Novak's Witness

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Sep 05, 2007 12:01 AM
Novak's Witness

There are many startling scenes in Bob Novak's autobiography, "The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years of Reporting in Washington." In one of them, Sen. John F. Kennedy, then running for the Democratic presidential nomination, offers Novak a ride from Wisconsin back to Washington on his private plane. When the plane lands, Kennedy asks Novak where he lives and then offers to give him a ride home. "It was a wild ride," writes Novak, "with the senator driving his convertible at breakneck speed and looking at me out of the corner of his eye to see how frightened I was."

Another memorable scene features the drunken Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson, also a candidate for president, who literally dances with Novak in the ballroom of the National Press Club before Novak and a journalistic colleague escort the future commander in chief downstairs and load him into a taxi.

"Bob, I like you," the inebriated Johnson said, "but you don't like me."

Stories like this did not make the newspapers in 1960. But these and many others from Bob Novak's five decades of observing life in the nation's capital do make it into "The Prince of Darkness."

Yet, one of the more startling scenes in Novak's book has nothing to do with politics or politicians. It happened in 1996, when Novak visited Syracuse University to deliver a lecture co-sponsored by the Young America's Foundation and the College Republicans.

Before the lecture, Novak had dinner with the students sponsoring the event. One was a young lady wearing a cross. Novak says his memory is that he asked her if she was a Catholic. He believed she said yes. She asked him in return, if he was one.

"No," Novak said, "but my wife and I have been going to mass every Sunday for about four years."

"Do you plan to join the church?" she asked.

"No, not at the present time," Novak said.

At this, Novak reports, the women said, "Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever."

That, Novak says, put him on the final stretch of a road that led him to a religious conversion.

"Sometime during the short night before rising to catch the 7 a.m. flight back to Washington, I became convinced that the Holy Spirit was speaking through this Syracuse student," he writes.

Ever the reporter, Novak double-checked his own memory before committing the story to ink in his autobiography. His staff tracked down the person who most likely sat across the table from him at that dinner more than a decade ago. She was not Catholic, and she did not recall the incident. "Although I can't help but think that I may have made such a comment," she reported back in an email.

When he saw a picture of her, Novak was sure she was indeed the woman who had spoken to him. "That she had forgotten what she had said to me only confirmed my belief that the Holy Spirit was speaking through her," he writes.

Cynics may be incredulous that a famous Washington political reporter could be so profoundly influenced by a few words uttered by a college student who doesn't remember them. In fact, Bob Novak's reporting of this episode in his own life demonstrates the quality that makes him a great reporter: relentlessness in the pursuit of truth.

Early in his book, Novak writes that his only ambition in life was to be a journalist. That was and remains a noble ambition, and it is one Novak has fulfilled with unique excellence -- even when turning a reporter's eyes on his own remarkable life story.