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Published: Monday, 8/24/2009

Farewell, dark prince

THERE was a time when the must-read Washington-based political column was Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's Inside Report, which ran in hundreds of papers, starting in 1963.

After Mr. Evans retired in 1993, Mr. Novak continued on, writing the column alone, but also attracting a vast new audience as a cranky, increasingly conservative commentator, the self-styled "Prince of Darkness" on cable television.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Novak died at 78 of the brain tumor that had forced him into retirement last year. Though at the end people mostly either greatly loved or hated him, his record was in fact mixed - and a telling commentary on what journalism has become.

The early Bob Novak was a sometimes abrasive but talented shoe-leather reporter, who loved to turn up scoops regardless of where the ideological chips fell. He married one of Lyndon Johnson's secretaries.

But in later years, he became not only increasingly conservative and strident but ethically suspect. He admitted to giving misleading descriptions of sources quoted anonymously. And though other reporters were prosecuted for refusing to reveal their sources in what was nicknamed "Plamegate," it was in fact Mr. Novak who revealed in 2003 that Valerie Plame was a CIA agent.

Not only did it ruin Ms. Plame's career, it exposed Mr. Novak as little more than a shill for Karl Rove and the Bush administration, who used him to settle scores with Ms. Plame's husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, for revealing that the administration had distorted intelligence reports about Iraq.

That sad episode will forever mar Mr. Novak's career, which, in its early stages, was nothing short of brilliant. Almost nobody analyzed politics better in the mid-1960s than he. It shouldn't be forgotten that it was Mr. Novak who broke the news in 1978 that Deng Xiaoping was interested in closer ties to the United States, wrote the best book on the GOP's 1964 catastrophe, and, with Mr. Evans, wrote a first-rate biography of LBJ.

It seems likely that had cable TV not existed, far fewer people would know Robert Novak. But it's also true that his journalistic reputation would stand a little taller had he not evolved, at the end, into more a performer than a reporter.



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