“My obituary will now begin with the Valerie Plame story,” Bob Novak said with a wry smile. We were having breakfast at the Army-Navy Club in Washington, D.C., a year after the media furor began over his column identifying Plame as a CIA operative. Novak, of course, was right: On the day he died, the Washington Post obituary began with two paragraphs on the incident, with the New York Times and Associated Press following suit.
When asked by an interviewer for the Washingtonian Magazine if he regretted the column, Novak replied:
I’d go full speed ahead because of the hateful and beastly way in which my left-wing critics in the press and Congress tried to make a political affair out of it and tried to ruin me. My response now is this: The hell with you. They didn’t ruin me. I have my faith, my family, and a good life. A lot of people love me — or like me. So they failed. I would do the same thing over again because I don’t think I hurt Valerie Plame whatsoever.
That’s the Bob Novak I came to know and respect — a man of courage, integrity, and the sure conviction that most things in life were more important than being hated by your enemies and critics.
Robert D. Novak died at home on Monday, finally succumbing to the brain cancer that was discovered in June 2008. With his illness and death, the country lost its premier political reporter, and the Church lost one of its most powerful voices in American culture and the media.
Novak, born and raised in a non-observant Jewish family from Joliet, Illinois, converted to the Catholic Faith in May 1998. Present at the baptism were his wife Geraldine, also being received into the Church; his godparents, Kate O’Beirne and Jeff Bell; members of the media like Al Hunt, Judy Woodruff, Fred Barnes, and Margaret Carlson; politicians such as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Rep. Henry Hyde, and Sen. Rick Santorum; and his catechist, Rev. C. John McCloskey. Msgr. Peter Vaghi, then pastor of St. Patrick’s Church, commented later how privileged they were to witness the transformation of the “Prince of Darkness” into a “child of light.”
With Novak’s conversion, Washington gained something it had previously lacked: a major media figure who was unapologetically Catholic and pro-life. In his reporting, however, Novak never crossed the line into advocacy. Because of his personal convictions, Novak would report stories no one else wanted to cover, but he would let the facts speak for themselves.
Catholics who battle for the Church in the public eye are mourning his death. Laura Ingraham, another Catholic convert, started her radio show in 2001 and eventually joined Novak as a media celebrity who defended the orthodox Catholic Faith. Ingraham wrote me, “An inspiration professionally and spiritually, Bob truly was one-of-a-kind. I will miss his wit, conviction, and clarity of thought. I look forward to his reporting from Above.”
The nation’s most sought-after Catholic media commenter, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, remarked, “Bob Novak was a walking encyclopedia of knowledge about American government, a fiercely courageous journalist, a committed convert to Catholicism, and a totally honest individual. He will be sorely missed.”
EWTN news director Raymond Arroyo shared with me his blog tribute, where he wrote, “I will most miss Bob’s relentless inquisitiveness. In his three-piece suit, over dinner or at a cocktail party, he would probe you, seeking your impressions of a news event or a person. He wanted to know everything you had heard. He was like a sponge. And God did he love chasing a story.”
As a reporter, Novak held tightly to his professional detachment, but in his private life he and Geraldine gave generously to various Catholic causes. He helped pro-life groups, colleges, youth programs, and media apostolates not only by being present at their events but also by opening his own checkbook.
I had the great privilege of being with the Novaks on their two trips to the Holy Land, in 2006 and 2007. It was during these trips I observed Novak’s interviewing methods firsthand — he took few notes but could remember details perfectly. I watched how he would work up to the tough question, sprinkling it with just enough factual information that the interviewee would have to answer or look completely foolish. Then I would see the then-75-year-old reporter go up to his hotel room at 10 p.m., after a full day on the road, to write and file his story.
My only regret is that I did not accompany him on his interview in Gaza that resulted in his controversial column, “Olive Branch from Hamas.” My teenage daughter, Hannah, who was traveling with me at the time, begged me not to go because of the daily bombings, and I acceded to her request. When I told Bob that Hannah had asked me not to go, he turned around from the front seat of the car with a big grin and said, “Hannah, don’t you know we all have to die sometime!” and laughed. (The day Bob went to Gaza there were no bombs.)
Novak, however, thought it fortunate that the nature of his illness gave him a chance to prepare for his death. When we visited this past September in his home, he told me of his gratitude, which he spoke about in his Washingtonian Magazine interview:
Well, nobody wants to die. I certainly don’t. But all Christian faiths, and certainly Catholicism, hold that there’s an afterlife, that we are not just dust-to-dust. And that’s comforting, particularly now that I have an illness, and there’s very little chance I will recover. A priest who visited me told me I’ve been given a chance to prepare myself. So I began to think about my life, and what I’ve done right and not done right, and to prepare myself for the last days. I’ve found that reassuring.
I am reassured that this “Prince of Darkness” has made his journey toward the final Light and is now praying for all of us here below.