Remembering Bob Novak

Robert D. Novak, 78, an influential columnist and panelist on TV news-discussion shows who called himself a "stirrer up of strife" on behalf of conservative causes, died today at his home in Washington of a brain tumor first diagnosed in July 2008.

Steve Huntley, retired columnist, former editorial page editor of the Chicago Sun-Times and editor for Novak's syndicated column, was online Tuesday, Aug. 18, at 3:15 p.m. ET to discuss the reporter/journalist's life and work.


Steve Huntley: Hi,

I'm Steve Huntley, a columnist and former editorial page editor and assistant managing editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. I worked with Bob Novak for 18 years. As editorial page editor, I was the Sun-Times editor for his syndicated column. As editorial page editor and assistant managing editor, I would call on Bob to do extra columns for the Sun-Times, which he unfailingly did. His only question was: What's the deadline? He always got his work in before that deadline -- something sure to warm the heart of an editor. Bob was one of the best journalists I ever knew and I look forward to answering your questions about him.


Washington, D.C.: Did you edit the Valerie Plame article and if so, can you talk about that whole story?

Steve Huntley: I was one of the editors. I subsequently became one of Bob's defenders in media interviews. Before publication, Bob was never told that using her name would put anyone in any danger. Every word he wrote was subsequently shown to be true. This is a long and complicated story. I'd be happy to answer any specific questions about it.


Fairfax, Va.: He called himself a "stirrer up of strife." You agree with that?

Steve Huntley: Absolutely. It's now mostly forgotten that Bob was a dissenter from President Bush's decision to invade Iraq. That got him labeled an "unpatriotic conservative" in a cover story in National Review.


Washington, D.C.: What made Novak such a sleuth? Did he do his own research or did he have anyone helping him uncover Washington stories?

Steve Huntley: Bob was first and foremost a reporter. He had assistants and for years he co-wrote the column with Roland Evans. But Bob made calls, develop and kept up contacts. It was that reporting that he brought to his work that separated his columns from the typical opinion writers.

_______________________ Steve Huntley had to leave for a quick TV interview with a station in Chicago about Bob Novak. He will be back to resume the chat shortly. Please stay with us. D.C.: For his autobiography, Novak revealed that Tom Eagleton was the source of the "amnesty, abortion, and acid" quote after Eagleton had died. What are your thoughts on what obligation you owe to sources and does that obligation end when they die, even if they didn't give permission to reveal their identities?

Steve Huntley: That's a tough call. That quote was very controversial and there's obviously a justification for doing it on the grounds of history should know the source.


Boston, Mass.: What was his greatest professional regret?

Steve Huntley: He never expressed one to me. The only regret he had about the Plame column was calling her an operative. That was a term he used for political hacks but in this case it offered ammunition for the wrong suggestion that he knew she was some kind of agent, which she wasn't at the time.


Boston, Mass.: Has the National Review revisited calling Novak an unpatriotic conservative for his opposition to the Iraq war?

Steve Huntley: Not to my knowledge. But I think Bob once said Bill Buckley regretted it.


Annapolis, Md.: Did he refer to himself as "The Prince of Darkness" and was he known as that or was it just the name of the book/memoir? Was there someone who gave him that moniker?

Steve Huntley: A writer friend bestowed that name on Bob, not because of his hard conservative views, but because of his pessimistic demeanor


Annandale, Va.: The Washington Post said in their story that Mr. Novak "lamented that the Plame story would 'forever be part of my public identity' despite having written columns he said were more important." What do you think some of those other columns might be?

Steve Huntley: His column dissenting from the Bush decision to go to war in Iraq. A column he wrote in the early 1970s about an interview with Chinese leaders that has been credited by some with laying the ground work for Nixon's historic reopening of relations with China.


Columbia, Md.: I'm sorry...if someone reveals the name of a covert agent, I have no sympathy for them, regardless of whether or not the agent's life is in danger. I hold Robert Novak in much higher contempt for this than Scooter Libby. Novak could have refused to reveal this information. I think he should have lost his employment immediately for this offense.

Steve Huntley: No factual evidence supports any allegation that she was a covert agent at the time or that the CIA ever warned Bob that using her name would endanger anyone.


Washington, D.C.: Was he out on a mission to expose official Washington all the time? He knew the inner workings of the nation's capital and it seemed he relished going after the bad guys. Would you agree?

Steve Huntley: Bob's great strength as a Washington journalist was reporting the story behind the story. He relished revealing information that would help readers understand how Washington works and how important decisions made. And he never hesitated to take on the powerful and, yes, he liked going after the bad guys.


Chantilly, Va.: I read that Novak converted from Judaism to Catholicism because of "spiritual hunger." What prompted that?

Steve Huntley: I never had a conversation with Bob about his religious experience. I would suggest you read his memoir, The Prince of Darkness, for his feelings about that.


D.C.: I am young, so I do not know much of Novak's contributions to the earlier years of political journalism. However, his later years seemed to be marked by insider gossip (Plame), artificial discord (Crossfire), and generally increasing the volume and decreasing the level of political discourse.

He clearly had quite a hand in creating modern political journalism. Is that something to be celebrated?

Steve Huntley: I think the shows Bob did -- Capitol Gang and Crossfire -- offered up lively and, yes sometimes fierce, debate on important issue between people who had completely opposite views. A Democratic republic profits from lively, even noisy debate. That some who followed Bob didn't do the kind of job he did reflects on them, not on Bob's pioneering work.


Washington, D.C.: He sounded like a feisty devil and said he'd do it all again re the Plame incident. Did he have the respect of fellow print journalists? Did he lose his TV job at CNN because of the column?

Steve Huntley: Most journalists respected Bob. Journalists who are more propagandists for one cause or another didn't like him because he called the shots as he saw them. Some liberals attacked him for the Plame case, some conservatives attacked him for opposing the war in Iraq. Bob did what a journalist is supposed to do and all legitimate journalists understand that.


New York: Steve, why did Novak reveal Valerie Plame's name after being explicitly asked not to by the CIA? Did he not agree with their reasons? Thanks.

Steve Huntley: It's not unusual for a journalist to be asked not to publish a name or not to write a story. The CIA never said that publishing Palme's name would endanger anyone. If journalists don't write stories because someone powerful asks them not to, our country and democracy will suffer.


Queenstown, Md.: What was the source of the intense dislike Mr. Novak had for John McLaughlin, a dislike that was reciprocated?

Steve Huntley: I don't know.


Fairfax, Va.: Steve, you seem to be coming on to be the Novak apologist, which as a peer -- I am sure you respected him. The Plame deal was wrong, regardless of whether what he wrote was right or not. Anyway, what do you make of the fact that about 90 percent of the comments posted to the story of Bob's passing are basically negative? Why do you think that is? Aside from the obvious -- Bob had views that most people found (fill in the blank).

Steve Huntley: A lot of people think the New York Times was wrong for revealing the Bush surveillance policies. Sometimes being a journalist means writing stories other people think are wrong.


Sun Prairie, Wisc.: I remember Robert Novak as a pioneer, if that is the word, of televised quickie punditry on The McLaughlin Group. He didn't seem to care for it much -- there was a rote, mechanical quality to the arguments he made about issues that did not involve cutting taxes, lowering interest rates or sticking it to the Soviets -- but he made that show and most of the others he was on. Very often, he was the only person with anything to say.

How much of his involvement with this kind of television was due to the fact that he needed the money?

Steve Huntley: I don't know about Bob's finances. I suspect he was doing pretty well with his syndicated column and a subscription newsletter he published. I think he was looking to expand the outlets for his journalism and, as you point out, he became a pioneer in the combative cable television panel shows. I think Capitol Gang was one of the best and the CNN decision to cancel it was one of the worst decisions that network ever made.


Dallas, Tex.: Was he happy? On TV, he always cut such an unpleasant figure. In writing, he always seemed angry and critical. From his nickname 'Prince of Darkness' to the not-so- whispered rumors of public rudeness with his wife, he seemed like a professional grinch. Was he?

Steve Huntley: Personally, he was a pleasant, engaging man. I always found him to be generous in dealings with other people. He loved his wife and family.


Anonymous: Mr. Huntley, why didn't Novak investigate Valerie Plame before outing her?

Steve Huntley: He did, calling the CIA about her. He even found her name in Who's Who.


Silver Spring, Md.: Depending on the outlet, Mr. Novak is being described as a columnist or conservative columnist. Would he have had a preference?

Steve Huntley: I think he would have most liked being called a columnist who didn't just give opinions but who did shoe-leather-type reporting to inform his columns.


Dallas, Tex. : "...reporting the story behind the story." yet "Bob was never told that using her name would put anyone in any danger." How does that speak to investigative work? Isn't it possible that Novak was simply doing Bush/Cheney's bidding? There was too much Bush/Cheney spin/lies/propaganda for most folks to accept unquestionably.

Steve Huntley: If Bob had been doing Bush/Cheney's bidding, he would have wrote columns backing the decision to invade Iraq. Instead, he dissented from that, earning him the allegation of an "unpatriotic conservative" in National Review.


Steve Huntley: I see our time is up. Thanks for the questions. I enjoyed conversing about Bob. For those of you who want to get a fuller picture of the man and the journalist, I'd recommend his memoir "The Prince of Darkness: 50 years reporting in Washington."


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