Eclectic knot of mourners recalls Novak

It’s a safe bet that Robert D. Novak would have loved the service for him on a steamy Friday morning at St. Patrick’s Church in the heart of the city he loved.

Inside the Catholic church at D and 10th streets Northwest, the atmosphere was dignified and apolitical. A part of the “Prince of Darkness” - a nickname the combative columnist embraced - would have liked the solemnity of the 10 white-robed monsignors, priests and deacons taking their places at the altar as political consultant Jeff Bell - the late Mr. Novak’s godfather and friend - and National Review Editor Kate O’Beirne delivered readings of the Mass.

Watching from the front row were Geraldine Novak - the wife of the influential syndicated columnist and TV commentator who died Tuesday after a lengthy battle with brain cancer - son Alex, daughter Zelda and the Novak grandchildren.

After the Mass came the kind of spontaneous political gabfest that Mr. Novak also would have loved, as friends and admirers of varied backgrounds and all political persuasions spilled out into the street, gathering in knots that grew into clumps and became a nearly solid block of gesticulating and reminiscing humanity.

They did what people who love politics and have just bid a final farewell to a dear friend do - share stories about Mr. Novak’s 50-year reporting career and about themselves. There was talk of the late Rowland Evans, who for many years co-wrote with Mr. Novak the “Inside Report” syndicated column that was a combination of hard news, memorable scoops and political analysis.

Despite the heat, no one seemed to want to leave, with memories of Mr. Novak mixing easily with political shop talk.

As the sun beat down, Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic consultant who managed Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run, laughingly recalled how “Bob and I used to hang round at St. Patrick’s a lot, and I’d tell him, ‘Bob, God needs another source.’ ”

Miss Brazile said she constantly ran into Mr. Novak in studio “green rooms” before TV appearances. “Everybody there would be talking to each other, but not Bob. He’d be on the phone to senators, congressmen, White House aides, tracking a story,” she said.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and former Bush While House chief political strategist Karl Rove were among the conservative luminaries amiably jostling each other and Democratic notables for sidewalk space in front of the church.

“Novak cost me an ambassadorship after Nixon had resigned and Ford took over,” recalled Pat Buchanan, conservative political commentator and former top aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

Mr. Buchanan related that then-White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig had offered Mr. Buchanan the ambassador’s post to South Africa in the hectic days as President Nixon was preparing to resign in August 1974 and Vice President Ford was preparing to take over.

As Mr. Buchanan recalled, “I’m on a junket to Canada and someone says, ‘Are you going to be ambassador to South Africa? Evans and Novak have it.’ I picked up the Evans and Novak column and read, ‘It may seem impossible to believe but the bloody-nosed gut fighter Pat Buchanan is going to be appointed by Gerald Ford as ambassador to South Africa. Al Haig has slipped it through staff and the State Department.’

“By the time I, got home, the ambassadorship was gone,” Mr. Buchanan said.

Reflecting Mr. Novak’s legendarily packed Rolodex, Miss Brazile wasn’t the only Democrat in the pews at St. Patrick’s. Joe Cerrell, a veteran Democratic campaign consultant, flew in from his California home to see Mr. Novak off for the last time. Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” and formerly an aide to Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, was also there.

Another Democrat and old Novak friend, New York lawyer Adam Walinsky, a former top aide and speechwriter for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was there, sharing recollections of old times with Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who was in from Cape Cod, Mass., with his wife to attend the service.

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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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