Robert Novak recently sat down with Barbara Mutasow of the Washingtonian magazine for a deeply personal interview. This article was first published in the November 2008 issue of The Washingtonian magazine.
Whether you like him or hate him, Robert Novak's combination of insider dope, political pronouncements, and glowering TV presence have made him a Washington institution. So the announcement in July that he was suspending his newspaper column because of a brain tumor came as a jolt. What other journalist has been tearing up the town with so much relish for the past 51 years?
I spent some time with Novak five years ago for The Washingtonian, chronicling his journey from secular Jew to devout Catholic. Somewhat to my surprise, the scowling, sardonic columnist turned out to be a peach of a subject. He gave me plenty of time in spite of his killer schedule and seemed utterly candid. No subject was off limits.
Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that he was putting me on at times, making himself sound more misanthropic than he really was. I finally concluded that the pose -- Scrooge in a three-piece suit -- was manufactured to make him into a memorable TV personality, which it did. It also made him rich.
The last decade has dealt him some blows. Rowland Evans, his column-writing partner for 30 years -- whom he eulogized as a brother -- died in 2001. Novak's opposition to the war in Iraq left him alienated from onetime friends like Bill Kristol and William Rusher. On top of that came the Plame affair, in which he revealed the identity of CIA analyst Valerie Plame Wilson -- an episode he said cost him $160,000 in legal fees, spelled an end to his career at CNN, and subjected him and his family to threats.
Then, last summer, after hitting a pedestrian with his Corvette and suffering three seizures, he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to a year to live.
Knowing how ill he was, it was with some trepidation that I asked to talk with him, but he readily agreed. I found him sitting in the living room of his comfortable apartment on Pennsylvania Avenue not far from the Capitol, thinner and a little frail after brain surgery and daily doses of radiation and experimental drugs.
Admirers will be glad to hear that he has not mellowed. He is as pugnacious as ever, although he expressed frustration at not being able to pick up the phone and report the way he used to. Even so, he says he's planning a sequel to "The Prince of Darkness," his 2007 autobiography, and looking forward to the day when he can get back to work.