After 51 years as a reporter and columnist (who always remained a reporter) in Washington, Robert Novak has announced his retirement after having been diagnosed with a brain tumor and given a prognosis described as "dire." Nothing short of deathly illness could have stopped Novak from reporting, and now it appears it has. I have been reading Novak's work since the beginning of the Evans and Novak column in 1963, and I have become more and more of an admirer over the years. Here is my review for the Weekly Standard, published just a year ago, of Novak's riveting autobiography, The Prince of Darkness. It was an honor to be asked to write the review, and a bit dicey, because Novak's book takes note of his not-on-speaking-terms feud with Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol. As I wrote in the review, The Prince of Darkness belongs on the short list of books that tell you just about all you need to know about politics and journalism in the last two thirds of the 20th century--the others being Ronald Steel's Walter Lippmann and the American Century, Robert Merry's Taking on the World: Joseph and Stewart Alsop, Guardians of the American Century, and Katharine Graham's Personal History. Let me quote the last paragraphs of my review:
What Novak wants to do, at 76 and after 50 years of reporting in Washington, is to keep working. In 1994 he had surgery in Los Angeles to remove a cancer from his lung on a Monday. It is exhausting just to read what he did next:
"I was released from the hospital [in Los Angeles] Thursday morning, worked on columns from my hotel room Thursday and Friday, went to the movies (Clear and Present Danger) Thursday night, flew back to Washington Sunday, and was at work in my office Monday, August 14, one week after surgery."
Through the fall he kept close enough attention to keep raising the number of House seats he was predicting Republicans would pick up, to the point that he was one of the few journalists to predict that year's Republican takeover. I was one of the others, writing in a U.S. News column in July that there was a serious possibility Republicans could capture the House, and I know how lonely I was.
As an optimist, I find many political developments depressing; as a pessimist, Novak sees them as part of a history of human folly from which he takes consolation from his conversion to Catholicism, here gracefully described. Anyone interested in politics, journalism, and the course of public events over the last 50 years who does not buy and read The Prince of Darkness is denying himself one of the pleasures that life on this earth very seldom offers.
By Michael Barone