Whether you like him or hate him, Robert Novak’s combination of insider dope, political pronouncements, and glowering TV presence have made him a Washington institution. So the announcement in July that he was suspending his newspaper column because of a brain tumor came as a jolt. What other journalist has been tearing up the town with so much relish for the past 51 years?
I spent some time with Novak five years ago for The Washingtonian, chronicling his journey from secular Jew to devout Catholic. Somewhat to my surprise, the scowling, sardonic columnist turned out to be a peach of a subject. He gave me plenty of time in spite of his killer schedule and seemed utterly candid. No subject was off limits.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was putting me on at times, making himself sound more misanthropic than he really was. I finally concluded that the pose—Scrooge in a three-piece suit—was manufactured to make him into a memorable TV personality, which it did. It also made him rich.
The last decade has dealt him some blows. Rowland Evans, his column-writing partner for 30 years—whom he eulogized as a brother—died in 2001. Novak’s opposition to the war in Iraq left him alienated from onetime friends like Bill Kristol and William Rusher. On top of that came the Plame affair, in which he revealed the identity of CIA analyst Valerie Plame Wilson—an episode he said cost him $160,000 in legal fees, spelled an end to his career at CNN, and subjected him and his family to threats.
Then, last summer, after hitting a pedestrian with his Corvette and suffering three seizures, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to a year to live.
Knowing how ill he was, it was with some trepidation that I asked to talk with him, but he readily agreed. I found him sitting in the living room of his comfortable apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the Capitol, thinner and a little frail after brain surgery and daily doses of radiation and experimental drugs.
Admirers will be glad to hear that he has not mellowed. He is as pugnacious as ever, although he expressed frustration at not being able to pick up the phone and report the way he used to. Even so, he says he’s planning a sequel to The Prince of Darkness, his 2007 autobiography, and looking forward to the day when he can get back to work.
You’ve said your Catholicism was helping you deal with your illness.
Well, nobody wants to die. I certainly don’t. But all Christian faiths, and certainly Catholicism, hold that there’s an afterlife, that we are not just dust to dust. And that’s comforting, particularly now that I have an illness and there’s very little chance I will recover. A priest who visited me told me I’ve been given a chance to prepare myself. So I began to think about my life and what I’ve done right and not done right and to prepare myself for the last days. I’ve found that reassuring.
Yet you’re going through this tremendously painful regimen. Given your diagnosis, is it worth it?
Look, it’s not easy or pleasant, but it’s worth it because I don’t want to die. I’m very, very tired, so there’s a great temptation to just give up. But that’s not my nature.
Despite your ups and downs and your illnesses—this is your fourth cancer—you’ve been pretty lucky most of your life. Your mother spoiled you rotten. Your wife, Geraldine, practically cuts your meat. Your colleagues seem not just willing but happy to perform the most menial tasks for you. How does one get to be treated so royally?
It starts if you’re an only child. You’re told you’re wonderful, you can do no wrong. My mother always gave me the impression I was going to be something successful in the world. She didn’t know what, and she certainly wasn’t happy with the career path I took, but she never criticized me.
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. If you’re just going to report on car wrecks and interview the victims, you don’t need much confidence. But if you’re going to make proclamations on the state of the world, it helps to have confidence—even if that confidence is unwarranted.
All your life you’ve been a workaholic whose only outside interest, you’ve said, was sports. Looking back, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think so. I have had so much fun in my life. I do like a few other things. I have season tickets to the Washington National Opera. I have season tickets to the Shakespeare Theatre. I love to read history. I’ve been writing a novel in my head for years. It takes place during the Thirty Years’ War—I’m kind of a nut on the Thirty Years’ War. I love poetry. I love T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound.
So I think I’d do it about the same way except for my children. I think I paid too little attention to my two children when they were young. I’m very lucky—they’re both wonderful. In this crisis they’ve just been terrific.
When you covered Capitol Hill in the 1950s, you were a quasi-regular at the after-hours soirées Senator Everett Dirksen used to hold in his office. Can you imagine a reporter being included in a gathering like that today?
No. The relationship between the press and politicians was far different. When Trent Lott read about Dirksen in my autobiography, he was flabbergasted. I am not even 100 percent sure he believed me, he was so astounded that a Senate Republican leader would invite a reporter to a closed gathering like that.
The atmosphere in politics today is so bitterly partisan. What do you ascribe that to?
I don’t agree that partisanship is more bitter now. In the 19th century, the overriding issue was slavery, and there was no more partisan issue than slavery. Preston Brooks, a proslavery Democratic congressman from South Carolina, walked onto the Senate floor and beat Charles Sumner, the antislavery leader of the radical Republicans, almost to death with the metal end of his cane. Now, that was partisan.
During my first year in Washington when I was covering the Senate for the AP, Bob Kerr, a Democrat from Oklahoma, called Indiana Republican Homer Capehart a “rancid tub of ignorance.” So it’s no more partisan now—maybe less colorful. It may feel more partisan because it’s so much more transparent. There’s more TV, and the whole process is more open to the public.
How do you assess the state of the Republican Party?
In 1957, when I came here, it was all but dead and had been dying for a long time. The Republicans were a permanent minority in Congress. They had never managed to put together an effective response to Roosevelt or his handling of the Depression.
The Republican Party was revived unexpectedly by somebody who was not even a Republican activist—William F. Buckley Jr. Suddenly you had members of Congress in both chambers taking positions, trying to put together programs of action.
The party found its voice in Barry Goldwater—a very ineffective voice, in my opinion. I thought he was limited as a political leader, but he was able to attract millions of people, and it changed the Republican Party.
Then came Ronald Reagan, and suddenly you had a response to Big Government and to liberals and a very effective politician leading it. Reagan took the torch from Goldwater, but nobody took the torch from Reagan.
So the Republican Party in the last few years looks very much like the party I encountered here in 1957. It has no responses, it doesn’t have programs, and it’s quite eager to just get by. Being a congressman in the minority is not all that bad if you are interested in a warm bed and a good salary.