Rowland Evans, reporter
3/28/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- On Monday morning, Dec. 17, 1962, I returned from my honeymoon and found multiple phone messages from Rowly Evans on my desk in The Wall Street Journal's Washington bureau. Evans, a reporter for the New York Herald-Tribune, asked me at a subsequent lunch to collaborate with him in a daily newspaper column.
The goal was a product short on ideology, long on reporting. Our column first appeared on May 15, 1963, and ran in this space under our double byline until Evans retired from the column 30 years later. Over the years, I fear, we became more ideological. But we promised ourselves that every column would contain some information, major or miniscule, never previously reported.
We kept that promise, thanks to Evans' energies. Several obituaries noting the death of Rowland Evans from cancer on March 23 described him as a conservative. More appropriately, he should be remembered as a reporter and a patriot.
His model was the column written by the Alsop brothers -- Joseph and Stewart -- who combined dogged reporting with a passion for the security of the United States. Like Joe Alsop, Evans belonged to the Washington of black-tie dinner parties, still flourishing when our column began.
Rowly snagged stories on the Georgetown party circuit, including an exclusive on U.S. plans for an electronic wall to protect South Vietnam. But he relied mostly on old-fashioned reporting, featuring relentless interrogation of sources. Senators, Cabinet members and anonymous staffers lured to lunch or breakfast at the Metropolitan Club found themselves facing a questioner who insisted on answers. He traveled everywhere for stories, covering the Vietnam, Six-Day and Gulf wars, often at great physical risk.
Readers who thought they could spot the principal author of our columns would be surprised to learn that I was not responsible for "Reassessing Goldwater," published on April 9, 1964. Since at that time I had close contact with Sen. Barry Goldwater, it was assumed that I had written the column disputing the conventional wisdom that Mr. Conservative was dead for the Republican presidential nomination. After much shoe-leather reporting, Evans came to the conclusion that Goldwater quite likely would be the nominee.
He flourished reporting on national security, using a melange of sources both prominent and shadowy. He was ahead of everybody in forecasting the breakdown of Soviet satellite rule in Poland and Czechoslovakia. In 1979, one Evans column after another exposed Soviet cheating on arms control agreements that U.S. officials tried to ignore. Evans considered that work the high point of his long career.
Nothing he did ever caused more trouble than his tough reporting on Israeli intransigence. Evans was not anti-Israel and certainly not anti-Semitic. He went to Lebanon in 1982 to cover an Israeli invasion of Lebanon that he deplored. But he found Palestinian atrocities in Sidon, Lebanon, that suggested "the PLO has become permeated by thugs and adventurers." Although the late Yitzhak Rabin was his friend, he did not feel that the United States should be tied to the decisions of the Israeli government.
Our column encountered the most criticism when he investigated, years after the event, the Israeli attack that sank the U.S. Navy communications intelligence ship Liberty during the Six-Day War. It was not anti-Israeli bias that caused Evans to probe an incident that both governments wanted to hide. Rather, it was outrage -- born of patriotic fervor -- over the needless death of 34 U.S. Naval personnel that he laid at the feet of Israeli defense forces.
That same outrage had led Evans as a Yale freshman on Dec. 8, 1941, to protest the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor by enlisting in the Marine Corps, taking him to combat on Guadalcanal.
American security was his guiding star. It led him to support U.S. efforts to save Vietnam from communist oppression, though that stance eventually put him in opposition to his friend Robert F. Kennedy. It led him away from his family's ties with Democrats and toward the Reagan Revolution.
He was the life of every party he attended. But behind the charm of a Philadelphia society boy was a tough Marine who loved his country and never wavered in seeking the truth.