Robert Novak: Missing the Prince of Darkness

  • Share
  • Read Later
Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Ap

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak

Reed, who worked for Jack Kemp and the Republican National Committee before running Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, is a consultant in Washington. He offered TIME this reminiscence.

Syndicated columnist Robert Novak died this week at 78, and I already miss him. I first talked to him 25 years ago, when I was a newly hired regional political director at the Republican National Committee. Guys like me weren't even supposed to talk with reporters, let alone bigfeet like Novak. Someone told me he was calling, and so, palms sweating, I picked up the telephone and sheepishly said hello. "I hear they hired some young whippersnapper over there," he said, "and wanted to introduce myself." Then, ending the small talk, he handed down Novak Rule No. 1. "In my world, you have a choice ... you can either be a source or a target ..." I gulped for air and wisely chose the "source" category, after which he growled, "Good," and hung up.

And thus began a friendship that lasted a quarter-century. We spoke regularly, usually on Mondays when he was down in Bethany Beach, Del. Novak loved to dish, yes, and his column, with its vast reach, had its uses for people all over town. But he pushed me to think, to analyze Washington and to look around corners at what was happening. He made me smarter in dozens of ways, and for that I will always be grateful. Over many lunches at the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square, he also became a friend in whom I could confide and and from whom I often sought advice. I know I wasn't the only guy who used him as a sounding board.

He had long innings and was a factor in Washington for nearly 50 years, first as a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times and then as a columnist with Rowland Evans. When Evans died, he carried on alone. He was a pioneer in the pundit business, inventing Capital Gang on CNN, which spawned plenty of copycats. He could be a grouch on camera, but in private he was far kinder than his television persona. He was also the hardest-working man in show biz, just in terms of output — columns, newsletters and TV shows. Nearly every day of the past year, as he wrestled with cancer, I have thought of him when analyzing the present state of politics, and often asked myself, "What would Novak think?"