Robert Novak, RIP

August 18th, 2009 at 5:54 pm | 8 Comments |

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Robert Novak passed away today after a long and distinguished journalistic career. I never knew Mr. Novak; however, viagra sale I did meet him back in the 1990s in a small gathering at the Heritage Foundation.

I shook his hand, mind but didn’t really say anything. I was too nervous to speak. In my short time in Washington, search this was the closest I had gotten to anyone of real public stature or prominence; and so I was nervous and tongue tied. In my wonky world, you see, this is what would be called a “celebrity sighting”!

I should not have been nervous, because Mr. Novak could not have been more gracious and kind. He vigorously shook my hand, treated me like an old-time friend, and said, “Hello, John. How are you?” (or words to that effect). The so-called “Prince of Darkness,” I discovered, was anything but.

Mr. Novak’s journalistic career holds important lessons for conservatives, and not because he was always “R/right”, by which I mean both conservative and correct. In fact, Novak was sometimes wrong, and he sometimes took decidedly non-conservative positions.

He was unduly critical of Israel, for instance, and despite 9-11, seemed to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For these heresies, David Frum charged Novak with being in cahoots with a group of like-minded “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”

I think that’s an unfair charge, though some of the individuals mentioned in Frum’s 2003 essay in National Review certainly warrant that moniker. Frum’s essay is both famous and infamous, depending upon your point of view. But I think these two stellar journalists and civic-minded men agreed more than they disagreed. And, for this writer at least, their agreements are more telling, informative and profound.

Novak was affectionately called the “Prince of Darkness,” but that description had nothing to do with his personal and professional dealings. It resulted, instead, from his conservative political leanings, which Novak prominently displayed in his syndicated column.

In a town (Washington, D.C.) and in a profession (journalism) dominated by liberals and leftists, being an unapologetic conservative was true heresy ? and it still is to some extent. It was especially heretical before the internet and cable television gave rise to a community of like-minded conservative journalists, pundits and bloggers. Yet that is the period in which Novak spent the bulk of his career, which spanned from the 1950s to the present.

Novak also was a tough-minded journalist who reportedly said, “You’re either a source or a target.” This hard-charging attitude doubtless earned Novak the enmity of many Washington pols and bureaucrats, who prefer softer and more malleable journalists; hence their moniker, “The Prince of Darkness.”

Novak wore that moniker like a badge of honor. In fact, “Prince of Darkness” is what he entitled his recent autobiography. David Frum reviewed Novak’s autobiography and concluded that “Robert Novak harbors many grievances and resentments.” “The man revealed in these pages is indeed a dark soul,” Frum writes.

Oh come now. Novak wrote a very candid and honest autobiography, in which he revealed himself, warts and all. If confession is the first step on the path to redemption, then in writing The Prince of Darkness, Novak was well on his way to redemption ? and, with a little luck and a few prayers, may well be standing at the Pearly Gates right now!

More to the point, Novak’s failings were, in large part, an occupational hazard. He distinguished himself as a reporter. He reported exclusive news that no one else knew, and which oftentimes, powerful people wanted hidden from the public.

For this reason, Novak was, as even Frum himself acknowledges, “a great reporter.” Indeed, Frum admits, Novak ranked, “among the greatest [of reporters that] Washington has ever seen.” You don’t achieve that status without ticking people off. And, in the process of achieving greatness, you may develop a gruff exterior and a single-minded sense of professional purpose that can be off-putting and indeed, dark.

This may have been the case with Novak; however, he also was a kind and gracious man, as I myself discovered when I met him more than a decade ago.

Moreover, Novak’s journalism was factually based and issue oriented. The art of securing fresh and exclusive information may not have been pretty or edifying, but more often than not the end result sure was. Our country, our nation and our people; lawmakers and policymakers, journalists and opinion-makers; all benefited from a more open and transparent understanding of what was being done and what was being decided behind closed doors and within the corridors of power.

In truth, America needs more great reporters. We need more Bob Novaks. The conservative movement in particular needs more journalists who report rather than opine. Washington, after all, has gotten so big so fast, and it is usurping so much power so quickly, that it is difficult to keep track of it all.

And in truth, we are not keeping adequate tabs on what our government is now doing. The $780-billion stimulus bill, for instance, is a monstrosity, which government agencies are now using for blatantly political purposes. Yet, the media has been disconcertingly silent about the so-called economic stimulus. Thus, no one really knows where and why that money is really being spent, and how it is being politically manipulated.

Here’s another example of media malpractice: Earlier this year, the Pentagon convened a series of secret budget tribunals to decide the fate of the nation’s defense budget. Senior military and civilian leaders were forced to sign secrecy oaths on a matter that ought to be public knowledge: the defense budget.

Did the media object to this blatantly un-American dictate? Hell no! They applauded and saluted! The secret budget tribunals, you see, were being used to enforce the most significant weapon systems cuts in more than 30 years. And since the media want to see weapon systems cut, they did not question the propriety of secret budget tribunals and enforced secrecy oaths.

The media, it seems, champion openness and transparency in government only when these causes comport with the liberal agenda. Would that we had had a Bob Novak to give them hell. Unfortunately, the old man was dying of cancer and none of his heirs picked up his baton.

But one of the great things about the Internet is that it has dramatically lowered the barriers to entry for reporting and publishing. Consequently, new websites and new reporters are emerging to fill a much-needed reportorial and informational void. These include this website, David Frum’s NewMajority, and reporter Alex Knepper, also of NewMajority.

Robert Novak and David Frum may have disagreed about many important things, but about this, I think, they would agree. The media must comfort the afflicted and afflict the powerful. (The corollary of this rule is that the conservative media should not shy away from afflicting powerful conservatives, including culturally powerful radio talk show hosts.)

In a long and distinguished journalistic career, Robert Novak certainly did just that. May he rest in peace.

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8 Comments so far ↓

  • midcon

    Interesting essay John. I assume the phrase “secret budget tribunal” is yours? High level budget discussions have been happening since before there was a Pentagon. Most of the time some official leaks aspects of the discussion usually because they were on the losing end of the battle. In this one instance, the officials (both military and civilian) were told that there will be no leaks period. Why should this discussion regarding the the military mission and the resources have gone on in public? The results were made public. It’s the DoD position. Do you think the media should have been fly on the wall?

    Since when is being “critical of Israel” non-conservative position? One can’t criticize Israel and be conservative? Well I wish I had been told that. I hope there aren’t too many more of those “secret” convservative positions one must hold to be a conservative.

    And finally, does anyone not believe unbiased journalism is dead? I have left channels and right channels. Gone are days when there was unbiased straightforward journalism. In fact, I wonder now if it ever existed or did we just think it did?

  • ottovbvs

    midcon // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm
    “Since when is being “critical of Israel” non-conservative position? One can’t criticize Israel and be conservative? Well I wish I had been told that. ”

    ……….You obviously didn’t get the memo

  • ottovbvs

    1 midcon // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm
    ” In fact, I wonder now if it ever existed or did we just think it did?”

    ………Lippman, Alsop, Reston and a couple of others whose names elude me, were journalists with integrity, they’d champion a position but when it was apparent water wasn’t running uphill they’d say so which is why if Lippman said something politicians trembled…….it also explains the phenomenon of Cronkite…..basically people believed him apart from an ugly fringe which was still dancing on his grave a couple of weeks ago….it existed alright

  • barker13

    It’s a sad day. RIP Robert Novak.

    (And thank you for providing the tribute, Mr. Guardiano.)

    BILL

  • ottovbvs

    midcon // Aug 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    ………Obviously another conservative who didn’t get the memo…you can’t make this stuff up

    http://thinkprogress.org/2009/08/18/hitler-israel/

  • nwahs

    I’ve read some very ugly things written about Bob Novak today, because of his views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I’ve been called a terrorist apologist for saying he is entitled to his honest views. So many people in this world advocate honesty, but when they are confronted by it, there first reaction is to strike it down. Novak may have been completely wrong about the conflict. He didn’t fund HAMAS. He didn’t kill anyone. He was a reporter, an honest reporter. He stated his honest views, and some would like to send him to hell for that. What a weird world we live in.

  • Amorak

    Novak was smart and informed, but mostly he was a pretty cool Dude. All of you stupidly adherent right and left wing followers should take a lesson from Novak, stop lining up with “your side” and start thinking issues out. Sometimes the Right has the answer, sometimes the Left has the answer and sometimes it falls between. This Canadian thinks that America runs the risk of total failure unless you Americans start to work together to fix your country. It’s getting pretty evident that the rest of the world is beginning to think that way,too. Novak, a conservative, knew that, and his voice is already missed.

  • AlexK

    Thank you very much for mentioning my name in such esteemed company! I truly appreciate it.