A sad thing happened yesterday. The Washington Post‘s Thursday edition didn’t have Robert Novak’s column on the op-ed page. And it won’t ever again.
Reading that column on Thursday mornings was a ritual of mine ever since I picked up the habit of reading the Post. I sometimes missed the Monday column because that’s a hectic day and the Post — for whatever reason — never carried his Sunday column.
But Thursdays I never missed. Hot coffee in one hand and smudgy newsprint in the other, I’d read the front page and flip through the rest to find out what had happened. Then I’d skip to Novak’s column to find out why it had happened.
Well, no longer. Novak abruptly retired his column Monday in the same press release that he announced that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
The prognosis? “Dire,” according to the Chicago-Sun Times.
His column had been around for so long — 45 years! — and was such an institution that I, like others, had simply assumed that the “Prince of Darkness” really was immortal. Like the Washington Monument, he’d always be there.
Instead, Thursday morning was a painful reminder that even institutions can end.
NOVAK RARELY disappointed. His greatness came from the fact that he remained a journalist.
He was not into spin, parroting a party line or sharing his innermost thoughts and gripes with us. Every column was based on actual shoe leather reporting. He worked sources, tracked down leads, dug up documents, and reported what he found.
Looking back on it, you wonder how the man managed to do it. He put out three columns a week, not counting magazine articles, books, and regular appearances on CNN, Meet the Press, etc. It’s a grueling pace for anyone, and he kept it up well into his seventies.
Despite that long history in D.C., he rarely lapsed into nostalgia. His columns were about what was going on here and now, not how great things used to be. At 77, he was still breaking news.
If the people mentioned in the column did not like what he reported, well, they could go pound sand. Novak didn’t care. The Prince of Darkness did what he did; you had to deal with it, not him.
That extended to his fellow conservatives. To my mind, Novak did some of his finest reporting on the GOP’s 1994 revolution. He saw that revolution was going off the rails before anyone else.
It was from reading Novak’s columns that you realized that while Newt Gingrich was a great revolutionary, he was not a great parliamentary leader. More than a decade later, Gingrich was still fuming over Novak’s reporting.
To take another example: Did you know that Richard Nixon hatched a secret plot to take the GOP nomination away from Barry Goldwater in 1964?
“His presumption was that the opposition to Barry Goldwater was so extensive that deadlock was inevitable. Nixon figured he would resolve it as the compromise candidate,” Novak wrote in his memoirs. When the deadlock didn’t happen Nixon tried to force it.
Novak reported all of this in a November, 1964 Esquire article. His relations with Nixon were frosty for years afterwards.
THAT’S THE PRICE of maintaining your independence. He accumulated enemies like barnacles on a battleship.
It’s no secret that many people viewed the Plame affair as a long-overdue comeuppance, regardless of what Novak actually unmasked Valerie Plame as being. Former Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser called him “a disgrace to journalism” to his face.
Of course die-hard liberals hated him the most. I remember mentioning his latest column to a fairly prominent left-wing writer over coffee one morning. Our pleasant conversation immediately turned south. Soon I was wiping spittle from my lapel.
“Novak said what?” snarled the writer. “Somebody’s paying him off!”
The possibility that Novak’s reporting was actually right, well, that was never contemplated by my liberal friend. I always thought it’d be a great story to tell Novak.
Not sure I’ll ever get the chance now.
JUST LAST YEAR he published his memoirs, The Prince of Darkness, which just happens to also be one of the best alternative histories of 20th century American politics ever written.
Reviewing it for Doublethink, I wrote, “one does begin to wonder how much longer he can keep it going.” After all, the man had suffered through “four cancer scares and two broken hips, among other health problems.”
I pointed out that memoirs like this one are “usually preludes to retirement,” but in the end doubted that Novak would be giving up his “first and truest love” of breaking stories anytime soon.
Boy does it ever smart to be proven wrong about that. Come on Bob, prove me wrong once again. Beat this with the same gusto you used to beat those deadlines for 50 years.