bob’s column ran in the capital’s hometown paper, The Washington Post, from 1963 until 2008, and his sometimes scowling visage was frequently seen on cable TV.

Mr. Novak was the guest at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast with reporters in July 2007 at the time his last book was published.  Titled "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington,” it referred to a nickname tied to his on-camera persona. Novak began attending Monitor breakfasts in 1967, the year they started, and he and his column co-author, Rowland Evans Jr., were regular attendees for many years.

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A stirrer up of strife

In his book, Novak accurately described himself as “a stirrer up of strife” and his comments about both major parties at the breakfast illustrated why.

Asked whether the White House would change hands in 2008 Novak replied, “Only the Democrats could screw up what looks like a golden chance by nominating a candidate who is not very likeable. And they can do it. ”

His lack of admiration for Republican standard-bearer George W. Bush was also on display. Novak was asked if history will look more kindly on Mr. Bush’s presidency than current polls indicate. “I’d say it is impossible to turn him into a sympathetic, effective president after he is dead." But when Bush passes on and a memorial service is held at the National Cathedral, politicians "will go to the National Cathedral and people will tell lies about [the Bush presidency],” Novak said.

A costly controversy

Novak’s naming of CIA employee Valerie Plame Wilson in a July 2003 column led to a special prosecutor’s investigation and the trial and conviction of vice presidential aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby for perjury and obstruction of justice. Bush later commuted Mr. Libby’s prison sentence.

Novak was roundly criticized in the media for surfacing Ms. Plame’s name. In his book, he reported spending more than $160,000 in legal fees during the controversy. Asked at breakfast about the experience, Novak admitted to being “very disappointed in my colleagues.”

Novak argued that a lot of people were “jumping to conclusions that were not justified as to my role in the Valerie Plame case.  But on the other hand I was delighted my home paper, the Chicago Sun-Times, was very supportive of me. The Washington Post was extraordinarily supportive – ultimately in their editorials vindicated my position, but that was down the line. Right from the start they continued to run my column, which is the greatest compliment you can pay.”

Blowing sources

At the breakfast session, reporters asked about Novak’s decision to reveal in his last book the identity of some sources who wanted their names kept private. His response: “I blow a lot of sources, guys who aren’t in politics anymore. If they don’t like, I am sorry fellows.”

In one key case, a source who asked for continued confidentiality has died. Before he was selected as George McGovern’s running mate, former Missouri Sen. Tom Eagleton told Novak confidentially that “people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot.” The column gave rise to the shorthand that Mr. McGovern was the “Triple A” candidate favoring “amnesty, abortion, and acid.”

Novak argued that he kept the secret “for over 30 years,” and that if Mr. Eagleton objects, he will “have to settle with me” in the afterlife.

A spiritual side

Speaking of spiritual matters, Novak converted from Judaism to Catholicism in 1998. When asked at the breakfast if growing income inequality in the US offends his sense of Christianity, Novak answered, “Not a bit. One of things that has never bothered me is inequality in income. I think that is a sign of economic strength. A lot of people try to even out income inequality and they ruin their economy…”

But he continued, showing a somewhat softer side. “I try to be a Christian. I try to use what little savings I have to contribute to causes both connected with the church and not connected with the church…. I could become a Catholic on one evening with a baptism and a confirmation, but it takes a lot of living to be a Christian.”

It was this more gentle, generous Robert Novak that I will remember.

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