As widely reported, Robert D. Novak, the combative conservative columnist and colorful political television pundit, died on Tuesday from a malignant brain tumor. Novak was 78.
Although the ``Prince of Darkness’’ as he was christened by friends, wrote a widely read column since 1963, he was best known over the last couple of decades for his pungent commentaries and blistering line of questioning on CNN, and to a lesser extent on Fox News and NBC’s ``Meet the Press’’.
Since first joining Ted Turner’s new 24-hour cable network, beginning on June 1, 1980, Novak appeared on thousands CNN programs, including ``Evans & Novak’’, ``Crossfire’’, ``Capitol Gang’’, ``Inside Politics’’, and ``Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer.’’
Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide, issued the following statement:
``We are saddened by the passing of Robert Novak. He was a journalist of the old school, hard-working, practical and passionate about our profession. From its earliest days and for some 25 years, Bob shared generously with CNN and with CNN viewers his authority, credibility, humor and towering presence. We’re grateful to have worked alongside him and send our respect and sympathy to his family.’’
The Illinois native’s newspaper career began in the summer of 1948, when the Joliet Herald-News hired him as a $42.50 a week full-time staffer, where he earned his stripes working on the sports page. In his autobiography ``The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington’’ Novak wrote it was at the Herald-News which became his ``school of journalism’’, the place where he learned the basics of newspapering, such as the formula for writing obituaries, laying out a page, writing headlines, and `` how to cover police news without getting sued for libel.’’
When the Herald News’ Home and Garden writer took maternity leave, the young newspaperman multi-tasked by pounding a home furnishing column, a subject he admitted knowing little about.
Early in his career, the scrappy Novak demonstrated a flair for rocking the boat, even at the Herald News, a newspaper that avoided controversy and often resorted to bland headlines.
Novak wrote in his autobiography that he hatched the idea of publishing a list of bookies in Joliet, including their actual home addresses. A bold piece of reporting, which landed him in the office of John Lux, the publisher of the paper, who offered the following sage words of advice to his cub reporter. `` Bob, we think you're the best young reporter we've seen in a long time. You remind me of myself when I was your age. But let me give you some advice. It's always better to a `builder-upper than a `tearer-downer.’’
``John Lux’’, Novak wrote, ``was very kind to me, but I never dreamed of taking that advice.''
Novak reported for The Associated Press from 1954 through 1958, before taking a job with The Wall Street Journal as a political reporter. It wasn’t until 1963, however, until the political insider became a Washington giant, when he teamed with Rowland Evans, Jr., a congressional correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune to write ``Inside Report'', a political column that was published four times a week for 30 years.
An early indication of Novak’s sharp foresight, came during the first column of ``Inside Report’’ on May 15, 1963, when the twosome speculated, correctly as it turned out, that Barry Goldwater would secure the Republican nomination in 1964.
Beginning in 1966, The Chicago Sun-Times picked up the Evans and Novak column; and after Mr. Evans retirement in 1993 ( he died in 2001 ),Novak continued writing the column three times a week, which was carried by over 150 newspapers through Creators Syndicate
Though the abrasive columnist will be remembered most for his sharp prose, stinging words, and anonymous sources; a television journalist, who came to the studios armed for battle, no matter which party was in power, and regardless of what side of the aisle they stood, what will be largely forgotten is the conservative’s signature combativeness often masked his softer side. Novak, after all, was as a dear friend to many, a mentor to others, and above all a family man to those who knew him best.
One colleague who knew the columnist’s softer gentler side better than most was Al Hunt, executive Washington editor for Bloomberg News, and a Washington fixture in his own right, who had his share of clashes with the confrontational columnist on a number of broadcasts, including CNN’s ``Capital Gang’’.
Asked to reflect on his friend and former sparring partner, Hunt responding through an email, wrote: `` Bob was a huge presence in this town for more than a half century. He was every bit as tough, hard-edged and strong in his opinions as conveyed on television and print. There was also was a wonderful warm side, always present with his family and friends. If you had tough time or were in trouble nobody would be there more than Bob; he was a mentor to countless young journalists. Geraldine was the love of his life --he took great pride in marrying above himself -- and he was softer than Charmin around his kids and grandchildren.’’
In addition to his wife Geraldine, who was a secretary for President Lyndon Johnson, survivors include: a son Alex, 41, a marketing executive for Eagle Publishing; and a daughter Zelda, 44, the wife of journalist Christopher Caldwell, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
In 2001, Novak was the recipient of the National Press Club's Fourth Estate Award for lifetime achievement in journalism.
- Bill Lucey