The news of Bob Novak’s death recalled a line of Roy Blount’s about a deceased friend: “I was shocked to learn of his death. It was so unlike him.” So it was with Bob Novak. He was so relentless in pursuit of his boyhood dreams, so delighted to be the Joliet kid all grown up and still chasing big-deal Beltway stories, so alive. After working alongside him for a few years, I told him that I had finally discovered the secret of his success. “Novak, you’re not all that smart. You just work harder than everybody else.” He replied, “My secret is that, for me, it’s not hard work.” It is a great pleasure, unfortunately a rare pleasure, to run across somebody who knows exactly what he should be doing with his life. That was Bob Novak, boy reporter, dead this week at 78.
I was grateful to Bob Novak for many things, but especially so for three personal favors. (I’m assuming that anybody reading this page would know by now that Bob was not really a curmudgeon, that he just played one on TV.) My first encounter with him was back in the Sixties when I was dispatched to Washington to open a bureau for National Review. In terms of journalistic experience — that fingertip-savvy required to navigate one’s way through a bureaucracy — I might as well have been dispatched to Ulan Bator. I was wet in front of the ears. The political climate was a bit chilly, as well. With LBJ and his Great Society liberalism running amok (and with many of its excesses covered sympathetically by then-moderate columnist Bob Novak, recently married to one of LBJ’s pretty assistants), the idea of helping an indigent rightwing journal was not high on Bob’s must-do list. But he was always a sucker for scrappy journalism and he lent a friendly hand. He found me some space that could pass for an office, invited me to press events (i.e., events with free food and drink) and, virtually alone among his peers, didn’t seem embarrassed to be seen in public with NR’s callow correspondent. When my tour ended, Bob quickly took my successor in hand. It was a concierge service, I would later calculate, that he provided over the years to scores of young journalists.
Roughly twenty years later, with Bob by that time firmly established as a mega-pundit in multi-media, I, by that time a semi-established TV producer, was trying to persuade the ABC station to carry my new show, MoneyPolitics. I knew it would work, I just knew it would work, but of course TV executives spend all day talking to guys who just know their shows will work; almost all of those guys, the record will show, turn out to be wrong. There was no sale at ABC. What to do? It was time to call Bob Novak. I needed him, both as “talent” and as friend of the enterprise. He listened to my pitch, which we both recognized was canted several rungs beneath his station, almost insultingly so: “scale wages” (that’s industry jargon for “peanuts”), no car service, no residuals and — best of all for a guy who owned a beloved beach house on Fenwick Island — we planned to shoot the show Friday nights. Only the last point provoked a question from Novak, a skeptical newsy’s question: “You’re going to tape Friday night for Sunday air?” I replied, trying to sound thoughtfully frugal, “Yes, we can split crew costs by using the hot studio between the 6 and 11 o’clock newscasts.” To a pro like Bob Novak, a pillar of the talk-show punditocracy, this was the equivalent of Judy saying to Mickey: “We can borrow Mr. Wilson’s barn and put on a show that will knock the socks off the whole town.” Novak glowered at me for a long moment (he was a world-class glowerer) and said, “I’ll do it.” And he did. He helped sell ABC on the show and then, Friday after Friday, he showed up at the end of a long day at the end of a long week and knocked our socks off. The boy reporter would always arrive with a scoop for our viewers, our precious few viewers. Along about ten-thirty at night, he would tool off to his beach house in a black Corvette, $367 richer.
Some years later, at a reunion of the MoneyPolitics crew, I noted that we all had gotten something out of the series. Several of our newbie talents had shot to the edge of stardom — Alan Murray, Larry Kudlow, Pat Choate and Jim Glassman, among others. TV can do that. Most of our production team had gone on to bigtime network jobs. And I, of course, had gained street cred as a producer. (We frequently beat Meet the Press in the ratings.) All of us got something out of the show except Bob Novak, who had done us all a professional favor by agreeing to play Mr. Wilson’s barn.
Then a few years ago, Bob brought out his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness. I have yet to meet a reader who was not simply stunned by that book. It wasn’t that we didn’t think Bob had it in him. It’s that we didn’t think he had it all in him: the patience, the fine judgments, the narrative skills and the sheer balls to pull it off. The book is a masterwork, capturing a time and place — late-century Washington, D.C. — as indelibly as Tom Wolfe captured Wall Street in The Bonfire of the Vanities. For the rest of time, whenever a student or an anthropologist or a cultural coroner wants to know just what it was like, that fin de siècle Beltway world, he has only to crack a copy of Prince. It’s all there.
In the manner of all magisterial books, Prince can be read at several levels. For the citizen, it’s a file from a clear-eyed foreign correspondent, reporting with an air of disbelief from a distant capital. For us recovering journalists, it’s an operating manual. For every big story he covered, which was every story worth covering, Bob opens his files and tells us who told him what about whom. (His text settles the open question: Bob Novak, deadline Manichean, did indeed see the world as divided fundamentally between two opposing groups. No, not Righties and Lefties. But sources and targets. I suggested to him once that if he ever got around to founding the Novak School of Journalism, he should consider adopting the motto, “Leak, or be leaked upon.”) Doris Lessing, feeling her years, once said: “The thing about getting old is the number of things you think you can’t say aloud because it would be too shocking.” In Prince, Bob Novak says all of those things, loudly.
Bob’s autobiography also includes a few passages about himself, written, typically, with raw candor. He was too ambitious. He was too selfish. He drank too much. He was aloof in the Disraeli mode, never complaining, never explaining. Maybe. But he was nowhere near as tough as he pretended to be. He could feel pain, and never more sharply than when David Frum and National Review gang-punched him for being “unpatriotic.” (His tense and moving account of this episode appears near the end of Prince and is worth a second reading.) But let’s not let Bob Novak’s candor bury our own lede. Even from his own unforgiving account, it’s clear that he was all you could hope for in a friend, a journalist and a fellow citizen. He was honest in his work, humble in his quest for understanding, devoted to his country, faithful to his family and friends. A man in full.
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