Novak, a light-hearted 'Prince of Darkness'Some people know ahead of time how their obituaries will start off and, try as they might to avoid it, they know the lead paragraph is not going to sound nice.
By: Clarence Page, The Dickinson Press
Some people know ahead of time how their obituaries will start off and, try as they might to avoid it, they know the lead paragraph is not going to sound nice.
Bob Novak, who died Tuesday at age 78, had a distinguished career as a Washington reporter, columnist and multimedia pundit for about a half-century. But these days he probably is best known for the big story that sparked his worst controversy.
He was the first journalist to disclose the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The result was world-class media storm feverish enough to earn its own Watergate-style “gate.”
Plamegate was a spy story, a White House intrigue, investigative reporter saga, and a courtroom spectacle. All of it played out in a superheated, politically polarized atmosphere that even had some of us in Novak’s large circle of friends and colleagues muttering skeptically as to whether he had done the right thing.
Even he predicted with regret in a 2007 interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose that his Plame column was “a very minor story compared to some of the big stories that I have had. But ... that’s going to be in the lead of my obituary, and I can’t help it.”
I have an idea of how much hell Bob went through because I witnessed some of it close-up. Though we worked for rival newspapers, we knew each other as panelists at different times on “The McLaughlin Group,” among other TV shows, and as fellow members of the Gridiron Club, a group of Washington journalists who get together annually to make fun of the people we cover.
He was nicknamed the Prince of Darkness by another Washington journalist years ago for his dark view of Western civilization as drifting away from traditional values. The Joliet, Ill., native even endowed a chair in western civilization and culture at his beloved University of Illinois in 2000.
But I also remember the light-hearted Bob, who was not afraid to swish across the Gridiron stage one year in a white dress and blond wig lampooning Rudy Giuliani’s lampoon of Marilyn Monroe.
It was a darker mood that I saw him display when many of his colleagues, including me, held doubts about whether he had become too cozy with his Bush administration sources at the expense of Plame’s identity and possibly our nation’s security.
Plamegate exposed the president’s men as so committed to promoting war with Iraq that they compromised Plame’s CIA job in a feeble attempt to discredit her husband, a State Department diplomat-turned-Iraq war critic.
In an era of politically polarized bloggers, talk radio and 24/7 cable TV news, Novak and other reporters involved in Plamegate seemed to turn the heroic Watergate-era image of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein scoops on its head.
In the end, after Novak’s sources released him to reveal their identities, it turned out that his initial leak came not from Team Bush insiders but from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, a critic of Bush’s war policy, in what Armitage called a moment of “gossip.” That’s an odd aspect of Washington culture. In a city where knowledge is power, there is no “gossip” — there is only information waiting to be confirmed.
Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, was eventually convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice. President George W. Bush commuted Libby’s 2 1/2-year sentence. Bob escaped prosecution. But he paid a big financial and psychological price in legal fees, lost TV appearances and damaged public esteem after years of remarkably solid journalism.
In his impressively candid 2007 memoir, “The Prince of Darkness,” he said he would still write the column, based on its merits. Although others will forever dispute the legalities involved, Novak insisted that he broke no laws and endangered no intelligence operations, since Plame had a desk-bound analyst’s job in Langley, Va., during the time in question.
Nevertheless, Plamegate will endure not only as a controversy but also as a mark of how much Washington’s political and media environments changed during Novak’s half-century of reporting and column-writing.
We seldom agreed on political issues, but he always knew how to make a good case for his side. More important, at a time when just about everyone who has a keyboard seems to think they can be a journalist, Novak showed how the best way we can serve the public is through solid, glamour-free fact-gathering. Our audiences will be the final judges of whether we have done the right thing.
— Page writes for Tribune Media Service. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.