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The Robert Novak I Knew

By Autumn Brewington

Robert Novak was a regular at the Army Navy Club. Sometimes he ate lunch there five times a week. The first time I met him there for lunch, in 2007, we had what seemed like a typical meal. We talked about writing, column ideas and politics. After a while, I noticed that the waitress, Mary, an older black woman, kept addressing “Mr. Kojak.” At first I wondered if I was mistaken. I began straining to hear her.

As we left, I finally asked: Did the waitress call you Mr. Kojak?

Novak paused on the steps and grinned at me. I’ve been a member here for 25 years, he replied, and she has been here the entire time. "As far as I’m concerned," he said, "she can call me whatever she wants.”

Novak might have enjoyed being known as the Prince of Darkness, but he could also be a class act.

For the first three years that I worked in The Post’s editorial department, I copy-edited Novak’s column twice a week. On Thursdays I would call his office and start by asking questions of his assistant, who frequently helped with the reporting. On Sundays, I would call him directly, catching him most weeks at a sporting event, usually cheering on his beloved University of Maryland. Sometimes he would tell me about the game he’d just watched.

On the phone, Novak’s low, gravelly voice sounded like the journalist I recognized on television. But he didn’t come across like the person from “Crossfire.” Our conversations were mostly about his columns. He wanted each op-ed to contain new information. He was constantly reporting, talking to people, seeking to unearth things. He would happily anger partisans on both sides of the aisle if he thought the topic deserved a column. I think he enjoyed reporting news but reveled in getting to present it his way.

For all his smarts about finding information, he could be flummoxed by technology, even by silencing his cellphone. He once called, and woke, his assistant around midnight for computer help, perplexed that the file he’d been typing in had disappeared from his screen. Over the phone, they worked out how to restore the document that had been minimized. His twenty-something assistant went back to bed. Novak, then about 75, continued to work.

Last year Novak invited me to the Gridiron Dinner and the private dinner he hosted the night before at the Army Navy Club. Both evenings, he clearly enjoyed working the room. At the white-tie dinner, for which Novak dressed up as a prince for a skit, one of the speakers noted that the “Prince of Darkness” was dining with the “Queen of Mean.” He and Ann Coulter, whom he was sitting next to, laughed it off. After the dinner, he accompanied Coulter and me to a reception upstairs in the hotel. It was well after 1 a.m., and when he slowed to introduce us to people we encountered along the way, I noticed that I was starting to get tired, but Novak seemed as energized as he’d been at the beginning of the evening.

After the first year or so that we’d worked together, Novak began to call me on Sundays to make sure everything was set for the next day’s column. One afternoon, recognizing his cell number on the caller ID, I picked up and asked how he was. After a second, he said, “I’m great. I’m on a boat in the Caribbean, about to sail out of range. Just checking in to see if you have any questions for me.”

I paused, then I told him to have a drink for me, and a nice trip. He laughed and promised to do just that.

By Autumn Brewington  | August 18, 2009; 4:46 PM ET
Categories:  Brewington  | Tags:  Autumn Brewington  
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Comments

Thank you for sharing his story. I always wondered where he ate lunch, sometimes 5 days a week, and that an employee there misspoke his name, lol! (you've left me wondering if he preferred chicken or peanut butter now!)
How funny that he called to check in from the boat in the Carribean - wow, I never did that.
Celebrity is celebrity; but is the world safer or more informed because of his work?
Lets let him go.

Posted by: aarinteich | August 18, 2009 7:10 PM | Report abuse

Novak will be forever remembered as the guy who outed Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and, when confronted about the issue on TV, threw off his mike and stormed out...

He was a scumbag. I won't shed any tears over his demise.

Posted by: Gatsby10 | August 19, 2009 2:37 AM | Report abuse

aarinteich asks "but is the world safer or more informed because of his work?"

Safer? I'm not sure. Certainly that wasn't his prime responsibility.

More informed? Yes, indeed. Because of Robert Novak's work, we were better informed for several decades.

Posted by: fi3ch | August 19, 2009 5:53 AM | Report abuse

As a centrist Democrat, I often disagreed with Mr. Novak but I always appreciated the demeanor he brought to the debate. This new lot likes to shock and shout, which makes me change the channel in a New York minute. I'd much rather watch, listen or read folks like Mr. Novak, who have a position and can articulate it, and can debate an issue with an opponent without having to consider that person an enemy.

He seemed like a good man and I'm sorry to hear of his passing.

Posted by: CenterLeft | August 19, 2009 8:38 AM | Report abuse

Outed Valerie Plame in lock-step with bush/cheney, and attempted to flee an accident, abysmal legacy.
cheney, libby and novak should have been imprisoned for treason.

Posted by: jama452 | August 19, 2009 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Novak didn't care what the black waitress called him because in his view she was not important. He was an elitist, a Fascist-minded rabblerouser. It is funny that he finally became attracted to the Catholic Church when it had largely abandoned its semi-Fascist political stances and had moved leftward. Novak liked the Church because, wrongly, he considered it the Fascist Party at prayer.

Posted by: ravitchn | August 19, 2009 9:42 AM | Report abuse

Prince of Darkness? What a joke! Miles Davis was the Prince of Darkness, not this clown.

Novak aided and abetted Cheney and Rove by publishing their lies under the guise of reporting. They would tell him what to print and then go on TV quoting independent "newspaper reports" that supposed their views.

Robert Novak was not a reporter, he was an operative of the Bush PR machine.

Posted by: wp2006 | August 19, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

I have watched Mr. Novak a lot of years and what I saw was a painful lack of honesty ibn his reporting, if you call it that. He distorted everything to give his right wing talking points. As far as I am concerned, he was not a journalist; he was simply a republican party hack masquerading as one, like so many other right wingers are at the Washington Post.

Posted by: kevin1231 | August 19, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

What a great company you have kept -- not just Novak but Ann Coulter! Wow. I guess that's what it takes to be allowed to express opinion at the Post. Poor Froomkin. He just did not know who to pal around with. No lunches with Novak? No nightcaps with Coulter? You are fired!

Posted by: clare_knight | August 19, 2009 10:51 AM | Report abuse

Wow, did you ever miss the boat. Not only did he not care what the waitress called him, he didn't even notice. Why? She was a piece of furniture to him: she didn't have anything to offer and no information to trade.

Novak was a one-sided, shallow, mean-spirited little man. He was a poor writer and bad journalist: every column he wrote was based on information he had bullied, black-mailed or horse traded, nothing from real research or intellect. He was nothing more than a shill for his sources and he did whatever they wanted him to do, including breaking the law.

He had no integrity and will not be missed.

Posted by: joebanks | August 19, 2009 11:22 AM | Report abuse

joebanks: actually, Novak was a good reporter. He broke news. That was his job. His biggest offense, apparently, is that his political philosophy did not agree with yours, which I understand to be a hanging offense in many quarters.

In the end, God will judge him. Your opinion mattered not while he was alive, and even less now that he is dead.

He had a family and friends. They will miss him. And I'm pretty sure he didn't raise his kids to speak of the recently passed that they "had no integrity and will not be missed"; even if true, that is classless. So he's got that on you and your parents.

Posted by: gbooksdc | August 19, 2009 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I am not old enough to remember Robert Novak as a reporter but I did read his columns often. What Robert Novak was most was wrong on just about every issue he covered.

Posted by: nyrunner101 | August 19, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

"Novak didn't care what the black waitress called him because in his view she was not important. He was an elitist, a Fascist-minded rabblerouser. It is funny that he finally became attracted to the Catholic Church when it had largely abandoned its semi-Fascist political stances and had moved leftward. Novak liked the Church because, wrongly, he considered it the Fascist Party at prayer."

What's really scary is this poster is driving around, eating lunch next to you, waiting in lie at the store and yet he is insane. Point to ponder

Posted by: pwaa | August 19, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

Why does the Post and the Web site publish so much first-person malarkey? The writer knew the guy. Great.

It's called "including yourself in a story." Sad.

Posted by: petezanko | August 19, 2009 12:38 PM | Report abuse

In Novak's case "nil nisi bonum" doesn't apply. He was a scoundrel and a model for the talk-show Fascists we are outraged by daily.

Posted by: ravitchn | August 19, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

pwaa:
"... he finally became attracted to the Catholic Church when it had ... moved leftward.
... he considered it the Fascist Party at prayer."
==
Speak for yourself, pwaa.
You don't know what you're talking about, either in relation to Mr. Novak or in relation to the Catholic Church.
***
petezanko:
I think it's because Mr. Novak participated, whether intentionally or not, in the most popular inside-the-Beltway game: the politics of personal destruction, as Vince Foster termed it before he committed suicide.
Novak had an ego and apparently could be very stubborn.
It took him forever -- to even edge sideways into an expression of remorse that he had destroyed Valerie Plame's career with the CIA just to punctuate a political point.
Valerie Plame's career was not the first incident in which he had been involved.
His footsteps tracked a trail of litter from destroyed careers throughout the years.
In some cases, the destruction was deserved.
However, in others, not so.
For example, exposing Valerie Plame was not central to the Bush forces' main goal which was to discredit Ambassador Wilson's report because it exposed the truth about the false assertion in Bush's State of the Union speech.
Ms. Plame was collateral damage in a highly-charged campaign of misinformation by the Bush forces and Mr. Novak, gleaning this salacious bit of gossip from Mr. Armitage, checked with the wrong people, who told him it was okay to skewer this woman, and did so.
The Plame-Wilson marriage was just a simple point of vulnerability; if her exposure had caused trouble in the marriage, Novak didn't appear he would have been concerned.
And she was home in the States because of her pregnancy, so Novak struck because she was an easy target for a sexist blow.
Fortunately, it didn't affect the Plame-Wilson marriage, which appears to remain strong.
In the fallout, he dug in his heels and it took several years for him to grudgingly admit it might have been a "mistake" to target her.
That's unfortunately a side of the legacy of Bob Novak that personal stories are designed to overcome.
As a reporter, he had a stellar career; when he changed to political commentary, things became muddled.
That was the problem.
I have no doubt he could, like Pat Buchanan, Bernie Sanders or Barney Frank, be a very genuine and open man in personal relationships.
In his op-ed about his relationship with Senator Ted Kennedy, who contacted him immediately when the news of his tumor was announced, there is a clue.
He was very surprised that Senator Kennedy could put partisanship aside and come to his aid and support.
That's because, I have no doubt, it was so difficult for him to put partisanship aside.
I have no doubt he mellowed a great deal these last months.
This doesn't downplay the entire corpus of his work in journalism.
He was a brilliant news analyst.
God bless his family and give them peace in their loss.

Posted by: Judy-in-TX | August 19, 2009 3:15 PM | Report abuse

What a world we live in! Novak dies and Froomkin lives. And we're all the poorer for it.

Posted by: wagtdn | August 19, 2009 3:53 PM | Report abuse

"Speak for yourself, pwaa.
You don't know what you're talking about, either in relation to Mr. Novak or in relation to the Catholic Church"

oh goody, mr insanity has a lunch partner. Yawn

Posted by: pwaa | August 19, 2009 3:59 PM | Report abuse

"Novak might have enjoyed being known as the Prince of Darkness, but he could also be a class act. "

He could also commit treason.

rip


Posted by: davequ | August 19, 2009 4:43 PM | Report abuse

May Novak rest in purgatory. He was an awful man. I don't go soft just because he's dead. I disliked him alive, and I dislike him dead. One less miserable person on this earth.

Posted by: davidwg46 | August 19, 2009 7:30 PM | Report abuse

I hope he meets up with Nixon, Adolph and the other political monsters of the past century. He was indeed a scoundrel who contributed nothing to our society other than to inflate his ego.

Posted by: randall1 | August 19, 2009 7:55 PM | Report abuse

Robert Novak was a lot of things, but a nice guy was not one of them! And it's very apparent by how all you journalist who hung out with him, seemed strained to find something nice to say about him!

Posted by: GTFOOH | August 19, 2009 8:50 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a fond rememberence. He was a meticulous reporter. His style hwlped keep journalism alive in a town, becoming devoid of interesting writers. his wit and sarcasm will be remembered along with his integrity and in later years his growth as a person.

Posted by: schmidtb1 | August 19, 2009 8:52 PM | Report abuse

He found his niche, and assumed and relished his role. I agreed with little he wrote. Like most of us, he was less than perfect. If nothing else, he is a reminder that our country would be better off with politics less a blood sport. May his memory be a blessing to us, one way or another.

Posted by: DuaneCPA | August 19, 2009 9:47 PM | Report abuse

Really, could anything be funnier than the crackpot Left pretending to be outraged by the pseudo-outing of an inconsequential CIA operative sacrified in real life on the altar of her husband's social climbing?

Remember, these remonstrances come from the folks who believe that America has no national interests, that every decision about foreign policy since the Korean War has been wrong, and that the world would be better off had we done more to advance the causes of the likes of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot.

Posted by: oconnellme | August 19, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

The drug dealers in my neighborhood could be polite and friendly too. That didn't stop them from peddling death and shooting people. Even Hitler had friends and a lover.

Posted by: rcvinson64 | August 20, 2009 12:06 AM | Report abuse

Wow, despite Novak's long life and well-known career and his editor's stated premise, this article lacks a single illustration to demonstrate that Novak had any kind of character at all. Without more facts, his not caring what some unknown waitress calls him does not count as many, many people do not care what others think. I hope nobody ever writes such a piece about my supposed "great" character when I die. I would consider this kind of article a slap in the face. In fact, this article seems to prove the point of his detractors that Mr. Novak lacked any character at all. What that perhaps the writer's actual intent? Hmmmmmm.......

Posted by: law1 | August 20, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

Also, eagerly hanging out with that cesspool of hate and evil (i.e. Ann Coulter) and enjoying getting other people angry do not actually demonstrate class, good judgment or character. Just the opposite really.

Posted by: law1 | August 20, 2009 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Is this what we're going to read when Rush, Savage, O'Reilly, Beck and so many others are no longer gracing us with their hearts and minds? Rev. Bookburn - Radio Volta

Posted by: revbookburn | August 20, 2009 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Wow all of these posters saying such nasty things about a man who did them no harm but had the audacity to have a different political philosophy. By the way, as far as being part of the "Bush PR machine," I'll remind these posters that Novak was against the Iraq war and was quite hesitant on Afghanistan. So you didn't like his politics. Bah, humbug. He covered politics. he love politics. From what his many friends on both sides of the aisle have been saying, he was a good guy. To you haters out there, may people have nothing but good things to say when you die.

Posted by: pipemannow | August 21, 2009 4:31 AM | Report abuse

What a tremendously misinformed and uneducated post. Bob Novak was a kind, caring and very generous man -- but that was the private side -- one which you wouldn't care about at all.

He sought no attention for his charitable acts -- in life and in death. However, there were many and the spectrum of those that received assistance from him is both broad and diverse. A very small amount of which I've seen first hand. Washington and journalism are a little bit worse off becuase he isn't around anymore.


____________________________________
Wow, did you ever miss the boat. Not only did he not care what the waitress called him, he didn't even notice. Why? She was a piece of furniture to him: she didn't have anything to offer and no information to trade.

Novak was a one-sided, shallow, mean-spirited little man. He was a poor writer and bad journalist: every column he wrote was based on information he had bullied, black-mailed or horse traded, nothing from real research or intellect. He was nothing more than a shill for his sources and he did whatever they wanted him to do, including breaking the law.

He had no integrity and will not be missed.

Posted by: curlybyrd | August 23, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

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