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Combative Writer Broke High-Stakes Scoops

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."

Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's journalism school, said Mr. Novak "took great pleasure in playing the bad guy, the heavy, like guys in pro wrestling who come out all dressed in black. He'd sort of sneer and say the mean thing, so he developed that as part of a character he played on TV. It works with the medium to have a bad guy, and most journalists don't want to do that."

Mr. Novak was considered by many Washington colleagues to be far more complex than the scowling character he assumed on television -- but not too wide off the mark. He earned the nickname "The Prince of Darkness" in the early 1960s for what he called his swarthy looks, poor skills as a raconteur and "grim-visaged demeanor."

He said that his unsmiling pessimism was a stark contrast with the upbeat spirit of the Kennedy administration and its many admirers in elite journalism circles and that he was a strikingly different type of Washington insider than his business partner Evans, a debonair Georgetowner at ease on the city's dinner circuit.

He was a congressional reporter for the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal before he teamed with Evans in 1963 to write a Washington-based political column for the old New York Herald-Tribune. "Inside Report" ran in almost 300 papers nationally, including The Post. Mr. Novak continued the column after Evans's retirement in 1993. Evans died in 2001.

Focusing on political intrigue rather than starchy analysis, they had an immediate effect with news about Sen. Barry Goldwater's (R-Ariz.) likely nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964.

The Goldwater story led a Newsweek profile about the duo that helped shape their formidable reputation. But as Mr. Novak wryly noted, the Newsweek account was written by his close friend Michael Janeway.

"Little in Washington is on the level," Mr. Novak wrote in his 2007 memoir, which he winkingly called "The Prince of Darkness."

Robert David Sanders Novak was born Feb. 26, 1931, in Joliet, Ill., into a family that voted Republican. He said he became attracted to politics after his father, superintendent of a gas production plant, let him stay up late to listen over the radio to the 1940 Republican Party convention.

His family's heritage was Lithuanian Jewish, but Mr. Novak said he grew disenchanted with liberal sermons at synagogue and fell away from religion until undergoing a conversion to Catholicism in the late 1990s because of "spiritual hunger."

After attending the University of Illinois, where he began his journalism career, he reported for the Associated Press in the Midwest before the wire service sent him to Washington in 1957. He said his devotion to work helped end his first marriage, to Indianapolis socialite Rosanna Hall. In 1962, he married Geraldine Williams, then-secretary to a top aide of then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.

She survives, along with their two children, Zelda Caldwell of Washington and Alexander Novak of Bethesda; and eight grandchildren.

In Washington, Mr. Novak's early mentor was Willard Edwards, a Chicago Tribune reporter of such anti-communist sympathies that he often sat on the dais with members of a Senate internal security subcommittee.

Edwards introduced the young reporter to politicians whom many in the press corps considered radioactive for their far-right ideology. Important tips from those congressmen helped Mr. Novak land scoops and win a reputation for aggressive coverage of Capitol Hill.

Bruised feelings, Mr. Novak wrote in his memoir, were often soothed over many cocktails. He added that his healthy ego was useful in handling inevitable complaints from powerful people.

When he printed an accurate tip that Alexander M. Haig Jr., President Gerald R. Ford's chief of staff, was out of favor with the president and would soon lose his job, Mr. Novak said he received an irate call from Haig, who threatened to sue for $5 million.

"Al," he replied, "you're out of luck. I don't have $5 million."

Mr. Novak wrote several books about Republican politics, but he said it was his skill at wooing members of both major parties that led to newsmaking exclusives.

A few months before he became presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate in 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) had confided to Mr. Novak, "McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America -- Catholic middle America, in particular -- finds this out, he's dead."

Eagleton insisted that his name not be linked to the quote, and Mr. Novak reported at the time that the quotation came from "one liberal senator." The column caused a political furor.

Mr. Novak said he faced enormous pressure by Democrats to reveal his source, and some accused him of making up the quotation. Novak kept his promise to Eagleton and did not name him as the source until after Eagleton died in 2007.

A similar high-profile debate arose over Novak's refusal to name his source for his initial Plame column, which appeared July 14, 2003. It was printed days after Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly claimed the Bush White House had knowingly distorted intelligence that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa.

Mr. Novak was accused by prominent journalists of being a pawn in a government retribution campaign against Wilson. Mr. Novak, who had called the U.S. invasion of Iraq "unjustified," denied the allegation.

He wrote that his initial column was meant to ask why Wilson had been sent on a CIA fact-finding mission involving the uranium. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage mentioned Plame's CIA position to Mr. Novak, and Bush aide Karl Rove confirmed it.

In a 2006 column, Mr. Novak wrote Armitage "did not slip me this information as idle chitchat. . . . He made clear he considered it especially suited for my column." Armitage told The Washington Post that his disclosure to Mr. Novak was made in an offhand manner and that he did not know why Plame's husband was sent to Africa.

After the column appeared, Novak endured threats to his family and attributed the loss of his work at CNN to the ordeal. He also amassed legal fees of $160,000.

In his memoir, Mr. Novak said he would not have used Plame's name if the CIA director or the agency's spokesman told him it would have endangered national security or Plame's life. A CIA spokesman had twice warned Mr. Novak not to print Plame's name but could not reveal why to Mr. Novak because her status was classified.

Mr. Novak told Washingtonian magazine in November that he would not hesitate to run the column again. "I'd go full speed ahead because of the hateful and beastly way in which my left-wing critics in the press and Congress tried to make a political affair out of it and tried to ruin me," he said.

"My response now is this: The hell with you. They didn't ruin me. I have my faith, my family and a good life. A lot of people love me -- or like me. So they failed. I would do the same thing over again because I don't think I hurt Valerie Plame whatsoever."

Mr. Novak, whose memoir was candid about his struggles with alcohol and gambling, faced a variety of serious health problems in recent years. He announced his brain tumor diagnosis in 2008 after a car accident in which he apparently did not notice hitting an elderly pedestrian at a downtown Washington intersection. The pedestrian suffered minor injuries and Mr. Novak received a ticket. Mr. Novak continued writing his column until last year, citing the "dire" prognosis of his tumor.

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