Remembering Bob Novak

Bob Novak hired me away from HUMAN EVENTS in late 2001. “Poaching,” HE Editor-in-Chief Tom Winter called it. I was not the first early-20s reporter Novak would pluck from HE’s newsroom. Nor would I be the last.

Work for us Novak reporters, in addition to writing the Evans-Novak Political Report, consisted of doing “the opposite of research,” as I put it. Rather than trying to find an answer to a question Novak had — he had another staffer for that — we would try to dig up scoops, leads, and unreported nuggets to feed him.

That Novak would hire a leg-man to go around Washington sniffing out news reflected the virtue at the heart of his work: His columns, while they resided on the op-ed pages, were built upon previously unreported facts that revealed and explained the machinations of government, the men and women in power, and the politics behind it all. His job demanded he get a constant flow of new information, but curiosity and a thirst for knowledge were natural traits for him.

Bob Novak was, above all, a reporter.

Watching him work was a delightful education in reporting.

In 2004, I was chatting with Novak at a conservative dinner at the Willard Intercontinental in downtown D.C. when Ralph Reed approached. Novak greeted Reed, introduced me, and began trading pleasantries, but within one minute the conversation had somehow become an on-background interview — I noticed this, but I’m not sure Reed did, because of the subtlety with which Novak deflected any questions back at Reed and steered the conversation away from himself.

It was a remarkable trait to find in a professional pundit so successful and so opinionated: Novak might have been the best listener I’ve ever known.

His disinterest in spouting his own political opinions off the clock sometimes disappointed his fans.

I remember a Baltimore Orioles game in 2004. Novak invited me to join him and gave me two extra tickets. I took my friend Sean Rushton — a conservative who shared Novak’s enthusiasm for supply-side economics — and Rushton’s wife. Repeatedly, Rushton plied Novak with questions about the economy or the tax code. Novak grunted off the questions and replied with comments about Rodrigo Lopez’s change-up or questions about the Orioles’ base-running.

Frustrated, Rushton got up to buy a beer, at which point his wife mentioned to Novak that her father was a racecar driver. This, it turns out, was Novak’s fantasy job. Sean returned to see his wife and Novak engaged in a lively discussion about auto racing.

Novak, of course, was also a conservative. Although always close to the conservative movement, even when he was big enough that he didn’t need it. Novak was always independent in his thought. At times the conservative movement has been less tolerant of dissent within the ranks. I was working for him in 2002 and 2003 when Novak stood against President Bush and the Iraq War.

Novak’s stance led some of the more bellicose writers in the movement to assail Novak’s character. Neoconservative writer David Frum wrote a cover story for National Review on the eve of Bush’s invasion of Iraq, calling Novak, together with Pat Buchanan and other opponents of the invasion, “Unpatriotic Conservatives.”

I saw the effect this had on Novak. More than anything, it saddened him. It hurt his feelings that old friends joined Frum in turning their backs on him. But he was also saddened about the state of the conservative movement. Such intolerance of dissent and debate — and such disdain for conservatism’s roots in a humbler foreign policy — would become a weakness for conservatives and the Republican Party, Novak correctly foresaw.

For many of us, though, Novak’s resistance to the calls for conformity, his constant openness to new ideas and facts, and his willingness to change his mind set a crucial example.

His most important change of heart was his late-life conversion to Catholicism. Brought up a secular Jew, and having lived seven decades as an agnostic, Novak entered the church in his 60s. When I went to work for him, I was considering entering the Catholic Church as well. Novak pointed me to the priests who helped answer my remaining questions and cement my faith.

Novak would often tell aspiring journalists to pick a different field if their goal was to change the world. But, by simply aiming to inform and to do his job as well he could, Novak changed the lives of his readers and those of us blessed to work with him.