After Brain Surgery, He's Still The Same Old Robert Novak

I wouldn't wish a brain tumor on my worst enemy, and the conservative columnist Robert Novak, whom I've never met, is certainly no enemy of mine, even though I disagree with most of what he writes. But, having said that, I must point out that his latest column, written while he's recuperating from brain cancer surgery, shows that while Novak can be exceedingly gracious to people who helped him through his ordeal, especially those on the other side of the political divide, he can still be spiteful and deceptive when it comes to those he doesn't like.

As ill as he is, the 77-year-old Novak still has it in for Valerie Plame, whose career as a covert CIA officer he destroyed by publishing her name and employer, and Plame's husband, Joe Wilson. Wilson charged that a Novak column in July 2003 was part of a White House attempt to retaliate against him for disputing Bush's claim--later retracted-- that Iraq had sought uranium from the African country of Niger, one reason the president gave for invading Iraq.

In a syndicated column published last weekend, Novak tells how he learned he had the cancerous tumor, what he's done about it, and who helped him. The headline over his column in the Tampa Tribune sums it up nicely: "Finding A Brain Tumor, Discovering Friends."

Some background: on July 23, driving his Corvette in downtown Washington, Novak hit an 86-year-old pedestrian at a crosswalk and kept going. He was flagged down a block away by a bicyclist who chased him, told him what he'd done, and called police. Novak said he didn't realize he'd hit anyone. "I never saw him," he says in his column.

The cyclist, David Bono, a partner in a law firm, said he didn't believe Novak. "There was a pedestrian splayed on his windshield--I don't think there is any way you can miss that." Another eyewitness, Gary Cohen, didn't either. "I did not believe Novak did not see or feel the impact. I don't know how anyone could."

But apparently the cop did believe the columnist. He gave Novak just a $50 fine for failing to give the pedestrian the right-of-way, instead of charging him with leaving the scene of an accident, a felony. Novak says in his column that police who took his victim to the hospital noted that the man had "no visible injuries." Perhaps not, but the victim, who lives in a homeless shelter, suffered a dislocated shoulder that had to be reset, and spent a few days in the hospital, something Novak fails to tell us.

Over the next few days, Novak tells us, he and his family got more indications that something was seriously wrong with him. He lost his way to the dentist's office, and had trouble finding his own. After he had difficulty following his wife at an airport, his daughter insisted he go to a hospital, where a CT scan revealed a brain mass. The next day, while visiting the daughter and her family in Massachusetts, he had three seizures and was hospitalized, diagnosed, and told he had six months to a year to live.

Bolstered by his Catholic faith (he converted from Judaism 10 years ago), Novak says he consulted the California oncologist who had successfully treated him for lung cancer in 1994. That doctor recommended the surgeon who had operated on Senator Edward Kennedy for a cancerous brain tumor earlier this summer, Dr. Alan H. Friedman at Duke University Medical Center. It is interesting to read the names of the people the conservative columnist names as most supportive in his time of trouble.

My dear friend, the Democratic political operative Bob Shrum, asked Sen. Kennedy's wife, Vickie to call me about Dr. Friedman, I barely knew Mrs. Kennedy, but I have found her to be a warm and gracious person. I have had few good things to say about Teddy Kennedy since I first met him at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, but he and his wife have treated me as a close friend. She was enthusiastic about Dr. Friedman and urged me to opt for the surgery at Duke, which I did.

"The Kennedys were not concerned by political and ideological differences when someone's life was at stake," Novak continues. He also says that liberal journalist Al Hunt "has become a close friend, though we disagree about almost everything," and that Hunt and his wife, PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff, "have been staunch pillars of support during this ordeal."

Novak says his tumor was removed and he's back home but "of course, cancer cells remain, requiring a rigorous regimen of radiation and chemotherapy," at a Washington hospital. The surgeon urged him to try to restore part of his normal life. That, he says, is why he wrote the column.

Novak talks of "an outpouring of good will for me...from all sides, including political figures who had not been happy with my columns." One was President Bush who phoned him a few minutes before surgery. This, despite the fact that Bush "has not liked my criticism, particularly of his Iraq war policy."

Among his enemies are "mad bloggers who profess to take delight in my distress." And he names two other people: "Joe and Valerie Wilson, attempting to breathe life into the Valerie Plame 'scandal' issued this statement: 'We have long argued that responsible adults should take Novak's typewriter away. The time has arrived for them to also take away the keys to his Corvette.' Thanks to my tumor, the Wilsons have achieved half of their desires. I probably never will be able to drive again, and I have sold the Corvette, which I dearly loved. Taking away my typewriter, however, may require modification of the First Amendment."

Those awful, cold-hearted Wilsons. Sounds like while everyone else, including all those liberals, were supporting Novak through his ordeal, the terrible Wilsons were ruthlessly attacking him, doesn't it? "Despicable duo," wrote one commenter on a right-wing blog. "Of excrement, the Plame-Wilsons surely are the smelliest," cried another. "An ugly attack by two liberals," wrote a third.

The trouble is, Novak is distorting the truth. The Wilsons made their statement on July 23, the day Novak hit the pedestrian and would have kept going if he hadn't been stopped. His denial sounded ridiculous in the face of the eyewitness accounts. Then he got off with a $50 fine, instead of being charged with a felony. Those were the facts when the Wilsons made their statement. It sounded like a classic case of Washington at work. A famous, powerful person does something bad, hurts someone, breaks the law, and gets off easy.

According to his own account, Novak wasn't diagnosed with a brain tumor until four days later. And he didn't make that fact public until a fifth day, July 28. So there's no way the Wilsons could possibly have known that his illness, which has left him partially blind, was the reason for the accident. But Novak never points that out and blames them anyway.

In any case, the last people in the world who could be expected to cut Novak some slack were Joe and Valerie Wilson. Novak published Plame's name, forcing her resignation, even after CIA information officer Bill Harlow pleaded with him not to do so, warning it could cause problems for her. The CIA asked for the Justice Department investigation of the leaking of her name. And documents, including a statement cleared by then-CIA director Michael Hayden, made it clear beyond question that Plame was a secret CIA officer. That statement said in part:

During her employment at the CIA, Ms. Wilson was undercover. Her employment status with the CIA was classified information, prohibited from disclosure under Executive Order 12958. At the time of the publication of Robert Novak's column on July 14, 2003 [which revealed Plame's identity], Ms Wilson's CIA employment status was covert. This was classified information. Ms. Wilson served in senior management.

In his successful prosecution of vice presidential chief of staff Lewis (Scooter) Libby in the ensuing scandal, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald supported Wilson's claim that public disclosure of Plame's identity was White House retaliation against him. Fitzgerald told the jury: "a critic points fingers at the White House and as a result his wife gets dragged into the newspapers."

Maybe now it's just his illness talking. But Robert Novak still seems to be trying to take revenge on the Wilsons.