A Column's 45 Years

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, May 15, 2008

On May 15, 1963, Rowland Evans and I published our first column. That makes today the 45th anniversary (the first 30 years under the Evans & Novak byline) of the nation's current longest-running syndicated political column.

Until his death Feb. 27, William F. Buckley Jr. had written the longest-running syndicated political column, his beginning 13 months before ours. Buckley was a conservative icon and political leader whose column was not the most important of his many endeavors. I am merely a journalist whose principal activity the past 45 years has been writing a column based on reporting. Evans and I determined that each column would contain previously unpublished information, and I still attempt that. Rowly, who died in 2001, called it "intersecting the lines of communication," through the tricks of a reporter's trade but also leaks.

A column exposing secrets can draw more attacks than those containing ideological rants. I have been branded "unpatriotic" by conservatives and a "traitor" by liberals. My most notorious leak was the 2003 revelation that the wife of Bush critic Joseph Wilson worked for the CIA and arranged his intelligence mission to Africa. While this disclosure was far less important than many the column has made, the vituperativeness of the reaction to it was unmatched.

The Evans-Novak column was originally designated "liberal" by the National Review. Evans was an intimate of the Kennedys, and I had voted for John F. Kennedy. When Evans and I paid a courtesy call on Richard M. Nixon in 1963 to tell him about our new column, he advised against expected Democratic bias and urged us to give Republicans an occasional break. Although Barry Goldwater had been one of my best sources, the column's tone was considered anti-Goldwater during his 1964 presidential campaign.

There is no disputing that the column and I moved steadily rightward in subsequent years, but always based on reporting. The column's hawkish line on Vietnam reflected annual trips by Evans and me to the war zone, where we concluded that the conflict was not winnable the way it was being fought. Three decades later, I opposed military intervention in Iraq based partly on my reportage showing that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. After that, I was no longer invited with other conservative journalists for special White House briefings.

The benefits and pitfalls of my method are reflected in the very first column, which revealed friendly collaboration between the Republican Party's opposite ideological poles: Sen. Goldwater and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Like many of my "scoops," it proved ephemeral. When Rockefeller's presidential campaign slumped, he turned against Goldwater.

The second Evans-Novak column, on May 16, 1963 ["Twilight of the Moderates"], about the civil rights struggle in Alabama, cast a longer shadow. It revealed that the Kennedy administration "worked hard to postpone" the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign in Birmingham, without success. Based on our reporting, the column correctly predicted "lethal, combustible elements of the dreaded race riot are near at hand."

I continue shoe-leather reporting -- but with limitations. At age 60 I stopped entering war zones. I still occasionally go on the campaign trail, but not nearly so much as in past years. (When I have boarded press buses during the 2008 primary season, reporters some 50 years my junior have gazed at me as though Banquo's ghost had entered their midst.) Nevertheless, at 77, I still make it my principal professional endeavor to find out what is happening behind the scenes in politics and government.

The longevity record for syndicated political columnists (57 years) is held by David Lawrence, whose life and column ended in 1973, when he was 84. As he did, I would like to die in the saddle without retiring. But Lawrence, the founder of U.S. News & World Report, had done little reporting since he covered President Woodrow Wilson for the Associated Press. I cannot write a column without reporting, and I hope I can continue to do so and newspapers see fit to print me so that I can celebrate my 50th anniversary.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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