On 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.
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.