The softer side of Bob Novak

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After hearing news that columnist Robert Novak has been hospitalized for a brain tumor, my thoughts inevitably turned to my experiences working in his office and interactions with him since. While he gets a bad rap for his temper, there is of course more to him than the conventional wisdom.

Despite his gruff exterior, Robert Novak has a soft spot for young people and does what he can to help them advance in Washington and in life. I worked as an intern in his office during the fall of 2005, there in Novak’s small office near 17th and Pennsylvania, a block from the White House.

I was fresh out of my undergraduate college, and wouldn’t you know they put the girl from Brigham Young University in charge of making the coffee, a task for which I was grossly under qualified (Mormons don’t drink coffee). Novak liked his coffee stiff and black, no frills. Yet this order proved too difficult for me when in my java ignorance I somehow over-filled the machine and caused the pot to bubble over, spilling semi-brewed hot coffee all over his kitchen floor.

Thankfully, Novak was out of sight. He was likely snoozing on his couch inside his study, a sanctuary to which he’d retire each afternoon when his day’s column had been filed or his interviews finished. The man rarely slept at night, due to the six cups of coffee he’d consumed during the day as well as his insatiable political addiction.

By this point in his career, he was an old hat at television and knew all the trappings that came along with it. I had the distinct privilege of ensuring that the pillows in his study were laundered free of the orange television makeup that would rub off as he dozed.

Beyond helping with his weekly columns, the highlight of my internship was doing some investigative work tracking down the young woman who had helped convert him from Judaism to Christianity. He wanted to include her in his autobiography, and I was given scant details to find the woman, who in 1994 made an off-hand remark at Syracuse University, “Life is short, but eternity is forever.”

This somehow struck a nerve in Novak, who had been studying Catholicism for awhile. It was what he needed, and he converted. I was finally able to find the woman, who became a bit emotional when I told her the impact she’d had. Ironically enough, she is Greek Orthodox.

I left Novak’s office to take a full-time job. My last day in the office I asked him what it took to be a successful journalist in D.C. “You have to be wily,” he said, grinning. “Like Wile E. Coyote.”

I next saw Novak when I was receiving a Phillips Foundation fellowship, a grant for young journalists to write about a topic of their choice for one year. Novak sits on the board of the foundation, and during one of our seminars he took a rather cynical tack and said that all of his best material had been handed to him and that if you wanted to make a difference in the world, go into a different profession. Go into the actual policy or political jobs that can directly influence outcomes rather than sitting on the sidelines.

After chewing on this dismal assessment of the occupation I went to school and had been slaving away for no or scant money, I decided that I respectfully disagreed with Novak. I think he has made a tremendous difference and has directly influenced quite a bit of politics and policy. Whether you agree with his politics or not, there’s not disputing the fact that Novak has sorted out fact from fiction for the last 50 years and informed the electorate about the choices and behind-the-scenes machinations of those who govern us.

There’s a reason Thomas Jefferson said he’d rather have a country with newspapers and no government than a country with government and no newspapers. That’s because the free press serves as the arbiter between the governed and those who govern. Without the press, we’d lack the scrutiny and accountability needed to make sure problems are brought to light and resolved. Novak’s career embodies these ideals.

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