Robert D. Novak, 1931-2009

Conservative Columnist Robert D. Novak Dies at 78

Columnist and political commentator Robert D. Novak died Tuesday, August 18, 2009.
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert D. Novak, 78, an influential columnist and panelist on TV news-discussion shows who called himself a "stirrer up of strife" on behalf of conservative causes, died Tuesday at his home in Washington of a brain tumor first diagnosed in July 2008.

In recent years, Mr. Novak became known for publicly identifying CIA officer Valerie Plame in a 2003 column. The incident triggered a lengthy federal investigation into the government leak and resulted in the 2007 conviction of a top vice presidential aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice.

Mr. Novak lamented that the Plame story would "forever be part of my public identity," even though he had written columns he said were more important. The Plame controversy brought unwelcome notoriety at the end of a long career that was largely characterized by aggressive reporting on presidential politics, fiscal policy and intra-party feuds.

His "Inside Report" syndicated column, shared for 30 years with the late Rowland Evans, was important reading for anyone who wanted to know what was happening in Washington. Their journalism, which reported leaks from the highest sources of government, often had embarrassing consequences for politicians.

Mr. Novak's strong anti-communism in his foreign policy views was reflected in his column. He also was a leading advocate of supply-side economics, a belief that tax cuts would lead to widespread financial prosperity.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union lobbying organization, said Mr. Novak helped transform supply-side economics from a fringe idea into a tenet of President Ronald Reagan's economic policy. Keene called Mr. Novak "a giant of the profession" who "gave respectability and visibility to conservative ideas and positions in the 1970s, when they were mostly dismissed."

Many followers of politics knew Mr. Novak from his television appearances on debate programs such as "The McLaughlin Group" and "Crossfire," which pitted liberals such as Bill Press and James Carville against conservatives such as Mr. Novak and Pat Buchanan and left them to spar on divisive social issues.

Mr. Novak said regular appearances on those shows heightened a more-combative aspect of his personality and helped define his reputation as a self-professed "right-wing ideologue."

"I found myself engaged on issues I seldom wrote about: capital punishment, gay rights, abortion and gun control," he once wrote. "I was never asked to take any position I opposed, but the process had the effect of hardening my positions."

He added that he rarely disliked those with whom he appeared combative. One significant exception was then-presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, whom the columnist called a populist demagogue and "habitual liar."

On one episode of "Face the Nation," Mr. Novak insisted that the candidate reveal which members of the diplomatic corps Carter objected to as "fat, bloated, ignorant" and unqualified except for being Nixon financiers. Carter declined to answer, and Mr. Novak persisted: "Can you name one, though? You make the accusation all over. There are only four ambassadors, governor, who have contributions to Mr. Nixon. Are any of them that fit that category?"

New York Times television critic Walter Goodman wrote in 1993 that Mr. Novak, along with McLaughlin and Rush Limbaugh, showed "a cruder face of conservatism. The insurgents do not trade in intellectual display. . . . Their fire is directed mainly at liberal Democrats, but their styles offer an implicit rebuff to the Republican establishment."

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