Conservative Columnist Robert Novak Dies At 78

  • Robert Novak, who wrote one of the longest-running syndicated political columns in the United States, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last summer. His wife, Geraldine Novak, said he died Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 78.
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    Robert Novak, who wrote one of the longest-running syndicated political columns in the United States, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last summer. His wife, Geraldine Novak, said he died Tuesday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 78.
    The Washington Times/Landov/Corbis/Getty Images
  • The conservative commentator — shown here in the Senate Press Gallery in Washington in 1958 — got his start as a staff writer for The Associated Press.
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    The conservative commentator — shown here in the Senate Press Gallery in Washington in 1958 — got his start as a staff writer for The Associated Press.
    Henry Griffin/AP/Corbis/Getty Images
  • Novak, shown here in 1966, started writing a column in the early 1960s that was eventually syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times.
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    Novak, shown here in 1966, started writing a column in the early 1960s that was eventually syndicated by the Chicago Sun-Times.
    AP/Corbis/Getty Images
  • Novak sits in his Washington, D.C., office in October 2003, four months after publishing the article that disclosed that Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, was a CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
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    Novak sits in his Washington, D.C., office in October 2003, four months after publishing the article that disclosed that Valerie Plame, wife of former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson, was a CIA operative specializing in weapons of mass destruction.
    Brooks Kraft/Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images
  • Novak talks to reporters after testifying Feb. 12, 2007, in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
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    Novak talks to reporters after testifying Feb. 12, 2007, in the perjury trial of I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney.
    Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/Corbis/Corbis/Getty Images
  • Over the years, Novak became a well-known TV personality as well as a columnist. Here, Novak speaks during a taping of Meet the Press on Feb. 17, 2008, at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C.
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    Over the years, Novak became a well-known TV personality as well as a columnist. Here, Novak speaks during a taping of Meet the Press on Feb. 17, 2008, at the NBC studios in Washington, D.C.
    Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press/Corbis/Getty Images

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Influential conservative columnist Robert Novak, who covered Washington politics for a half-century, died Tuesday morning after suffering from brain cancer. He was 78.

Few Washington journalists had a tougher public reputation than Novak. His friend Fred Barnes, executive editor of The Weekly Standard, described him a few years back as a newspaper columnist who reported quickly and carried a big schtick.

"Well, he's developed a persona — you know, 'the Prince of Darkness' — and he loves it," Barnes said. "The guy who ... always wants tax cuts, and he doesn't want to funnel any money to the poor and so on."

Novak expanded that role on cable news, too — serving as the conservative voice on CNN's long-running political debate show Crossfire. But Novak's tough talk didn't prevent him from amassing a lot of fans, including Jack Germond, the retired liberal columnist for the Baltimore Sun.

"What made us friends all this time was — although we didn't agree on anything — his reporting was admirable. He was on the phone, he was calling people, he was seeing people," Germond says.

Novak started out as a reporter's reporter — first as a high-schooler writing for his hometown paper in Joliet, Ill., then, after a stint in the U.S. Army, for The Associated Press. Once in Washington, he quickly jumped to The Wall Street Journal, and by 1963, he teamed up with Rowland Evans for a political column.

He began as a Democrat sympathetic to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, but drifted to the right and also converted from Judaism to Catholicism. When Evans retired, Novak continued the column on his own.

In July 2003, Novak revealed the identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, helping to trigger the biggest scandal of George W. Bush's presidency. Her husband was a diplomat who had been critical of the Bush administration's push to invade Iraq. Joseph Wilson traveled to Niger for the CIA to investigate a possible nuclear tie with Iraq.

In 2007, Novak told NPR of his conversation with his source, Richard Armitage, then deputy secretary of state. "And he says, 'Well, his wife works at the CIA.' I said, 'She does?' " Novak recalled. "And he said, 'Yes, in the counterproliferation division.' And then he kind of chuckled."

But Novak told NPR he didn't really consider the disclosure a scoop. "I put it in the middle of the story and never thought it would cause this turbulence."

Federal prosecutors found a White House effort to discredit Wilson by exposing his wife. Reporter Judith Miller went to jail for more than 80 days to protect her source, top White House aide Lewis Libby. Libby was ultimately convicted of obstructing justice.

When Novak was questioned about the affair on CNN, he tore off his microphone and walked off the set.

Liberal journalist David Corn of Mother Jones magazine says Novak was an energetic reporter who was nonetheless often manipulated by his sources. Corn, then with The Nation magazine, first questioned whether the disclosure of Plame Wilson's identity by federal officials violated federal law. He says the story damaged Novak's reputation.

"I think to people who've been following politics over the last 10 years, it was an event that came to define him," Corn says.

Last year, Novak was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He retired from his column and withdrew from public view. The journalist Al Hunt reflected Tuesday on the life of his friend, saying it exceeded the best dreams of that cub reporter in Joliet so many years ago.

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