Robert D. Novak died Tuesday of brain cancer at his home in suburban Washington. He had written a syndicated opinion column since 1963, for much of that time with Rowland Evans, who was in some ways his polar opposite, which made for a fruitful partnership.
Unlike many opinion columnists, however, Novak began his career as a shoe-leather reporter, and it was his dogged persistence as a reporter that gave him his influence.
Reporting in Babylon-on-the-Potomac is a little different than in most cities, of course. As he cheerfully acknowledged in his unusually candid memoir, “The Prince of Darkness,” it sometimes involved telling the powerful that they could be sources or targets; choose now. It could involve extended lunches in tony watering holes where other members of the Washington elite would be sure to see him. It depended on building relationships with the influential and the powerful.
As Slate.com media critic Jack Shafer put it, “Novak worked like a wheat thresher, feeding and grooming his sources until they gave him the harvest of news — or he beat it out of them.”
Almost every Novak column contained at least a couple of nuggets of news that could be found nowhere else. It wasn’t soaring prose that made Novak so memorable, but solid information.
It is significant that he kept up the pace of working sources and gleaning tidbits of exclusive information although he spent 25 years as a television personality. Once they get on TV, many opinion journalists are content with playacting and pontificating. Bob Novak kept reporting as energetically as ever almost until the day he died.
Novak cultivated on TV the persona of the curmudgeonly conservative, but he was hardly a partisan or an ideologue. He opposed both Iraq wars and was deeply skeptical of the adventure in Afghanistan. He was a solid free-trader and supported liberal immigration policies. Toward the end of his writing days we, as libertarians, found very little about which to disagree.
We’ll probably not see his like again.