Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Today in 1963, the first Evans-Novak column was published. It raised eyebrows because of its improbable content, and it seems hardly less fantastic when read four decades later. We reported that Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater had formed "a defensive alliance" to block Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon from maneuvering the Republican presidential nomination for George Romney. Considering the Rockefeller-vs.-Goldwater bloodletting the next year, had we blundered badly in our first column?

Not really. The carefully reported story was accurate, but what we called the "Rocky-Barry Axis" collapsed when Rockefeller's candidacy crumbled and he turned against Goldwater. That the maiden effort by the late Rowland Evans and me ventured onto such risky ground reflected a private commitment we made with each other. We were reporters, and we determined that every one of our columns would contain at least one previously unpublished fact -- not just an outpouring of opinion.

We fulfilled that promise (however trivial were some revelations) for the 30 years we wrote the column together until Evans retired and for the 10 years since then. Dwight Macdonald, the leftist journalist, in 1964 wrote that he liked the column's inside political information even though it read as if it were written in the back seat of a lurching taxicab. We were delighted by the review.

The column was given birth by the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of editor James Bellows to save the New York Herald-Tribune after the disastrous New York newspaper strike of 1963. Bellows asked Evans, one of the paper's top Washington correspondents, to write a six-day-a-week column. When Evans protested that was too much for one person, Bellows told him to find a partner. Evans asked me, the 32-year-old lead congressional reporter for the Wall Street Journal who was less than five years removed from the Associated Press regional staff in Washington.

We hardly knew each other, and I left the Journal with some misgivings. A moderate conservative from the old industrial town of Joliet, Ill., I regarded Evans -- an elegant son of Philadelphia's Main Line -- as a friend of the Kennedys, and I thought he was a liberal and a Democrat (in fact, he was neither). We decided to model ourselves after the reporting column of the Alsop brothers, but would offer less opinion. We surely would avoid ideology.

It did not work out that way, as we swept into the tumultuous '60s. Newspapers of May 15, 1963, contained stories signaling the civil rights revolution ahead. The second Evans-Novak column, proving more prophetic than the first, reported that the eclipse of moderates in Birmingham suggested "lethal, combustible elements of the dreaded race riot are near at hand." Soon, we were reporting infiltration of the civil rights movement by far left elements, and the Evans-Novak column soon lost its early "liberal" label.

The Washington of the '60s was neither as polarized nor as partisan as it is today. We were fervent anti-Communists committed to victory in the Cold War, and this was no party issue. The Vietnam War became a focus of our reporting, and between us we made seven long visits to the combat zone. We were so at odds with the anti-war stance of George McGovern in his 1972 presidential campaign that the column then acquired the "conservative" label.

Bashing McGovern did not endear us to President Nixon, who put Evans (but not me) on his enemies list. Even Rowly's friend Jack Kennedy was irked by some of our early work, and no subsequent occupant of the White House has been all that happy with this column.

Indeed, this column has been accused, before and after Evans retired, of being Red-baiter, Arabist, Chinese Communist and U.S. corporate apologist, labor-baiter, homophobe, warmonger, isolationist -- and most recently, unpatriotic conservative. All these are base canards, but they reflect the tensions of our era. The truth is that in every 690-word column, we were reporters.

To achieve the dream of my lifetime at age 32 meant that I have had 40 years to work at what I love. I thank my editors and readers for making this possible for so many years, and I certainly am not done yet.


Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.
 

 
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