Register Saturday | December 7 | 2019

Goodbye, Prince of Darkness

The end of an era: Robert Novak 1931-2009

Journalist extraordinare Robert Novak passed away on August 18, 2009, after a fight with brain cancer. Almost a year ago to the day, Richard Vanderford profiled Novak's career for Maisonneuve. We reprint the tribute below.

Robert Novak made his living by shoe leather reporting.  The metaphor is apt, though you can’t quite say he pounded the pavement. Novak’s beat was the Baroque thoroughfares and gilded power corridors of Washington D.C. What’s amazing, however, is that the half-century career of this Chicago Sun-Times columnist never slowed into a comfortable stroll.  It remained what it always was: the hustle of young man who, after wandering into American politics, immersed himself in the intrigues and personalities around him with pathological one-mindedness.  Reading his 2007memoirs, The Prince of Darkness, you get the sense that Novak was a student of politics who never wanted to graduate.  Why would he?  He had few hobbies.  Poor health drove him from even social drinking.  He had many more “sources” than friends.  And were it not for the saintly patience of his selfless wife, it’s unlikely he would have any family.  Novak made political reporting his life’s work and passion.  If he's fallen short of anointing himself a statesman of American journalism, he didn’t fail to install himself as a fixture.

Two weeks ago, Novak announced his "immediate retirement" after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. The news caught many off guard. Fans and detractors were forced to face the reality that, at 77, Novak is an old man. Yet Novak’s scrappy writing style and indefatigable reporting habits do not suggest the outlook of a septuagenarian and grandfather. Of all the aspersions leveled against Robert Novak—and there are many—you can’t call him lazy.  As a longtime co-author (and later sole bylined author) of the famous syndicated “Inside Report” column, Novak has spilled volumes and volumes of ink.  Except he really hasn’t.  The ink has been spilled, but it’s not in volumes.  His body of work, not anthologized or otherwise collected in print, is “ephemeral.” Timeliness was central to his reporting. As one British commentator famously opined, his work reads as though it was written in the back of a lurching cab.

His addiction to scoops shapes his memoirs too.  Though he can’t break a new story on a  decades-old event, he can forsake longviews and meditated analysis.  Chapters, for the most part, are organized chronologically, with titles like “The Goldwater Revolution” and “‘Amnesty, Abortion, and Acid’” that lead into the central moments in American political history .  His role in covering them is often presented as a straightforward historical narrative, and biographical details are dropped in as they emerge. The memoir contains enough information and chronological breadth to qualify as a historical work, but often reads like a play that’s had all its dialogue excised.  There are no grand soliloquies or cleverly positioned asides to guide the audience to a greater understanding of the larger themes.  Just lists of players, often obscure, and a long sequence of Enters and Exits.  Regular reports of his (ever-increasing) salary serve as a shorthand indicator of increasing material success.

More at home with the tiny pieces than the big machine, it’s not surprising that a nuts-and-bolts mentality informed Novak’s understanding of politics as well.  In his retelling of his early reporting, such as his treatment of the Landrum-Griffin Act (a 1959 law to protect against union corruption which grew from a highly publicized investigation into Teamster racketeering), there is a pronounced focus on politics over policy.  Novak’s work is permeated with an implicit cynicism on the motives of power brokers.  Twenty-first century Americans may be accustomed to thinking, in a general way, that politicians are self-interested rats.  It is still instructive and fascinating to see the clash and mesh of individual personalities, along with the mutual back-scratching of a chummy establishment who regularly produce legislation where the public interest is an afterthought.  Novak is as old as they come, and despite living in an age of hyper-linked information, he’s still a safer bet than the Internet for figuring out who owes who what in D.C.

As a living encyclopedia, Novak was more Wikipedia (uncorroborated, biased) than Britannica (stately, unimpeachable).  In itself, his immersion in the Washington scene is ethically iffy.  He scratches backs, and is not so fastidious about the appearance of ethical purity that he’s above accepting gifts or “hospitality” from prominent public figures.  Guests at an Army and Navy gala honoring him wore buttons that read “I’m a source, not a target.”  It was a joke, but there’s a more than a grain of truth behind it.  It’s often either/or with Novak, and he concedes that he will soften criticism to avoid antagonizing good sources.  He will also, if necessary, file a story with a deliberately misleading dateline, or falsely describe anonymous sources in order to save them from possible harm or embarrassment.  In general, he operates with a “scoop first and ask questions later” imperative.

That’s not to say that he was without a moral compass.  In his memoir he makes it clear that he considered ethical issues.  The need to verify with independent sources, for example, is treated like a commandment.  In other areas, however, he seems to imply the existence of a code of conduct whose principles are a little fuzzy.  In discussing his filing of a critical story on Lyndon Johnson while being hosted at the president’s ranch, he asserts that he wasn’t doing anything wrong (LBJ disagreed).  Sometimes he’ll suggest where a conflict of interest could have arisen, and then write what amounts to a blithe shrug, dismissing his own concern and remarking something like “I hope this favor didn’t influence me to give them special consideration.”  He benefited from working in dailies and on television.  They move quickly and privilege the dirt-disher.  The perceived liberty-taking that gave him his nickname “No Facts,” and some of his other lesser ethical transgressions can be overlooked or forgotten in such fact-paced environment.

On his role in the 2003 “Plame Affair,” his critics were not as charitable.  In his memoir, he defends his own actions, which included outing the former undercover CIA agent and failing to shield his anonymous source.  It’s a relatively fresh event and a difficult place from which to look at Novak’s ethics—the debate about the particulars are hardened along partisan and ideological lines—but it can serve as a good jumping-off point to look at the evolution of his journalistic character.

The relationship between journalist and newsmaker is normally fairly straightforward.  Newsmakers make news.  Journalists observe and report.  In the early stages of his career, Novak played the straightforward journalist; however, by the time the Plame Affair breaks, it’s clear that he became more advocate and ideologue than objective observer.  When he was invited to Meet the Press, it wasn’t to be the press.  Novak’s own assessment is muddled.  He asserts that every column he writes is rooted in traditional reporting, but unapologetically defends his conservative values and his role in propagating them.  He prides himself on being a history maker.  He directly takes credit for, or implies a prominent role in (among other things): opening the debate on affirmative action; bringing Kennedy to Dallas, where he was assassinated; prompting the resignation of LBJ; and determining American troop deployment policy in Korea and West Germany. He has worked on television programs that, if not strictly partisan, are as adversarial and polemic as the most vicious legislature.

Novak has a small obsession with prediction.  Just as salary is a shorthand for material success, predictive accuracy is, to him, a yardstick of political savvy.  It seems fitting to end a discussion on him with some attempt to divine his future, and legacy.  His being a divisive figure with an unmatched longevity in one line of work would seem to make it easy: he will go out having beena divisive conservative writing an insider’s column.  But Novak himself is not content to rely solely on his gut.  He needs to break down election predictions, for example, state-by-state.  His own Prince of Darknesshides a definite motif of penitence throughout that shows on closer inspection.  Novak is inflammatory and rude, but he’s also has an air of a twelve-stepper combined with a Christian convert.  He renders painstaking thanks even to those who have clearly wronged him.  And as much as he dismisses criticism (and even outright hatred), there’s a sense of his underlying fatigue at being an object of scorn as he gropes for explanations for all his betrayals and rudeness.

Illiness has forced Novak’s official resignation, but I somehow don’t believe it. He won’t stop writing until he dies. We might never know if he’ll ever transform into a kinder commentator. But having helped him beat three cancers already, medical science may keep him alive just long enough to find out.