Robert Novak, R.I.P.
My friend and mentor, Robert Novak is gone at the age of 78 and I am deeply saddened. After a valiant struggle, Bob lost his battle with brain cancer earlier today.
Washington and all of America should be mourning– for Bob Novak was the last of a breed of journalists that we shall not see again. He used his contacts with the powerful to get the story, while never getting too cozy with them. His columns revealed the unseen political motivations beneath the policy tussles everyone else was covering. He didn’t offer opinion, but reportage. He actually broke news in his column. To inform the public, which he considered a crucial calling, Bob would often divulge details that eluded his competitors. He said of his news approach a few years ago: “I am proud of my journalistic philosophy: to tell the world things people do not want them to hear.”
Years ago, when I was working in the office he shared with his longtime partner, Rowland Evans, he confided to me the distinguishing characteristic of his work. “There has to be at least one new bit of information–some new revelation in each column,” he said. “That’s what makes us different.” And different he was.
For 45 years his column was mandatory reading in Washington DC and could drive blood pressure up in both the Capitol and in the West Wing. He relished being on the outside while tweaking the noses of those on the inside.
The man was a dynamo. Tooling around Washington in his black Corvette, Novak kept a schedule that would exhaust a twenty year old. When I worked for him, he was writing a column three times a week, editing a bi-weekly newsletter, producing CNN’s “Evans and Novak” and “Capitol Gang”, as well as co-hosting “Crossfire” each weeknight. Weekends were dedicated to speeches and travel. In between, he wrote articles for the Readers Digest and the Wall Street Journal as well as the occasional book.
Beneath the grumpy exterior and the “Prince of Darkness” moniker, Novak was a very kind man, devoted to his friends, his family, and later in life, to his Faith. In 1998, shortly after his conversion to Catholicism, Bob would only grant one television interview to discuss his new found religion. I had the pleasure of conducting that interview.
Bob told me of his long journey from non practicing Jew to Roman Catholic. It was his wife, Geraldine’s pro-life convictions that first drew his attention to matters of faith. Though not a Catholic, Geraldine Novak would attend Mass in Washington and encourage her husband to join her. After four years of attending Mass neither Bob nor Geraldine had converted, but a speaking engagement in Upstate New York would force the issue. At Syracuse University Bob encountered a young woman wearing a crucifix and casually asked if she was Catholic. The woman turned the question on Bob who had to respond in the negative. The woman told him, “Mr. Novak life is short, but eternity is forever.” These words would haunt him for weeks to come.
That chance meeting and conversations with Fr. John McCloskey and his former source and friend, Msgr. Peter Vaghi, led Novak to begin the process of conversion. He and Geraldine were baptized Catholics in 1998.
His faith was a great consolation to Bob during his battle with brain cancer in the last year of his life. He fought to the end, enduring invasive surgery and repeated chemotherapy. The last time I saw him, in the middle of his treatments, he was bent by his illness but by no means overcome by it. With Geraldine at his side, he possessed a joy and a determination to keep on fighting. That is the Bob Novak that I will long remember.
I will most miss Bob’s relentless inquisitiveness. In his three piece suit, over dinner or at a cocktail party, he would probe you, seeking your impressions of a news event or a person. He wanted to know everything you had heard. He was like a sponge. And God did he love chasing a story. A true journalist, Bob spent time and considerable shoe leather gathering facts, and never lost his soul doing it. In one of his last interviews with Washingtonian Magazine, in the midst of his cancer struggle, he said:
“Nobody wants to die. I certainly don’t. But all Christian faiths, and certainly Catholicism, hold that there’s an afterlife, that we are not just dust to dust. And that’s comforting, particularly now that I have an illness and there’s very little chance I will recover. A priest who visited me told me I’ve been given a chance to prepare myself. So I began to think about my life and what I’ve done right and not done right and to prepare myself for the last days. I’ve found that reassuring.”
In typical Novakian fashion, Bob knew how to finish the story well. May Robert Novak rest in peace.
Be sure to watch the World Over this week, where we will remember Bob Novak with those who knew him best. Friday, 8PM on EWTN.
Let me know what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org
Karl Keating reviewed Bob Novak’s autobiography The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington in 2007 in his newsletter, with a focus on Novak’s conversion story.
“When we moved into downtown Washington in 1992, Geraldine walked the few blocks to St. Patrick’s to attend Mass. She told me she really liked it and asked whether I would like to go with her. I did and, in contrast to my previous Christian church experiences, I was moved by the ritual.”
A few years prior to this, Bell had introduced Novak to Fr. C. John McCloskey. He is described by Novak as “a politically and theologically conservative Opus Dei priest” and “a world-class proselytizer. He brought the abortion doctor Bernard Nathanson, New York gubernatorial candidate Lewis Lehrman, and the Wall Street economist Lawrence Kudlow into the Church, and now he was working on me.”
“I was a tough nut to crack,” says Novak. The cracking was finished not by Bell, not by McCloskey, and not even by Novak’s wife, but by a young woman he had never met before. In 1996 Novak went to Syracuse University to give a lecture. “There was one woman on the College Republicans committee.” At the pre-speech dinner, she was “seated across the table from me. She was striking looking, wearing a gold cross on her neck. …
“Without mentioning the cross, I was impelled to ask the woman a question that normally I would not consider posing. Was she a Catholic? I thought she answered yes and then asked me whether I was one. ‘No,’ I replied, ‘but my wife and I have been going to Mass every Sunday for about four years.’ ‘Do you plan to join the Church?’ she asked. I answered: ‘No, not at the present time. …
“Then the young woman looked at me and said evenly: ‘Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever.’ I was so shaken by what she said that I could barely get through the rest of the dinner and my speech that night. … I became convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking through this Syracuse student.”