Political columnist, commentator Robert Novak dies at 78

  • Robert Novak

    Robert Novak Associated Press

Published: 8/18/2009 11:21 AM | Updated: 8/18/2009 11:41 AM

Robert Novak, the journalist whose self-proclaimed conservative views and dour pessimism earned him the nickname "the prince of darkness," a label he embraced and used as the title of his memoir, has died. He was 78.

He died this morning after battling brain cancer, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, which cited his wife, Geraldine. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2008.

In 50 years covering Washington, Novak's career spanned the bygone era dominated by print journalists and the subsequent age of television punditry. Driven by disdain for communism, liberalism and big government, he moved to the political right throughout his career.

With Rowland Evans, his partner for three decades, Novak cultivated sources over meals and cocktails, granting them anonymity in exchange for secrets. Officials who declined to be tipsters risked becoming targets.

The result was a must-read mix of news and opinion and -- as Novak admitted -- was only as reliable as those who fed it.

"We were so ravenous for exclusive news that we were susceptible to manipulation by leaks, compromising our credibility," Novak wrote in his 2007 autobiography.

The column, "Inside Report," ran in hundreds of papers, including the Washington Post, from 1963 through Evans's retirement in 1993. (Evans died in 2001.) Novak continued to write it until his cancer diagnosis.

The pair also wrote a newsletter, the Evans-Novak Political Report, and co-wrote books on Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

When CNN launched 24-hour cable news programming in 1980, Evans and Novak were among its first political commentators. They got their own show in 1982; it lasted 20 years.

Novak also created CNN's "The Capital Gang," which ran 16 years through 2005. More recently he was a contributor to Fox News and to Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital With Al Hunt."

It was on TV that Novak distinguished himself from the more politically moderate Evans. Novak said his regular appearances as the conservative agitator on CNN's "Crossfire," starting in 1984, helped turn him into "a right-wing ideologue."

The Evans-Novak column was tough on Martin Luther King Jr. and some newspapers canceled it after readers complained it was anti-Israel.

Novak also took on Republicans, opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq and calling President George W. Bush a failure. He said the only U.S. president in his lifetime who deserved a passing grade was Reagan.

A July 2003 column by Novak resulted in a three-year criminal investigation and a blow to his reputation.

The column on former Ambassador Joseph Wilson -- a Democrat who had accused Bush of twisting intelligence to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq -- revealed that Wilson's wife, Valerie Plame, worked for the Central Intelligence Agency. Because it may have unmasked a covert agent, the column prompted a criminal probe, during which Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state, acknowledged that he had leaked the detail to Novak.

While nobody was charged with willfully disclosing Plame's identity, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, was convicted of lying to investigators. Bush commuted Libby's 2½-year prison sentence.

Novak said that while he stood by the column on its merits, he regretted writing it because of what it cost him in legal bills and lost TV appearances.

"I have written many, many more important columns, but the one on the CIA leak case will forever be part of my public identity," he wrote in his memoir.

Robert David Novak was born Feb. 26, 1931, in Joliet, the only child of second-generation American Jews.

His father, Maurice Novak, whose parents had immigrated from the Ukraine, was a chemical engineer. A Republican, he believed that Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal constituted meddling with a system "that had permitted him, the son of poor immigrants, to achieve middle-class respectability," Novak wrote.

His mother, Jane Sanders, was the daughter of immigrants from Lithuania.

Novak majored in English at the University of Illinois and worked summers as a sportswriter at the Joliet Herald-News.

During a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, Novak read "Witness," the 1952 book by former communist spy Whittaker Chambers, who had named Alger Hiss as his accomplice. The volume, which traces one man's disenchantment with communism, became a favorite of American conservatives.

The book "changed my worldview, my philosophical perceptions, and, without exaggeration, my life," Novak wrote in a preface to a 1987 edition.

Hired by the Associated Press to cover Indiana politics, Novak honed his skill at developing sources by drinking after work with legislators, lobbyists and others in the know.

He was promoted to AP's Washington bureau in 1957, then moved to the Wall Street Journal a year later to cover national politics, writing news stories as well as commentaries for the editorial pages.

In 1962, he was invited by Evans, then a Washington-based reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune, to help create a behind-the-scenes political column. The Herald-Tribune hosted the column until the newspaper closed in 1966; the Chicago Sun- Times took over as its home paper.

Their first column, on May 15, 1963, used a tip from conservative Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater to report that he was collaborating with his ideological opposite in the Republican Party, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

In April 1972, Novak quoted an unidentified "liberal senator" who worried that George McGovern -- then on his way to becoming the Democratic nominee for president -- would be doomed once voters learned how liberal he was. When that anonymous source died in 2007, Novak revealed his identity: Thomas Eagleton, who became McGovern's vice presidential running mate in 1972 before dropping out of the race.

Novak said he burned bridges with the Reagan administration with a 1981 column criticizing the choice of Sandra Day O'Connor for the Supreme Court. The column suggested O'Connor wasn't conservative enough on abortion and other social issues. Looking back, Novak wrote, "I was right."

Novak, who grew up in a household he described as "only nominally observant Jewish," was baptized as a Catholic in 1998. Once a heavy drinker and gambler, he quit alcohol after surviving spinal meningitis in 1982.

He met his wife, Geraldine Williams, when she worked as a secretary to then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson. The couple had two children, Zelda and Alexander.

Novak's first marriage, in 1957, lasted two years.