Robert Novak dies at 78; syndicated columnist and TV commentator

Columnist Robert Novak speaks during a Washington taping of NBC's "Meet the Press" in July 2007.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Robert Novak, the longtime syndicated columnist and television commentator who was at the center of a furor late in his career as the first journalist to disclose the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, died Tuesday. He was 78.

Novak died at home in Washington after battling brain cancer, his wife, Geraldine, said. He had been diagnosed in July 2008.

Novak obituary: A sentence in the obituary of columnist and TV commentator Robert Novak in Section A on Aug. 19 contained some errors. In referring to Novak’s disclosure of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, the sentence said: “After taking a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson concluded that the African nation had no ‘yellowcake’ uranium, dousing administration claims —which Bush had mentioned in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had been purchasing material from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction.” The conclusion by Wilson, Plame’s husband, was that Iraq had not attempted to buy the uranium from Niger. And President Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address attributed to the British government the claim that Hussein had sought uranium from Africa.

Novak’s Plame column for July 14, 2003, set off one of those perfect Washington storms, in which White House officials, famous journalists and CIA sources became part of a courtroom spectacle that was played out in the world’s media.

Before it was over, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the controversy had exposed journalists’ coziness with official sources and tarnished the reputations of two key administration figures -- political guru Karl Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- who confessed to leaking Plame’s identity to reporters. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby’s 2 1/2 -year sentence.


Even more telling, the controversy exposed the president’s men as so preoccupied with selling the war in Iraq that they were willing to compromise Plame’s position at the Central Intelligence Agency in an effort to discredit her husband, a former U.S. envoy to Baghdad who had become a critic of the war. After taking a CIA-sponsored trip to Niger, former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson concluded that the African nation had no “yellowcake” uranium, dousing administration claims -- which Bush had mentioned in his 2003 State of the Union address -- that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had been purchasing material from Niger to make weapons of mass destruction.

Eventually Plame left her job at the CIA, and she and her husband settled in Santa Fe, N.M. As for Novak, he continued writing the column he had started with partner Rowland Evans in 1963. After months of silence -- on the advice of his lawyers, until Rove and Armitage released him from his journalistic obligation to keep their identities confidential -- he defended his actions and his reputation.

“Judging it on the merits, I would still write the story,” he said in his 2007 memoir, “The Prince of Darkness.” Noting that there was no debate about the column’s news value or accuracy, he added, “I broke no law and endangered no intelligence operation. Mrs. Wilson was not a covert operative in 2003 but a desk-bound CIA analyst at Langley, Va.”

But given all the heat -- and the tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees -- that the case produced, Novak said, “I probably should have ignored what Armitage told me about Mrs. Wilson.” Denying that he had enjoyed the notoriety, Novak said: “Those three little sentences resulted in a series of negative consequences for me. They eventually undermined my 25-year relationship with CNN,” on which he co-hosted “Crossfire” and appeared on “The Capital Gang,” “and kept me off NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ for two years. I had to pay substantial legal fees. I came under constant abuse from journalistic ethics critics, from some colleagues and especially from bloggers.”

Robert David Sanders Novak was born Feb. 26, 1931, in Joliet, Ill. At the University of Illinois he skipped classes his senior year, expecting to pass enough exams to win a degree. But the university decreed that he had fallen one hour short in his course work. Years later, after he had become a public figure, university officials conferred a degree in 1983, finding an excuse in his physical education course work.

Hooking up with Associated Press in Nebraska and Indiana after college, Novak covered sports, then news. Taking assignments more senior reporters disdained -- “It took more elbow grease and chicanery than cerebral brilliance,” he said -- Novak gained notice. When Associated Press in Washington needed a replacement on its Midwest desk, he got the call.

That was in 1957. Soon came a gig at the Wall Street Journal. And then, in 1962, the partnership with Evans, a fellow journalist who was as patrician as Novak was hardscrabble, as much a part of the Washington establishment as Novak was not. Evans, then 41, played the gentleman reporter; Novak, 32, the scruffy rookie. They eventually won syndication in many major newspapers and prominence as a good source of information on the cable television talk shows just beginning to turn political discourse into shouting matches.

They began with CNN when the network launched in 1980, hosting “Evans and Novak.” Derided by liberal critics as “Errors and No Facts,” Evans and Novak were actually more reporters than commentators and had their share of scoops.

In their first column in 1963, they predicted that Barry Goldwater, then considered a long shot, would win the Republican nomination the next year. In 1972, they quoted an anonymous Democratic senator as saying that George McGovern’s presidential campaign was doomed because the candidate favored “amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot.”

They were the first to report that President Nixon had chosen Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin as secretary of Defense. Novak reported from battlefronts in Vietnam and Nicaragua, and was given sit-down interviews with world leaders such as China’s Deng Xiaoping.

He got his nickname “Prince of Darkness” from friend and fellow journalist John Lindsay of the Washington Post and Newsday, who was struck by Novak’s pessimistic view of the future of Western civilization.

Novak once described his journalistic philosophy this way: “To tell the world things people do not want me to reveal, to advocate limited government, economic freedom and a strong, prudent America -- and to have fun doing it.”

After Evans retired in 1993, Novak continued the column and was a regular on several CNN shows. He kept the column going online even after he officially retired in the summer of 2008, shortly after his diagnosis.

Evans died in 2001.

Besides his wife of 47 years, Novak is survived by their son, Alexander, and daughter, Zelda Caldwell, and eight grandchildren.

In an interview in 2007, Novak predicted with regret the first line in his obituary, lamenting to PBS’ Charlie Rose that his Plame column was “a very minor story compared to some of the big stories that I have had. But . . . that’s going to be in the lead of my obituary, and I can’t help it.”

Neuman is a former Times staff writer who contributes to the Top of the Ticket blog.