Robert Novak, the prominent Washington journalist, has died. As a teen-ager, I was a huge fan of the Evans and Novak columns which, nestled in between the ponderous writing (as it appeared to me at the time) of Joseph Alsop and Walter Lippmann, seemed so fresh, full of life and, well, political. What politically keen teen-ager would rather have read about the Sino-Soviet split than about a rift between a cigar-chomping Republican state party chairman and the state’s governor?
As I college student I devoured the Evans and Novak political biography of Lyndon Johnson. I don’t recall ever enjoying a political biography more. When I finally met and spent some time with Novak two years ago, I told him so. Novak seemed to appreciate the compliment, but was still unhappy about what an uncooperative source Johnson had been (by contrast he described Barry Goldwater as a great source).
Over time, I became increasingly less enamored with Novak’s work. Experience had taught me that, frankly, I could never be fully confident that the story I was reading was based on an attempt to tell the whole truth, as opposed to an attempt to say something that would serve the interests of a friend or, above all, a valued source.
There’s no disputing, however, that Novak for better or for worse was a giant, perhaps the giant, of Washington journalism.
In an excellent post about Novak, John Podhoretz says he always found him “interesting, lively, and friendly.” That’s certainly how I found him on that one occasion when we were together.
Podhoretz also calls Novak’s autobiography Prince of Darkness “the most accurate (and most dispiriting) picture of life in Washington and the journalism game published in my lifetime.” That assessment too seems right on the mark.
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