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August 18, 2009 [LINK / comment]

R.I.P. Bob Novak

The veteran journalist and commentator Robert Novak passed away yesterday after a year-long battle with cancer. He was one of my favorite columnists, and I cited him regularly in my blog over the years. Full coverage of his life and death can be found in the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was employed for many years.

Novak became known as the "Prince of Darkness" during the 1980s, when he emerged as a leading opinion-maker in support of the Reagan Administration. He did not pull any punches, and his columns often caused enormous grief to many politicians. (Most of them probably deserved it.) His snarly voice and combative personality were perfectly suited to his profession. In the 1960s Novak began to collaborate in writing columns with another investigative reporter, Rowland Evans. They later appeared on TV many times together, especially on CNN. (Evans died in March 2001, also of cancer.) Novak's strong opinions often put him in an awkward position, however, as his roles as objective journalist and political entrepreneur became blurred. In 2003 he became entwined in the scandal over the leaked identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, which escalated in July 2005 and August 2005. Nevertheless, he eluded legal jeopardy for whatever part he may have played.

In spite of his occasional role as a protagonist, Novak kept a clear focus on the ultimate purposes of political action, which helped him retain a keen analytical mind. As the Republican Party strayed from its principles during the Bush administration, passing pork-barrel spending bills with no sense of restraint (see August 2006), Novak called its leaders to task. In November 2006 he criticized Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA) for "viewing the Republican Party as a private club where personal loyalties must transcend all else." His willingness to defy powerful figures in Washington earned him widespread respect -- and enmity. In January 2007, he criticized Republicans for being "in denial" about the reasons for their declining fortunes. In March 2007 he assailed the Bush White House for its incompetent style of management and the extreme isolation of President Bush from the outside world.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, the Chicagoan Novak was in a special position to scrutinize candidate Barack Obama. He was one of the first reporters to draw attention to Obama's connections to Tony Rezko, who epitomized the corruption that lay at the heart of the mortgage banking crisis. (See the Washington Post from March 2008.) Last August Novak was diagnosed with brain cancer and retired from his writing career, a major blow to conservative policy wonks.

In sum, Robert Novak served to stimulate and energize political debate in this country, and until the very end he showed a zest for getting at the truth and debunking politically correct notions. He may have been gratuitously irritating to many people, but he consistently strove to keep the Republican leadership honest. The party and the country would have been in much better shape today if only more people in positions of authority had paid closer attention to him. It is a tragedy that he passed away just as the cause he espoused was beginning to shake off defeat and regather its strength.

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Aug 2009, 1: 05 AM

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