When people learn that for nearly 40 years — including more than 17 spent disagreeing, often heatedly, with him on CNN's weekly "Capital Gang" — that columnist Robert Novak has been my good friend, they often shake their heads in disbelief. In 30 years of covering American politics, the most frequently asked question I get about any journalistic colleague has remained the same: What is Bob Novak really like? This is a question people do not generally ask me about Nevada governor Jim Gibbons or the secretary of the army.
In this week, when we learned that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor so serious that he is ending, after 45 years, his widely read and influential syndicated column, let me try and answer that question.
In Washington, D.C., a city notorious for front-runners where too many of us in and out of the press corps, pursue the company of the currently popular and prominent, Novak is a shining exception. He is loyal and devoted to old friends who long ago lost their position, their power and their professional usefulness. You can count on it: If you are Bob Novak's friend, you are Bob Novak's friend.
He hates to lose. Whether it's a bet on politics or sports or just an argument. Nobody works harder. Novak has always been a reporter first. Although he had access to national leaders, he did not — unlike so many of his competitors — pretend that a long lunch with a cabinet secretary was a substitute for reporting.
An anecdote: In recent years, the American conservative farm system has produced a bumper crop of bottle-blond right-wing women whom you cannot avoid on cable TV. One of these vixens, notorious for her blatant flattering and flirting with older, powerful men who might help her, batted her baby-blues and turned her charms on Novak one day. I overheard her pitch that went like this, "Bob, you are truly my idol. I want to be just like you. What one piece of advice can you give me to some day achieve what you have achieved?" Unmoved, Novak told the young Samantha Glick what she did not want to hear: "I would recommend doing what I did, starting as an AP reporter covering the Nebraska state legislature."
As he wrote in his riveting and refreshingly candid autobiography, "The Prince of Darkness," he learned well on that Nebraska tour that it "paid to be friends with low-level staffers." He has done the same in Washington. When he first interviewed me in the late '60s, I was a widely unknown campaign manager and, by nobody's definition, a well-placed source.
Bob has never pretended to be objective. I often kid him that his cure for declining Sunday school attendance or a national epidemic of halitosis has always been the same — Cut the capital gains tax! That tax-cutter's zeal may explain Novak taking too seriously an altogether unlikely presidential candidate like multimillionaire Steve Forbes.
Most people generally seek to put on a public face more appealing than the less attractive reality of their private personality. Bob Novak is the total opposite. His public "game face" is a scowl. He looks about as happy as an orange-suited prisoner on an Alabama chain gang sent to pick up roadside litter on a 100-degree August day. While Novak can be prickly, he is far more likeable — with a truly wonderful smile — in private than he is in public. We have argued about the misimpression he creates with his over-the-top declarations endorsing economic Darwinism. Bob Novak, it will pain his critics to learn, is an exceptionally generous human being whose acts of charity are literally countless.
His conversion to Catholicism has been a great source of strength, comfort and confidence. All I can say is that I count myself fortunate to call this talented, loyal man, Bob Novak, my friend.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.