Born in Joliet, Illinois, on February 26, 1931, Bob Novak was tapped in 1963 to write a Herald-Tribune column, "Inside Report," which would four years later evolve into the syndicated "Evans-Novak Political Report," which ran for more than three decades. He later became a staple on the left-versus-right shoutfest Crossfire. Novak left CNN in 2005 to become a commentator on Fox.
Born Robert David Sanders Novak on February 26, 1931, in Joliet, Illinois, Bob Novak was the only child of Jewish parents, his father a chemical engineer employed by the city gas company and his mother a doting homemaker who encouraged his ambition. "My mother always gave me the impression I was going to be something successful in the world," Novak said. "A person with a mother like that ends up with a great deal of confidence, which is a good thing to have if you're going to be the kind of journalist I was."
Novak cut his teeth as a reporter at his high school newspaper before moving on to the University of Illinois. He dropped out of college one semester before graduating to serve stateside in the United States Army during the Korean War. After leaving the service, Novak worked as an Associated Press reporter in Omaha, Indianapolis and finally Washington, D.C., the city where he would eventually become a journalistic fixture. In 1958, Novak went to work for the Wall Street Journal, where he developed a reputation as an intensely driven political reporter. After a brief first marriage, Novak married Geraldine Williams, a secretary for Texas Senator (and future U.S. President) Lyndon B. Johnson, who threw their reception. The couple had two children, Zelda and Alexander.
In 1963, Novak was tapped by Rowland Evans, the Washington correspondent for the New York Herald-Tribune, to co-author a political column. That Herald-Tribune column, called "Inside Report," would evolve four years later into the syndicated Evans-Novak Political Report, which ran for more than three decades, becoming a Washington must-read. At one point, the column ran in 300 newspapers. As humorist Art Buchwald described the duo, "Novak is the guy who hits you over the head with the truncheon. And Evans is the guy who offers you a cigarette." Novak continued to write the column on his own after Evans' retirement and 2001 death.
Evans and Novak, both of whom leaned to the right politically, were frequently accused by liberals of serving as mouthpieces for the Republican party. Though he certainly held conservative views, there was more to Novak's style than simple propaganda, said Al Hunt, a longtime friend and Washington executive editor of Bloomberg News: "He was the 'reverse' Washington. If you were riding high, Novak loved to kick you. And if you were down, he'd be there for you." Novak cultivated an air of acid skepticism bordering on cynicism, once complaining that the sight of homeless people on the news ruined his Thanksgiving. A Newsweek reporter branded him "the prince of darkness," a nickname Novak embraced. (He even used it as the title to his memoir.)
Novak's style translated well to television, where he blossomed as one of the first memorable personalities of the cable news era. He appeared on CNN on the network's first weekend, and later became a staple on the left-versus-right shoutfest Crossfire. Though he often took a hard-right view on topics like capital punishment and gun control, he also bucked Republicans by opposing both Iraq wars and the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. In 1998, at age 67, he converted to Roman Catholicism.
Valerie Plame Wilson Controversy
The most controversial episode in Novak's long career unfolded in 2003, when he published the previously secret name of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson in a column critical of the efforts of her husband, Joseph Wilson, to discredit the Bush Administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Authorities launched a federal investigation into the disclosure of the agent's identity, eventually resulting in the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr., chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. According to the results of the investigation, Libby had passed Plame Wilson's name to Novak and several other journalists as part of a convoluted scheme to discredit Wilson's claims.
Many in Washington grumbled that the affair destroyed several careers but left Novak unscathed. He was not particularly bothered. "The word 'leaker' has an ignominious ring. It connotes giving you something you shouldn't have," Novak said after the scandal. "I think I should have everything."
After an on-air shouting match with Democratic operative James Carville, Novak left CNN in 2005 and moved to the friendlier turn of Fox News as a commentator. In the summer of 2008, after striking a pedestrian with his car and suffering three seizures, Novak was diagnosed with brain cancer. He died after a yearlong battle with the tumor on August 18, 2009.
In a long, thoughtful interview given shortly before his death, Novak waxed reflectively and a bit ironically on his career as the "prince of darkness," saying, "I have had so much fun in my life." He also revealed the surprising secret to his success: "What I'm going to say may come as a shock, because I'm not a terribly likable person, but you gotta get a source to like you. There's very little that I or any other journalist can really do for a politician. A favorable column is not all that much, so there's not much payback. It's gotta be 'I want to help Novak because I like him.'"
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