Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Robert Novak, Long-Time Conservative Columnist, Dies at 78

Robert D. Novak, 78, an influential columnist and panelist on TV news-discussion shows who called himself a "stirrer up of strife" on behalf of conservative causes, died today at his home in Washington of a brain tumor first diagnosed in July 2008.

Mr. Novak's "Inside Report" syndicated column, shared for 30 years with the late Rowland Evans, was important reading for anyone who wanted to know what was happening in Washington. Mr. Novak and Evans broke stories about presidential politics, fiscal policy and intra-party feuds. Their journalism, which reported leaks from the highest sources of government, often had embarrassing consequences for politicians.

In recent years, Mr. Novak was best known for publicly identifying CIA operative Valerie Plame. His July 14, 2003, column was printed days after Plame's husband, former U.S. ambassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, publicly claimed that the Bush White House had knowingly distorted intelligence that Iraq tried to obtain uranium from Africa.

The column triggered a lengthy federal investigation into the Plame leak and resulted in the 2007 conviction of a top vice presidential aide, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, for perjury and obstruction of justice. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby's prison term.

Mr. Novak was accused by prominent journalists of being a pawn in a government retribution campaign against Wilson. Mr. Novak, who had called the U.S. invasion of Iraq "unjustified," denied the allegation.

He wrote that his initial column was meant to ask why Wilson had been sent on a CIA fact-finding mission involving the uranium. Then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage mentioned Plame's CIA position to Mr. Novak, and Bush aide Karl Rove confirmed it.

In a 2006 column, Mr. Novak wrote that Armitage "did not slip me this information as idle chitchat. . . . He made clear he considered it especially suited for my column." Armitage told The Washington Post that his disclosure to Mr. Novak was made in an offhand manner and that he did not know why Plame's husband was sent to Africa.

Mr. Novak lamented that the Plame story would "forever be part of my public identity" despite having written columns he said were more important.

Until the Plame controversy, Mr. Novak had largely been known as a strong anti-Communist in his foreign policy views. He also was an leading advocate of supply-side economics, a belief that tax cuts would lead to widespread financial prosperity.

David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union lobbying organization, said that Mr. Novak helped transform supply-side economics from a fringe idea into a tenet of President Ronald Reagan's economic policy. Keene called Mr. Novak "a giant of the profession" who "gave respectability and visibility to conservative ideas and positions in the 1970s, when they were mostly dismissed."

Mr. Novak was a congressional reporter for the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal before he teamed with Evans in 1963 to write a Washington-based political column for the old New York Herald-Tribune. "Inside Report" ran in almost 300 papers nationally, including The Post. Mr. Novak continued the column after Evans's retirement in 1993. Evans died in 2001.

Focusing on political intrigue rather than starchy analysis, they had an immediate effect with news about Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater's likely nomination as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964.

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