Robert D. Novak: A Knack for Compelling Reporting and Provoking Critics.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

ROBERT D. NOVAK always saw himself as a reporter, which is to say he probably began life, like many in the trade, as the kid who wanted to be first on the block to burst into the house with the news, "Ma, the schoolhouse is on fire!" As a columnist, he might have the prerogative of adding, "and my sources tell me the left-leaning school board chairman and his union cronies may be to blame." But it was the basic fact that seemed to excite him most during his 50 years of Washington journalism as reporter, columnist, TV talker and lecture-circuit rider. He and his longtime writing partner, Rowland Evans (who died in 2001), said it was their goal to introduce new information, gleaned from their reporting, in every column. Some people -- many, really -- did not find agreeable what Mr. Novak did with those facts, but most in this town found it interesting, and that's why The Post ran the column for 45 years.

"Evans and Novak have practiced a form of journalism unlike anyone else's -- fact-based and ax-grinding at once, simultaneously far ranging and arcane," the late Marjorie Williams of The Post wrote in 1988. "Deliberately melding their styles and even their ideologies, they have broken news and possibly careers. They are alone among journalistic partnerships -- in their methods, their longevity, their passions."

And perhaps in the passions they aroused as well. Mr. Novak, who continued the column alone after his partner's retirement in 1993, did little in his writing and public appearances to allay the image of combative right-wing gut-fighter. In private encounters, though, he was generally a different person: straightforward, polite, "almost diffident," as Ms. Williams wrote. He was a committed conservative, but he was not easy to characterize. He supported tax cuts, small government, supply-side economics, military strength, free trade and liberal immigration, while opposing the Iraq war and often being highly critical of Israel -- or at least its policy with regard to Palestinians.

Much of what he wrote was not so much ideological as it was simply telling. We offer one example from many of his quirky and often compelling campaign dispatches, from a July 1991 Texas trip to look at the presidential campaign headquarters of H. Ross Perot, the business executive who proposed to solve the nation's budget problems:

"Large and vastly more opulent than any campaign office we have seen, it is filled with people who seem to have no useful function and a multiplicity of sophisticated computers that the political pros have no idea how to use. . . . Even today there is no speechwriter, no advertising team and no readiness to send a message. With less than four months to go before the election, there is no Perot campaign as normally conceived." Two weeks later, Mr. Perot pulled out.

Mr. Novak spent much time in his final years fending off accusations of perfidy for revealing the name of CIA "operative" Valerie Plame in a column on her husband's criticism of Bush administration policy on Iraq. It was never clear why a writer who opposed the war would be colluding with the administration on the matter (this was the gist of the accusations), and as the story played out, that wasn't the way it happened. Mr. Novak said that, looking back on it -- all the struggle, legal expenses, acrimony and pain caused to others -- he might have done well to leave that somewhat peripheral disclosure out of his column. Looking back on Mr. Novak's career as a reporter who relished reporting what he'd found out and couldn't even contemplate retirement from all the combat it provoked, we kind of doubt he would have.

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