45 Years of Columns

Robert Novak

5/15/2008 12:01:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On May 15, 1963, the late Rowland Evans and I published our first column. That makes today (Thursday) the 45th anniversary (the first 30 years under the Evans & Novak byline) of the nation's longest-running current syndicated political column. It achieved that distinction Feb. 27 with the death of William F. Buckley Jr., whose column started 13 months before ours.

Buckley was a conservative icon and political leader whose column was not the most important of his many endeavors. I am merely a journalist whose principal activity those 45 years has been writing a column based on reporting. Evans and I determined that each column would contain previously unpublished information, and I still attempt that. Rowly called it "intersecting the lines of communication," through tricks of a reporter's trade but also leaks.

A column exposing secrets can draw more attacks than ideological rants would. I have been branded "unpatriotic" by conservatives and a "traitor" by liberals. My most notorious leak was the 2003 revelation to me that Bush critic Joseph Wilson's wife worked for the CIA and arranged his intelligence mission to Africa. While far less important than many of the column's exposures, the reaction's vituperation was unmatched.

The Evans-Novak column originally was designated "liberal" by the National Review 45 years ago. Evans was an intimate of the Kennedys, and I had voted for John F. Kennedy. When Evans and I paid a 1963 courtesy call on Richard M. Nixon to tell him about our new column, he advised against expected Democratic bias and urged us to give Republicans an occasional break. Although Barry Goldwater had been one of my best sources, the column's tone was considered anti-Goldwater during his 1964 presidential campaign.

There is no disputing that the column and I moved steadily rightward in subsequent years, but always based on reporting. The column's hard line on Vietnam reflected annual trips by Evans and me to the war zone, where we concluded the conflict was not winnable the way it was being fought. Three decades later, I opposed military intervention in Iraq based partly on my reportage that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. After that, I no longer was invited with other conservative journalists for special White House briefings.

Benefits and pitfalls of my method are reflected in the first column 45 years ago today, "The Rocky-Barry Axis." It revealed friendly collaboration between the Republican Party's opposite ideological poles: Sen. Goldwater and New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Like many of my "scoops," it proved ephemeral. When Rockefeller's presidential campaign slumped, he turned against Goldwater.

The second Evans-Novak column on May 16, 1963 ("Twilight of the Moderates"), on the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, Ala., cast a longer shadow. It revealed that the Kennedy administration "worked hard to postpone" Martin Luther King Jr.'s campaign in Birmingham, without success. Based on our reporting, the column correctly predicted "lethal, combustible elements of the dreaded race riot are near at hand."

I today continue shoe-leather reporting -- but with limitations. At age 60, I stopped entering war zones. I still occasionally go on the campaign trail, but not nearly so much as in past years. (When I would board a press bus during the 2008 primary season, reporters some 50 years my junior would gaze at me as though Banquo's Ghost had entered their midst). Nevertheless, at age 77, my principal professional endeavor is to find out what is happening behind the scenes in politics and government.

The longevity record of 57 years for syndicated political columnists is held by David Lawrence, whose life and column ended in 1973 when he was 84. Like him, I would like to die in the saddle without retiring. But Lawrence, founder of U.S. News & World Report, had done little reporting since he covered President Woodrow Wilson for The Associated Press. I cannot write a column without reporting, and hope I can continue to do so and newspapers see fit to print me so that I can celebrate my 50th anniversary. In case I don't make it, however, I thought it proper to note 45 years of columns.