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The Company Bob Novak Kept

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Before Bob Novak created the self-parody as "The Prince of Darkness" that his friends and TV fans enjoyed so much, he had two other journalistic identities. With his partner, the late Rowland Evans, he wrote one of the most influential political columns of the late 20th century.

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And before that, he was one of the three best political reporters of the 1960s. The other two were Alan L. Otten and Paul Duke, and the remarkable thing is that all three of them were working at the same time in the Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau.

Duke, who became the beloved moderator of PBS's "Washington Week," died four years ago. Otten, who adopted me on my first presidential campaign in 1960 and became the best mentor anyone could ever have, died two weeks ago.

And now Novak is gone. When I heard word of his death on Tuesday, it struck me that we are not likely to see their likes again. Collected from separate corners, Illinois (Novak), New York (Otten) and Virginia (Duke), they were assembled here by editors who had a passionate commitment to covering Congress and politics as if the decisions being debated really mattered.

Coverage then meant "getting down in the weeds," really understanding the personal dynamics of a Ways and Means subcommittee or the ambitions of the lieutenant governor of Texas.

No one did that better than these three, and Novak was notable even among them for the energy with which he tackled his assignments. I remember bumping into him in Detroit at the end of a week in which we had both been reporting on the Michigan political landscape.

When we talked, it turned out that he had interviewed every single politician I had been able to reach, and a good many more, and in addition had done several dozen street-corner interviews I never got around to.

The self-mocking parody of himself that Bob created as the Prince, a grumpy right-winger, was sometimes taken more seriously by his audience than he intended. Bob was pugnacious, when challenged, but his instinct was to help his friends whenever they needed it. Indeed, all three of the Journal greats were unfailingly generous to others.

Bob's conservatism was real. He grew up with an anti-FDR father in Joliet, Ill. As his doorstop of a memoir makes clear, he and Evans often argued over the tone of their column. Evans had a liking for liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller. Novak preferred the more rigid right-wingers, like Indiana Sen. Bill Jenner.

But over the years, all of them had a great eye for talent, and they cultivated not just sources but friendships with many of the main players in the drama they loved.


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