Columnist Robert D. Novak dies at 78

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After Robert D. Novak revealed in his July 14, 2003, syndicated column that Valerie Plame, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV’s wife, was a covert CIA agent, Republicans grew increasingly angry with him.

Democrats would use his scoop to hound top George W. Bush aides with the claim that they had intentionally blown Ms. Plame’s cover in order to discredit her husband. The publicity stung the president.

But the incident was one of countless times that the conservative Mr. Novak, who died Tuesday of a brain tumor at his Washington home at age 78, put journalistic integrity over partisanship and ideology. He went where the facts led, making him as hard on Republicans as on Democrats.

“There were many times over the years I tried to talk him out of reporting something that would hurt our side but he wouldn’t listen,” said Jeff Bell, a consultant to conservative advocacy groups and godfather to Mr. Novak. “The Barry Goldwater people thought Bob was the enemy, just as later Richard Nixon told his aide Pat Buchanan that Bob was the enemy.”

For more than a half-century, Mr. Novak was one of most influential - and feared - columnists in the nation, trusted equally by Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, to uncover information no one else had and to report it accurately.

Affectionately nicknamed the “Prince of Darkness,” he was for years a popular television personality whose syndicated column was an unusual combination of hard-news reporting and opinion.

“He definitely had a worldview,” said William Schulz, a former Reader’s Digest executive who edited Mr. Novak’s 2007 memoir, “The Prince of Darkness.”

Even though Mr. Schulz cut 40 percent of the words from Mr. Novak’s manuscript, the author behaved like the Earl of Light, never raising an objection. Mr. Schulz said he used a pen to edit the manuscript, chapter by chapter, before sending his changes to Mr. Novak, who “personally put every editing change into the computer.”

“The night before the final [publisher’s] deadline, I cut about another 15,000 words and Bob was up all night to make sure he got the complete manuscript to the publisher the next morning,” Mr. Schulz said.

Craig Shirley, author of two books on former President Ronald Reagan, recalled that Mr. Novak was the only journalist who wrote on the day before the 1980 New Hampshire primary that Mr. Reagan would win.

“Novak had bothered to go into precincts in Derry, N.H., to interview average voters,” Mr. Shirley said.

Mr. Novak began his career as a columnist in 1963, teaming up with Rowland Evans Jr. to write Inside Report, better known simply as Evans and Novak.

He became a household name in the TV era because of his regular appearances on political talk shows, including CNN’s “The Capital Gang” and “Crossfire.”

He began his career as a reporter, working, among other places, for the Wall Street Journal and then moving to the New York Herald-Tribune to work with Mr. Evans on the column that would make him one of the nation’s best-known journalists.

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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