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Robert Novak, RIP

Robert D. Novak, the controversialist whose combination of hard-line conservatism and hard-charging reporting made his column essential reading for nearly four decades, has died. Bob went to his grave a Catholic, though he had been born a Jew, and passed through mainline Protestantism on the way. He had, as they say, “issues” with his Jewish roots, expressed largely in a hostility to Israel that made little sense given the overall nature of his views on a wide range of subjects—he was, for instance, an intimate of and close friend to the late Jack Kemp and agreed with Kemp on nearly every particular, but Kemp was a supporter of Israel, and Novak an opponent of it.

In 1989, when I was an editor at the Washington Times, I assigned a reporter a profile on Richard Darman, then George H.W. Bush’s budget director. There had been rumors that Darman had been born a Jew, and I asked her to check them out in the pre-Internet days. She uncovered a news story in the Providence, Rhode Island, newspaper about Darman’s bar mitzvah, of all things. And when she asked him about it, Darman was deeply unsettled, asked her not to publish anything about it, said he would be her best source, said it would devastate his wife and children. She came back and reported this to me, and I said we would be sure to make it the lead of the piece. That weekend, on his CNN show, Bob Novak denounced the piece as the “Shame of the Week,” an act of injustice against Darman and his privacy and the sanctity of his family.

That did not prevent him from maintaining cordial relations with me, and I with him. My last communication with him was a cryptic e-mail he sent me after a New York Post column I had written on the injustices being heaped on the head of Scooter Libby, the Cheney chief of staff who got wrapped up in the Valerie Plame dragnet set into motion by Novak’s mention of her name in a column. “Obviously, I cannot comment on the case,” Novak wrote, “but that was a very good column.”

He was a difficult man in many ways, but I always found him interesting, lively, and friendly. And I have to say that, toward the end of his life, he wrote a riveting I-can’t-quite-believe-I’m-reading-this memoir entitled The Prince of Darkness, which may offer, in its unsparing portrait of his own character and how he maneuvered his way through a 50-year career, the most accurate (and most dispiriting) picture of life in Washington and the journalism game published in my lifetime. It was an unexpected achievement, because he surely knew he was leaving his readers with a bad taste in their mouths. But he was determined to get it all down and get it right, and he did.