Robert Novak was a sour man. He had a fixation on three-piece suits and capital gains tax cuts. Novak often spat when he talked. He must have been thoroughly unpleasant company if you did not agree with him philosophically. These factors made him ripe for satire. Robert Novak looked and acted like a Dickensian villain come to life. But there was more to him. Robert Novak, despite the high quotient of funny that he brought to any conversation, was not evil. He was, I believe, a good, if misguided man.
The Prince of Darkness lacked a natural empathy at the outset for the poor, the weakest members of the human society. It is not inconceivable that the virtues that make a good Republican -- that go-go competitive edge, the high productiveness, the aggression -- they come at the expense of human empathy and compassion. Could that be why George W. Bush -- a born-again Christian -- touted, often, a "compassionate conservatism" on the campaign trail and throughout his Presidency? Did he intuit that robust libertarianism is as imbalanced, philosophically, as the liberty crushing, ultra-egalitarianism of the left? I believe so. Novak, aware of that natural weakness in his personality, never tired of seeking a more harmonious sense of being. That, I think, is what made Novak ultimately a good man. He was aware of his deficiencies, and he worked to correct them. How many people at that age work to change their lives? Late in his life, Novak became a Roman Catholic. That, I think, is in itself an heroic gesture. Most people stop growing -- or stop giving a damn about growing -- after middle age. The sour, disharmonious souls who scream -- pink faced -- at Town Hall meetings are a testament to that sad truism.
But Robert Novak was different. Through his discovery of Roman Catholicism, Robert Novak tried to offset his natural sourness towards the weak and society's less fortunate. This from CatholicOnline, on his conversion process:
"A friend gave Novak Catholic literature after he came close to dying from spinal meningitis in the early 1980s. About a decade later, the columnist's wife, Geraldine, also not a Catholic, persuaded him to join her at Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Washington. The celebrant was a former source of Novak's.
"Father Peter Vaghi, now Msgr. Vaghi and pastor of the Church of the Little Flower in Bethesda, Md., was a former Republican lawyer and adviser to Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. He had been a source for the Evans and Novak column that Novak wrote with Rowland Evans.
"Novak started to go to Mass regularly, but it wasn't until a few years later that he decided to convert to Catholicism. The turning point, as he recounts in his book, happened when he went to Syracuse University in New York to give a lecture. Before he spoke, he was seated at a dinner table near a young woman who was wearing a necklace with a cross. Novak asked her if she was Catholic, and she posed the same question to him.
"Novak replied that he had been going to Mass each Sunday for the last four years, but that he had not converted.
"Her response -- 'Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever' -- motivated him to start the process of becoming a Catholic through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. He was baptized at St. Patrick's Church in 1998. His wife was also baptized a Catholic."
Catholicism added a missing dimension to Novak's personality. It lifted him beyond a hard materialism that, in his case, made him an almost comically cruel political commentator. That sense of metaphysics led him to work with fellow "bleeding heart conservative" Jack Kemp on a rather strange -- but politically interesting -- collaboration to bring Louis Farrakhan's fringe group of disenfranchised Americans into the Republican party. Catholicism clearly worked a miracle in making Bob Novak care about poor African-Americans.
One cannot memorialize the life of Robert Novak without noting that he was a tremendous reporter. His scoops were legendary. Especially during Republican administrations -- Reagan's, in particular -- his inside information and contacts were second to none. To be sure, Novak's column was used by Republican administration officials with an agenda. But like any good journalist, Novak tried to provide context. This blog quoted his column often and we will miss the extremely inside information that he brought to light.
I am not a religious man, so I will not attempt to predict the future of Novak. But here, on this planet, his legacy will be that of a solid journalist, an interesting human being, a searcher after the Truth, a man who tried to be compassionate -- even though it was not a natural component of his personality -- and an advocate for growth and wealth.
May he rest in peace.