“Good luck,” Robert Novak told me on my first day working for him. Short, succinct, and to the point — that was the Bob Novak way. At the time I thought it to be an odd greeting, but I quickly realized that Novak had accurately predicted the sentiment I would be repeating to myself nearly every day during my short tenure.
As a junior reporter, my job was simple: do whatever was asked of me. If that meant finding a copy of a book that had yet to be released, then so be it. If it meant hours of research for column topics or transcribing Senate committee hearings because the official transcript would not be made public for another 30 days, then well, that was my job too.
Nothing was insignificant and everything was of the utmost importance. That lesson, I learned quickly as the words, “Amanda! Ok, here’s what I need…” became more and more frequent. And if I had the misfortune of walking into his office without note card and pen in hand, well that was just too bad for me. You didn’t ask Robert Novak to repeat anything.
It was the best educational experience I could have ever hoped for. As I observed interviews, passed on tips, and edited his column only minutes after its completion, I learned the ins and outs of political reporting from the very best. He had after all covered every presidential election since Eisenhower and spent half a century in Washington.
That was the Robert Novak, the political reporter. But I was also privileged to experience Novak the man. I remember one day when he walked out of his office holding two tickets to a Washington Nationals game. He asked me if I liked baseball and when I said yes, he laid down the two tickets and a parking pass on my desk and said, “I’ll see you tonight.”
And though I made small talk with the boss and his wife Geraldine throughout the game, I’m not sure if he ever once took his eyes off the field. It’s no secret to anyone who knows anything about Bob Novak that he was just as passionate about sports as he was about journalism and politics. I could almost feel the mounting frustration as he prepared to watch the Nationals lose yet another game.
Once during the summer of 2008, I walked with him down Pennsylvania Avenue. As we strode past the Treasury Building, he asked me if I recognized who was on the statue that stood just in front of the entrance. I told him I didn’t, but was immediately embarrassed when he said it was of course Alexander Hamilton. He then proceeded to give me a history lesson of the Treasury Department and its first secretary.
I also learned about his favorite trip he took as a reporter, when he went to China in 1978 and interviewed Deng Xiaoping. At the time, he was the only American reporter in the still closed-off country, and his reporting proved to be one of the greatest successes of his career.
Behind the gruff and somewhat intimidating exterior, his graciousness always inevitably came through. Even when I had to chase him down the street with his wallet, address book, press credentials, or whatever else it was that he had happened to leave on his desk, he always said thank you.
Novak wrote in his memoir that one of the things that upset him the most was the possibility that he would be remembered and defined by one incident only: an event involving the CIA, White House, and countless others that caused him more headache and stress than probably any other point in his career.
But Novak was wrong. He will be remembered for his reporting, for the life he led as a father and husband, and for all the many young reporters he took under his wing: Tim Carney, Charlie Spiering, David Freddoso, and many more. He was the best mentor I’ve ever had.
I remember the day we got the call that Novak was retiring for good and closing down his office; that the Evans and Novak Political Report would be no more. At that point, my job became to pack up his office and library, carefully filling box after box of what had accumulated during 50 years of reporting. It was the last task I ever did for Novak, but it might have been more difficult than anything he had ever asked of me. Because with Novak went an era of Washington journalism that will never be forgotten, one I got to glimpse up close.
“Good luck,” indeed.