It took cancer more than a year to kill Bob Novak, and actually this was the fifth cancer that tried to kill him. Let that stand as a testimonial to how tough this guy was.
He was very tough. He worked long hours as a reporter and columnist. He was always on call to pop onto a TV set and comment on breaking news. He prepared diligently for the two cable shows on which he appeared, CNN’s “Crossfire” and “Capital Gang.”
On those shows, he earned the widely known sobriquet “the Prince of Darkness,” which was a nonsense. He was tough, but he was fair, objective and a thoroughly decent man.
Political aficionados know him from his enormously informed column, which was written from a conservative point of view, but it was the conservatism of an independent mind. No orthodoxy dictated his opinions, only fact and his huge knowledge of history — mostly political history, but he also knew the broader aspects of history.
He was an energetic reader. He read long hours, and he went to basketball games — University of Maryland basketball games. In conversation, it often sounded to me as though he had a higher regard for athletes and coaches than for politicians.
He was one of the most loyal contributors the American Spectator has ever had. Some who have written for us never let it be known in their bios lest they give offense to polite company. Bob never hid his relationship with us and mentions it often in his stupendously informative memoir, “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.”
He was always available to write both essays and book reviews in the magazine, but he contributed in so many other ways. He was a regular participant at our monthly editorial dinners, known as the Saturday Evening Club, where no matter the rigors of his day, he would animatedly lead the discussion on issues interesting to him, often amusingly, always intelligently. He participated in our programs to train young journalists. He served on our board of directors, never flinching when the government hauled us before a grand jury or when the Clintonistas infiltrated into the media tales of our treasonous behavior.
During all this hullabaloo, I innocently asked Bob what the mainstream journalists thought of us. The mortar fire was pretty heavy. “They think you’re obnoxious,” he responded. Gee, Bob have a heart!
He actually did have a heart and a strong conscience. On the one matter that temporarily ended our friendship, he was proved wrong, or at least sort of wrong. When that became apparent to him, he suggested that we dine and smoke the peace pipe. He admitted he had been wrong. I insisted he had only been a bit wrong. Our friendship was renewed.
In all my years as an editor, I have only known one other acquaintance to come forward and admit to being wrong. And again, Bob was only sort of wrong, but he had the self-confidence to admit error. He also had the intellect and general competence to fall into error rarely.
On the large issues of our time, he was always right and boldly so. He was an early and intelligent proponent of the economics that brought the country more than a quarter-century of economic growth, supply-side economics.
He was a critic of the excesses of the Great Society and favored limited government. He recognized communism as a threat to the West that had to be defeated. He also had an uncanny ability to take the measure of the people about whom he wrote and perceive their strengths, weaknesses and quirks. A thumbnail sketch from him of a pol or other public figure was a work of art.
Though a daily journalist, he was a man of great depths, widely read and deeply thoughtful beneath his gruff veneer.
Late in life, he became a person of faith, converting to Catholicism because, as he said in his memoir, he was jolted by the remark of a young woman. He was dining with her and other students before he was to give a speech at Syracuse University. The conversation turned to her Catholicism. He told her he had been sitting in on Catholic Masses for four years. She asked him if he intended to become a Catholic. “No, not at the present time,” he said. “Mr. Novak,” she remonstrated, “life is short, but eternity is forever.”
“I was so shaken by what she said,” Bob writes, “that I could barely get through the rest of the dinner and my speech that night. Sometime during the short night before rising to catch a seven a.m. flight back to Washington, I became convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking through this Syracuse student.”
As I say, I think that sobriquet, “Prince of Darkness,” is a nonsense.
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of the American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute.