WASHINGTON — Political columnist Robert Novak, a diehard conservative, pugilistic debater and proud owner of the “Prince of Darkness” moniker, died Tuesday after a battle with brain cancer that was diagnosed in July 2008. He was 78.
His wife of 47 years, Geraldine Novak, told The Associated Press that he died at his home in Washington early in the morning.
A household face as co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, Novak had been a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. The brain tumour diagnosis came less than a week after he struck a pedestrian in downtown Washington with his Corvette and drove away.
In recent years, Novak ended up actually being a part of a big Washington story, in ways he likely never intended, becoming a central figure in the Valerie Plame CIA leak case.
Novak was the first to publish the name of the CIA employee, and he came under withering criticism and abuse from many for that column, which Novak said began “a long and difficult episode” in his career.
“I had a terrific time fulfilling all my youthful dreams and at the same time making life miserable for hypocritical, posturing politicians and, I hope, performing a service for my country,” Novak wrote in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years reporting in Washington.
Actually Novak had been dubbed the “prince of darkness” by a journalist friend early in his career, and he embraced it.
He wrote in that 2007 memoir that he became proud of the label derived from his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.”
“He loved being a journalist, he loved journalism, he loved his country and his family,” Geraldine Novak told The AP.
Novak, editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report, had been a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times for decades. He is perhaps best known as a co-host of several of CNN’s political talk shows, where he often jousted with liberal guests from 1980 to 2005.
One of the best-known was Crossfire.
While he became known as a conservative for his role on Crossfire and other CNN political shows like The Capital Gang, he differed with conservatives on many issues, expressing doubts about invading Afghanistan and frequently criticizing the war in Iraq.
Novak wrote in his book about often giving politicians the choice of being a source or a target, a strategy that often produced scoops for his column.
With a lengthy list of highly placed sources, a high public profile and a relentless approach to reporting his column, Novak produced many scoops.
Among those scoops included a 2003 column in which he outed 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.
Libby’s prison sentence was later commuted by President Bush.
Born and raised in Joliet, Ill., Novak began his career in journalism in high school as a sports stringer for the Joliet Herald-News, then worked at the Champaign-Urbana Courier while attending the University of Illinois.
Following college, he served stateside in the U.S. Army as a lieutenant during the Korean War from 1952-54. 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 their chief congressional correspondent.
In 1963 he teamed up with the late Rowland Evans Jr. 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.
Evans died in March 2001, and Novak continued to write the column until his brain tumour diagnosis in July.
It was Novak’s third cancer diagnosis.
A son of Jewish parents, he converted to Catholicism at age 67 after attending Catholic services for several years.
Novak is survived by his wife Geraldine, who was a secretary for President Johnson, their daughter and a son, Alex.