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December 31st, 2009

Riding with the Prince of Darkness

Remembering Robert Novak (1931-2009)

 
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It is customary at the end of each year to look back and remember important figures who have died. For Busted Halo's Faithful Departed, instead of a laundry list of well-known deceased people with their accomplishments, we ask our writers to reflect on the spiritual impact that people who have passed away had on them. While most of our subjects had no explicit religious connections, we focus on their ability to touch souls. In these reflections you can see through the eyes of each writer how they experienced the sacred in people.

novak2-insideOn a sunny-cold February day in 2001, I drove 70 miles to an Indianapolis hotel to pick up the journalist Robert Novak, whom I would be introducing at rural Wabash College for a public lecture that evening.

Snow covered the cornfields between Crawfordsville and Indianapolis. As an aspiring journalist — not quite 21 years old — I was eagerly looking forward to spending some personal time with a man who had “hit it big” as a newspaper columnist and pundit. What was his secret? How did he get so many scoops?

Memories of this day flooded back to me recently as I thought about Novak, who died this month at age 78 and was laid to rest on August 24. Although I spent only two years as a newspaper reporter before joining the Jesuits, I can think of no one who influenced me more as a writer than Robert Novak, and in such an intangible way.

The Essence of a Good Story
Before meeting him, I had admired Novak’s syndicated column for its depth of knowledge and sources. I had seen him on CNN’s “Crossfire” program a few times, and I knew he wrote his columns with the help of a staff of researchers. But I had no idea of Novak’s character or person, which for me is always the essence of a really good story, and in this case struck me as the real reason for Novak’s success.

Novak’s ability to establish an instant personal connection with people was magnetic. He was talking on his cell phone when I found him waiting for me in the hotel lobby eight years ago. When he saw me, he turned the cell phone off, and did not answer it again in my presence. He was a gentleman.

Novak’s ability to establish an instant personal connection with people was magnetic. He was talking on his cell phone when I found him waiting for me in the hotel lobby eight years ago. When he saw me, he turned the cell phone off, and did not answer it again in my presence. He was a gentleman..

In the car we chatted about the Midwest and his journalism background. Novak shared his affinity for the University of Illinois, pointing out that he still wore the orange-and-blue necktie of his alma mater. He described his journey from covering college basketball games to filing wire stories for the Associated Press, from the AP to his Chicago Sun-Times column, and from his column to television work. Although Novak told me that “nobody likes to write,” he said he always found the thrill of chasing down a story to be exciting, and admitted that covering the University of Illinois basketball team as a college student had been the happiest assignment of his life.

Remarkably Few Mistakes
In more than 40 years as a columnist, Novak lashed out at Republicans and Democrats alike, making remarkably few mistakes. But his sense of honesty sometimes led to excess. When he “outed” Valerie Plame as a CIA operative in a 2003 column, many people on the political left turned against Novak, resulting in his testimony before a federal grand jury. Feeling vilified by the left and deceived by his sources in the Bush administration, an indignant Novak later said he would do it all over again, as he was convinced that his column had caused Plame no harm.

The Valerie Plame affair notwithstanding, Novak gave the strong impression that he was a man who could be trusted with information. It was very evident to me that this personal integrity is what made him a great journalist. There was nothing showy, false or condescending in the way he spoke to me in Indiana. My experience of Novak contrasted sharply with most of the public figures I later interviewed as a reporter. It was clear to me that Novak valued honesty and was equally willing to offer it to anyone who was interested.

This honesty extended even to the question of his religion. After having been raised Jewish and attending Catholic services for nearly two decades, Novak converted to Catholicism in 1998. Why the long wait? “A college student at one of my lectures told me to do it,” Novak told me in the car. “She said I was getting too old to procrastinate. I took that as my sign from God.” When he was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year, Novak told the media that his Catholicism helped him deal with death.

More than eight years have now passed since I walked across a stage to introduce Novak to Wabash College as the “prince of darkness,” which he said referred to the fact that he was “a conservative in a liberal world.” Today I can barely remember that lecture, in which Novak skewered the Clintons’ morality and commented on President-elect Bush’s lack of intellectual curiosity. But I vividly remember Bob Novak’s graciousness and charm, and the way he flipped his cell phone shut just to chat idly for a few hours with a 20-year old Hoosier kid.

Originally published August 27, 2009.

 
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The Author : Sean Salai, SJ
Sean Salai, SJ, is a Jesuit scholastic and freelance writer studying for the priesthood at Loyola University Chicago. He authored the entry on Robert Novak for “American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia” (ISI Books, 2006).
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Kat

    Great article. I didn’t know that he had converted. It’s tough to be a conservative voice in the media. He was a courageous man. Wish there were more like him.

  • Yenie Tran

    How neat that you had such a personal experience with Novak. I enjoyed reading this article, Sean. Thank you.

  • JN

    Here’s a link to a column that paints a picture of Novak far different from Mr. Salai’s adulatory piece.

  • art hegewald

    I suppose if we all had an hour alone with a celeb or pundant we would find they are just people too. It is a shame that our labels of others and lack of opportunities to interact prevent this honest interchange.

    interaction in most instances.

  • G.K. Thursday

    Have you ever thought of being the editor of America magazine? Your approach seems much more cogent (and in-line with most thoughtful Catholics) than the present editorial regime.

  • Jim McDaniel

    Sean,

    As a former broadcast journalist (and a former Wally), I very much relate to your experience with Novak. Some “celebrities” actually turn out to be very genuine folks when you get to spend an hour in the car with them. My own experience driving the same road 25 years earlier with Wolfman Jack wouldn’t provide the same journalistic insight, but it was an early indication to me that celebrity doesn’t tell the whole story, and we need to be careful not to judge people by their public face, especially when there’s the glare of TV or movie lights on it. It’s a genuine shame, whether they be politicians or media stars, that people seldom get to see the soul behind the facade, even if there’s no intentional deception in the person. The limelight obscures much of what is important.

  • Kafarhire Murhula

    Sean, this is a great article! Only true journalists write with their hearts. Thank you for sharing memories of such a great man like Bob Novak. We need more journalism that ethically and deontologically is respectful of others and their humanity. Sometimes, you get the impression that the tone set for the mass journalism of today that others are treated as mere objects of curiosity, of difference and never as equal human beings. I am happy to learn this piece of your personal experience with Novak. May you become an inspiration to others as well…

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