Video: Death of a Beltway media fixture

updated 8/18/2009 5:41:21 PM ET 2009-08-18T21:41:21

Ideologues are a dime a dozen. What made people read Robert Novak's columns — and sometimes fear them — was that his combative conservatism came laced with things they didn't know and Washington didn't want to tell.

Novak traced his impatience with "claptrap" to an episode in 1936, when he heard Franklin Roosevelt boast from a rail car in Joliet, Ill., that times were getting better. "You could have fooled them," he said of the hard-luck crowd listening to the president. Novak was 5.

The irascible journalist, dead Tuesday at age 78, devoted a contentious career to the idea that people shouldn't get fooled again. He thrived on "making life miserable for hypocritical, posturing politicians."

The "prince of darkness," as he enjoyed being called, got more than he bargained for when he revealed the name of Valerie Plame as a CIA "operative on weapons of mass destruction" in 2003. Condemnation and legal bills descended on him as a result of what he called his greatest scoop. He called the fallout as a "long and difficult episode."

Over more than 45 years as a Chicago Sun-Times and syndicated columnist — the first 30 paired with the late Rowland Evans Jr. — Novak aimed to break stories, not just opine.

Machinations inside government and the political parties were his stock in trade. This was so whether he was disclosing quiet efforts by the Kennedy administration to restrain civil rights marches in fear of the riots that followed, revealing fissures in Republican administrations or reporting doubts — out of step with the right — that Saddam Hussein's Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"A column exposing secrets can draw more attacks than ideological rants would," he wrote last year. "I have been branded 'unpatriotic' by conservatives and a 'traitor' by liberals."

'A Washington institution'
That hardly made him evenhanded. Novak was a small-government advocate and a scold of liberals, both in columns and in his 25 years as a CNN commentator. CNN took him off the air in August 2005 after he cursed in a heated exchange with that scold of Republicans, James Carville.

Novak went on to provide occasional commentary on Fox News and relished the chance to get his views out without having a liberal counterpoint.

Throughout his career, he wanted to get people talking — whether the powerful in Washington or everyone else outside of it.

"He was a Washington institution who could turn an idea into the most discussed story around kitchen tables, congressional offices, the White House and everywhere in between," Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Tuesday.

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Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2008, less than a week after he struck a pedestrian in downtown Washington with his Corvette and drove away. His wife of 47 years, Geraldine Novak, told AP that he died at his home in Washington early Tuesday morning.

Another journalist called him the prince of darkness and Novak liked that so much he made it the title of his 2007 memoirs. He saw himself as a "stirrer up of strife" as well as a patriotic man, and attributed the label to his "unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization."

Outing Valerie Plame
His conservatism did not mean conservative politicians could relax in his gaze.

He voiced doubts about invading Afghanistan, frequently criticized the Iraq war and happily spilled the beans whenever he found out about GOP as well as Democratic infighting. He enraged Alexander Haig by disclosing that Haig was on the outs with President Gerald Ford as Ford's chief of staff.

Novak's scoops were nurtured over countless cocktails with insiders and, as he told it, a hard-knuckle tactic: He'd give a politician the choice of being a source or a target. Many became sources.

He acknowledged many of his scoops were ephemeral — hot news at the time, fading in history.

Among the exclusives that did not fade was his column exposing Plame as a CIA agent. The article was published eight days after Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, said the Bush administration had twisted prewar intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat of nuclear weapons.

Citing two Bush administration officials, Novak revealed Plame worked for the CIA on weapons of mass destruction. That blew her cover as a CIA operative and led to the investigation of who leaked that information, and eventually to the conviction of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice for lying to investigators about his conversations with reporters about Plame. Libby's prison sentence was later commuted by President Bush.

'Inside Washington'
Born and raised in Joliet, Novak began his career in journalism in high school as a sports stringer for The Herald News in his hometown, then worked at The Champaign-Urbana Courier while attending the University of Illinois.

Following college, he served stateside in the Army as a lieutenant during the Korean War. He went on to work for The Associated Press in Omaha, Neb., and in Indianapolis, eventually working for the AP's Washington bureau, where he covered congressional delegations for several Midwestern states.

In 1958, Novak joined the staff of The Wall Street Journal and soon became chief congressional correspondent.

In 1963 he teamed up with Evans to pen a political column, "Inside Washington," that lasted 30 years. They were journalism's odd couple — Evans was polished and charming while Novak was often rumpled and grouchy.

Video: Tumor found

Evans died in March 2001, and Novak continued to write the column until his brain tumor diagnosis.

Days before his tumor was discovered, Novak was given a $50 citation after he struck a homeless man with his car in downtown Washington. He kept driving until he was stopped by a bicyclist, who said the man was splayed on Novak's windshield.

Novak soon fell ill on Cape Cod while visiting his daughter, Zelda, and was taken to the hospital, where the diagnosis was made. In 2003, he had had surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his kidney.

A son of Jewish parents, he converted to Catholicism at age 67 after attending Catholic services for several years.

Novak is survived by a daughter and a son as well as by his wife, once a secretary for President Lyndon Johnson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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