Tuesday, August 18, 2009


A great reporter has died.

UPDATE 12:11: Chicago Sun-Times:
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Robert Novak, one of the nation’s most influential journalists, who relished his “Prince of Darkness” public persona, died at home here early Tuesday morning after a battle with brain cancer. . . .
UPDATE 12:23: On Fox News, Major Garrett -- a former newspaper man himself -- just talked aobut Novak's excellence at "shoe leather" reporting: The time-consuming business of seeking out face-to-face interviews with sources.

His memoir, The Prince of Darkness, is full of stories about how he did this, meeting quietly at restaurants and bars with people, famous and obscure, who might be able to give him a scoop. People who've never worked as D.C. reporter would be amazed how often it is through casual social acquaintances -- someone you met at a party -- that a reporter gets a scoop.

"Better journalism through whiskey" is an ancient art that Novak once practiced nearly to his own destruction, until he took alarm at his health and swore the stuff off.

UPDATE 12:30: Tim Carney, who worked as an assistant to Novak for years, talks about the great man and his methods:
Bob Novak was, above all, a reporter.
Watching him work was a delightful education in reporting.
In 2004, I was chatting with Novak at a conservative dinner at the Willard Intercontinental in downtown D.C. when Ralph Reed approached. Novak greeted Reed, introduced me, and began trading pleasantries, but within one minute the conversation had somehow become an on-background interview -- I noticed this, but I’m not sure Reed did, because of the subtlety with which Novak deflected any questions back at Reed and steered the conversation away from himself.
It was a remarkable trait to find in a professional pundit so successful and so opinionated: Novak might have been the best listener I’ve ever known. . . .
What Novak was doing with Reed -- using a social encounter to pry out some useful bit of news -- is really the key to understanding why he was so good. The dramatic stuff of "All the President's Men" has given people a mistaken notion of what investigative reporting is really all about. It's actually more mundane than that -- but in some ways, more exciting. To reel in a source like a fish on the line is delicate business.

UPDATE 12:45 p.m.: Also at Human Events, Ken Tomlinson talks about Novak and the "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine," an example of how Novak's reporting impacted Cold War policy. Novak was originally a liberal Republican (that was before liberal Republicans learned to pretend they were conservative) but he always hated Commies.

But hating Commies is not an opinion. To say that communism is evil is to state a neutral, objective fact.

UPDATE 1:10 p.m.: When Novak's brain cancer was reported in July 2008, I wrote:
Early on in his career, Novak's saturnine appearance earned him the "Prince of Darkness" sobriquet. His longtime column partner, Rowland Evans, was a patrician WASP known and loved by Washington insiders, and so it was generally suspected (not altogether unfairly) that Novak was the troublemaker whose inside scoops caused so much embarrassment for the Establishment.
And in that post, I quoted Michelle Malkin's own tribute to Novak:
Novak has had a huge influence on my career. During a college conservative journalists’ confab, he urged us to seek metro newspaper jobs, pay our dues, and try to stay out of Washington for as long as possible. I took the advice to heart and left D.C. after a year as an intern at NBC to take my first newspaper job at the L.A. Daily News and then the Seattle Times.
Very good advice. The problem with a reporter coming to D.C. as a 22-year-old, I think, is that they come to take it for granted and don't appreciate what an honor it is to cover the Major Leagues, so to speak. When your earliest front-page scoops are about city councils and county zoning boards, you develop a better sensibility about the job.

Novak actually started out covering high-school sports as a teenage stringer for his hometown paper. After college and the Army, he eventually hired on with the Associated Press in their Omaha bureau, then transferred to their Indianapolis bureau before finally coming to D.C. at age 26. In Prince of Darkness, he writes:
I was the only AP newsman in Washington less than thirty years old, and there were precious few under 40.
That is to say, to be assigned to Washington was then, as it still should be, a plum job -- a privileged and an honor earned -- and I think that the kid who shows up in D.C. as a 22-year-old fresh out of college doesn't understand that.

More blog reaction at Mememorandum.


  1. A good man, a good Catholic, he's now, I'm sure, getting information out of Saint Peter about Saint Paul.

    Quoted from and linked to at:

  2. I don't know.... If by "scoop" you mean "leak by somebody with a thinly disguised axe to grind" he had plenty of those. He and leaker Richard Armitage were of course behind the Valerie Plame kerfuffle, for which the completely innocent Scooter Libby paid dearly. As a journalist your job shouldn't be to help Washington insiders sabotage people who dare to interfere, but Novak did pretty well with that.

  3. If Bob Novak had not been so ill, I'll bet he would have covered the Ken Gladney story

  4. The Wichita Eagle ran a tasteless headline announcing Novak's death -- link.