Robert D. Novak died yesterday. He was one of the most consequential reporters and most compelling public voices of the past half-century. He is irreplaceable.
Mr. Novak reached the top of a competitive profession the old-fashioned way — through hard work and relentless reporting. He advised aspiring young journalists that the best way to learn the tricks of the trade was to wear out shoe leather to get gossip and get to know sources.
He was adamant that his writing was based on reportage, not opinion, and took pains to make sure that every one of his articles offered readers new information they could not find anywhere else. His long-running column with partner Rowland Evans was called Inside Report because that is what it provided: the behind-the-scenes skinny on what was happening behind closed doors inside political salons. He was a pioneer of television news and commentary; millions who never read his column became familiar with his trademark scowl, razor-edged questions and even sharper intellect on TV.
A product of the blue-collar prison town of Joliet, Ill., Mr. Novak played Chicago hardball before Chicago hardball was cool in Washington. He was feared in the corridors of power for his mantra, “You’re either a source or a target.” A street fighter and proud Army veteran, he once reportedly took a swing at a liberal crank for calling him a traitor. This demeanor earned him the epithets “Prince of Darkness” and “Novakula,” which he accepted with pride. The fact that the prince was such a tough guy who had beaten so many challenges before — including several previous bouts with cancer — makes it that much harder for his friends to accept that anything could beat him.
Mr. Novak was not always a conservative but evolved ideologically over decades. He was an anti-communist moderate in the 1950s, a staunch opponent of the Great Society in the 1960s and came full circle to the right as a result of the supply-side economics, anti-communism and anti-government conservatism of the Reagan era. Despite his growing conservatism, he was never a partisan flack. Mr. Novak was a strict believer in the independence of the press and resented when Republican politicians complained that he needed to be a team player and get with the program, whatever that program happened to be. He wasn’t on a team and shot from the hip based on his principles. His list of targets was nondenominational, as was his Rolodex of sources.
As the years passed, Mr. Novak’s political wayfaring converted into a religious journey. He first was tickled by the spiritual impulse in the 1950s when he read “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers, who painted the war against communism as part of a historical battle between the forces of good and agents of evil. As Mr. Novak wrote of Mr. Chambers in the foreword to a later Regnery edition of the book: “He views this struggle as inseparable from faith in God, asserting that ‘man without mysticism is a monster.’ He goes on to assail liberals as sharing with the Communists ‘a similar vision’ of man without God and indeed sharing complicity with them.’ ”
Mr. Novak passed into the next world as a man with God. His search for truth led him into the Roman Catholic Church at 67 years of age, following his wife, Geraldine, into the faith. A prominent Jesuit priest once tried to deter Mr. Novak’s quest for God, warning him the chances are good that there is “nothing up there.” The Prince of Darkness knew better. We pray that Robert Novak will rest in peace “up there” in God’s embrace.