By Elizabeth Jensen
When Robert D. Novak died Aug. 18 at the age of 78 from a malignant brain tumor, his rueful prediction came true: The journalistic uproar he unleashed late in his career by disclosing the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame Wilson dominated his obituaries.
The 2003 controversy — which brought down I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff — overshadowed other aspects of Novak’s career, including his pioneering role in cable television.
The syndicated newspaper columnist appeared on CNN — with his longtime writing partner, Rowland Evans — from the cable network’s first week in 1980. Perfecting in subsequent years the role of in-your-face TV punditry, Novak helped spawn a genre that was well suited to cable networks with unlimited air time trying to grab viewers’ attentions.
He became a co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire” in 1985, and founded CNN’s “The Capital Gang” in 1988 after a falling out with John McLaughlin, host of the similar broadcast TV shout-fest, “The McLaughlin Group.” (His feuds were legendary: Fellow TV pundit Mort Kondracke once called Novak “the troll under the bridge of American journalism.”)
Born in Joliet, Ill., in 1931, Novak began his professional journalism career at the Associated Press, eventually landing in Washington, D.C. He jumped to the Wall Street Journal then joined forces in 1963 with New York Herald Tribune correspondent Evans, who was as cool and collected as Novak was contentious. Their widely distributed column, “Inside Report,” broke news. When CNN launched, “Evans and Novak” (later, “Evans, Novak, Hunt and Shields”) became a fixture.
Evans retired in 1993, and died in 2001.
Novak, conservative and contrarian, proudly wore his nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” which he appropriated for the title of his 2007 memoir. But his outrageousness got the better of him: In 2005, under pressure from his Plame disclosure, he got in a verbal fight on CNN’s “Inside Politics” with Democratic strategist James Carville, uttered an expletive and stormed off the set. He never appeared on CNN again, and later became a Fox News Channel contributor.
In August 2008, Novak disclosed the brain tumor. He is survived by Geraldine, his wife; a son; and a daughter.