The influential conservative columnist Robert Novak has died. Novak wrote about Washington politics for a half century. He died this morning at the age of 78 after suffering from brain cancer.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Few Washington journalists had a tougher public reputation than Robert Novak. His friend Fred Barnes is the executive editor of the Weekly Standard. A few years back, Barnes described Novak as a newspaper columnist who reported quickly and carried a big shtick.

Mr. FRED BARNES (Executive Director, The Weekly Standard): Well, he's developed a persona - you know, the Prince of Darkness - and he loves it. You know, the guy that - he always wants tax cuts, and he doesn't want to funnel any money to the poor, and so on.

FOLKENFLIK: Novak expanded the role on cable news, too.

Mr. ROBERT NOVAK (Host, "Crossfire"): All right. I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of "Crossfire."

FOLKENFLIK: 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.

Mr. JACK GERMOND (Retired Liberal Columnist, 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.

FOLKENFLIK: Novak started out as a reporter's reporter - first as a high-schooler writing for his hometown paper in Joliet, Illinois, 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. Her husband was a diplomat who had been critical of the Bush administration's push to invade Iraq. 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, then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

Mr. NOVAK: And he says, well, his wife works at the CIA. I said, she does? And he said, yes, in the counter-proliferation division. And then he kind of chuckled. I put it in the middle of the story, and I never thought it would cause this turbulence.

FOLKENFLIK: 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 the story damaged Novak's reputation.

Mr. DAVID CORN (Journalist, Mother Jones): I think to people who've been following politics over the last 10 years, it was an event that came to define him.

FOLKENFLIK: 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 today on the life of his friend Robert Novak, saying: It exceeded the best dreams of that cub reporter in Joliet so many years ago.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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