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Robert Novak, 1931-2009

2:10 PM, Aug 18, 2009 • By FRED BARNES
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Robert Novak terrified Washington. Elected and appointed officials, Democrats and Republicans, lobbyists and self-styled defenders of the "public interest" -- few were comfortable when Novak had them in his sights. Nor should they have been. The reason was simple: Bob Novak didn't play political games. He wasn't partisan. If he came across useful information about anyone, it would appear in his syndicated column. Novak died today at 78.

It's not too much to call Novak journalism's last honest man in Washington. Ideologically, he was conservative, the more so the older he grew. He was quite up front about this. But he didn't cover for his allies or mistreat his adversaries. If a conservative Republican disappointed him, Novak would let you know.

He was unique in another way: his reporting. His column, which he wrote for four decades with Rowland Evans, had a slant and plenty of analysis. Its strength, however, consisted of big scoops or nuggets of fresh reporting. No other columnist could match this. Appearing three days a week in the Washington Post, it was a column that couldn't be ignored.

The relentless, remorseless reporter -- the Prince of Darkness, as he fashioned himself publicly -- was only one side of Bob Novak. The other was a kind man, a patriot, a doting grandfather, a pal of liberal and conservative journalists alike, and a mentor to many younger men in the media, including me.

I was a reporter for the now-defunct Washington Evening Star newspaper when I met Bob Novak in 1973. He was already a world-famous columnist. We were both covering then-Vice President Gerald Ford. We struck up a conversation -- about basketball.

He was an astute fan of the game and we got season's tickets together the next year -- and for 35 years after that -- for the Washington Bullets (now Wizards) NBA team. Novak rarely missed a game.

He also was a fan of the University of Maryland for reasons too obscure for me to go into. When Maryland won the NCAA basketball championship in 2002, Novak and his son Alex attended every game, home and away. Meanwhile, he kept up a heavy schedule of TV appearances, speeches, reporting trips, and heavily reported columns. Novak was the hardest working man in journalism.

Novak mixed basketball and reporting. He went to China in 1978 and made a huge splash when he visited Democracy Wall in Beijing and interviewed Chinese leader Teng Hsaio-ping. On the way home, he stopped in LA to see a Maryland basketball game, flying home to Washington on the team plane. He told me later that only one person on the plane opened a book during the flight and it wasn't one of the "student athletes." It was Novak.

He wasn't always a conservative. In the 1960s and into the 1970s, he was a moderate Republican legendary for punching out a Goldwater delegate who was harassing him at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco. And even when he became a conservative, he wasn't a conventional one.

Novak became a champion of supply-side economics before Ronald Reagan had even heard of the newest version of free market economics. And in column after column, he wrote about the new apostle of the supply-side message, Jack Kemp. Along with Bob Bartley of the Wall Street Journal, Novak was responsible for popularizing supply-side and making it the economic policy of the Reagan administration.

President Reagan was one of Novak's few favorites in the White House, though he knew President Johnson well and indeed married a woman, Geraldine Williams, who worked for him. And Novak split with both President Bushes on their wars in Iraq. He favored a non-interventionist foreign policy.

His last major scoop was the revelation that Valerie Plame, a CIA employee, was behind her husband's trip to Africa and later attack on President George W. Bush. Democrats blamed the Bush White House for the leak, but it turned out Novak had heard about it from State Department deputy secretary Richard Armitage.

Born Jewish, Novak converted to Christianity at age 66 after an encounter with a young Catholic woman at Syracuse University. Her comment that he needed to make up his mind about his faith prompted him to join the Catholic church a year later.

That episode is the subject of one chapter, entitled Conversion, in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington. There aren't many great books about Washington, but Novak's is one, all 639 pages of it. The book is dedicated to his wife, "my intrepid and loving partner."