My Friend, the Prince of Darkness
By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. In 1996, I came to Washington as the new liberal co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” to do battle with Bob Novak. And I did, hammer and tongs, almost every night, for six years. But, along the way, I also became his friend.
His nickname was “The Prince of Darkness,” but Bob never complained about it. In fact, he relished it and he earned it, with every scowl and cutting remark. In those “Crossfire” days, Bob and I often went on the road together as a traveling dog and pony show. I used to begin every appearance by telling the audience: “I know the first question on everyone’s mind: Is Bob Novak as obnoxious off the air as he is on the air?” Bob would laugh out loud when I said: “The answer is yes!”
For me, each “Crossfire” show with Bob was a challenge, because he was the sharpest, toughest, best-prepared, and sometimes meanest, debater one could ever face. He might seem warm and fuzzy during show prep, but once the lights went on, he was a tiger.
At the same time, I learned a lot from him. I learned, first of all, that being a good journalist takes a lot more than just showing up, getting makeup on, and preening before the camera. Becoming a serious journalist is a lot of work. And, right to the end, Bob Novak was, without doubt, the hardest-working journalist in Washington.
Indeed, I didn’t realize until I read his memoir, “The Prince of Darkness,” how long and how hard he’d been working the Washington beat. He came to Washington in 1957 as a string reporter for the AP, soon made his mark, and never slowed down. When I joined him at CNN, 40 years later, he was still writing five columns a week, doing three TV shows a week on CNN, in addition to frequent guest appearances, writing a weekly newsletter with Rowland Evans, and giving two or three speeches a week.
In between, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, he was working his sources. Novak had more and better sources than anybody in Washington, because he worked them, thanked them, and never double-crossed them. He was truly the last of Washington’s tireless, fearless, hard-digging, shoe-leather reporters. He also produced perhaps the last quintessential column, one that actually included real reporting and real news, not just one writer’s opinion.
From Novak, I also learned that liberals were too quick to endorse an American war, especially when launched by a Democratic president. No matter who was in the White House, Novak believed the use of force should be reserved for direct threats against this country and not for unnecessary displays of military strength around the world. And he was consistent. The first Gulf War under Bush 41, the bombing of Bosnia under Clinton, and the War in Iraq under Bush 43: Novak opposed them all.
He was a true conservative, even a paleoconservative. But Novak was never a party man. He was fiercely independent. Unlike many commentators today, he wouldn’t consider leaving journalism to work in government. Indeed, he prided himself on never having been invited to. His advice to young people was: “Always love your country — but never trust your government.” Good advice to live by.
Yes, I regret that he allowed himself to be used by George Bush and Dick Cheney in their nefarious plot to wreck the careers of Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. In this case, I believe, his zeal to break a big story clouded his usually strong suspicion of government leaks. The irony is that Novak couldn’t resist reporting what he saw as a hot news item, even though it had been leaked by Richard Armitage and confirmed by Karl Rove to help build the case for a war, which he personally opposed. But that one mistake on his part does not negate or diminish a long career as one of America’s best journalists.
Many of us who worked with Bob Novak learned a big secret about him: that under his gruff exterior beat a big and generous heart. He was a man of deep faith who loved life, his family and his friends. And I was lucky to be one of them.