News & Criticism

Robert Novak: Two Eulogies

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I missed it when it came out on Tuesday, but Jack Shafer has published what is probably the best summation of Robert Novak's career. Here's an excerpt:

There was meanness and toughness in Novak's work and in his personal style, and depending on your sensibilities, this cruelty either drew you to the man or repulsed you. Novak didn't have a chip on his shoulder -- he was all chip, as willing to shred his friends as he was his enemies: He's the sort of guy who would have been perfect to teach anger-mismanagement classes….Journalism used to be filled with guys like Robert D. Novak, sociopathic obsessives who would happily break their mother's back to get a story and who would sooner throw themselves off a cliff than retire to the racetrack or work as a lecturer at a journalism school. As Washington Post reporter Marjorie Williams observed in a 1988 piece, Evans and Novak were practitioners of "a form of journalism unlike anyone else's -- fact-based and ax-grinding at once, simultaneously far-ranging and arcane. Deliberately melding their styles and even their ideologies, they have broken news and possibly careers."

What's great about that passage is that it makes the phrase "sociopathic obsessive" sound like a good thing.

Also worth reading: today's tribute to Novak by the radical columnist Alexander Cockburn, who shared Novak's antipathy to the Israeli government but otherwise would seem to stand on the opposite side of the spectrum. But in addition to noting some other areas where he agreed with the departed -- "once the war on Communism was won," Cockburn writes, Novak "became isolationist in instinct, opposing the Iraq war and supporting Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas" -- he praises him for a certain transparency:

Novak's obituarists have almost uniformly dwelled on the "stain" that the Plame affair supposedly left on Novak's reputation. Vice president Dick Cheney used Novak as a conduit to disclose that Valerie Plame was a CIA employee, the inference being that her status was the reason why her husband Joe Wilson had been sent to Niger, whence he sent back a report on uranium smuggling discomfiting to Bush and Cheney's war plans.

But as Robert Lowe, the great nineteenth century editor of the London Times once wrote, "It is the duty of newspapers to obtain the intelligence of the news and instantly communicate this to the readers." What Novak's prissy colleagues and competitors never liked about him and Evans (who died in 2001) was that they made obvious what most journalists preferred to conceal, that their information came from self-interested sources, using the press -- in this case Novak -- to fight their bureaucratic wars. Particularly ludicrous was the spectacle of the liberal-left in periodicals like The Nation solemnly deploring Novak's leaking of Plame's name as somehow "compromising national security", as if The Nation magazine in the 1960s had not been a trailblazer in exposing the activities of the CIA. In short, the Plame disclosure was one of Novak's finest hours.

Cockburn is also the first obituarist, as far as I'm aware, to call Novak "the Hunter Thompson of the right."

Update: Charles Davis informs me that IOZ beat Cockburn to the draw: "Properly considered, he was the conservative answer to Hunter S. Thompson, who was himself a mad sort of conservative, or, at least, gun-happy."