Criticizing the recently deceased is as rude as punking the Queen of England at an official event: it's bad form both in terms of timing and reasonable respect.
As a journalist, I know I should revere Bob Novak, whose death from brain cancer was announced this morning, almost as much as the genuflecting and genuinely saddened colleagues are now doing on his alma mater, CNN. I doubt this mourning will reach Cronkite proportions, but Mr. Novak did have lots of influence over many years, was seemingly fearless in his views, straddled print and broadcast reporting successfully and made it nearly fashionable for TV guys to have combovers (see: David Gergen.)
Someone noted in one of the black-bordered eulogy TV segments this morning that he was called "The Prince of Darkness," not by his enemies but by his friends because of his contacts and his power to move the D.C. discussion. I remember once being at dinner in a capital steak house when Bob Novak came in. He had that invisible wake around him that surrounds celebrities, that sense that the molecules in the room bend when someone famous arrives.
There was a line-up to shake his hand, adulation he accepted graciously but that seemed to make him grow larger and more luminescent with each fawning comment.
But the Darkness thing reminds me of a very different Novak moment.
I was covering the bloody conflict in El Salvador in the late '80s. I'm not an either/or person, generally, and I had good relations with colonels on the right and guerrillas on the left. As in most of real life, the situation was more complicated than slogans or sound bites.
So I go to a disinterment of a couple of murder victims on the dusty outskirts of town. The grave re-diggers were, as they mostly were for these things, drunk, so it took a painfully long time. The few of us who were witnesses had to put some kind of cloth over our noses and mouths because there's nothing as horribly ripe as a decomposing human body.
The two dead men had been buried hastily in a shallow grave. Their thumbs were tied together behind their backs and there were other infamous signatures of a Salvadoran death squad hit that are too gruesome to describe even for this blog. The fact that the victims were seen being hustled into a Cherokee Chief with smoked windows, the signature Death Squad vehicle of choice, and that they were leftist labor organizers made it clear what was up. (The guerrillas had their own killing apparatus, but it was mostly aimed at mayors in rural villages.)
Once they were dug up and carted off for more examination, I left, the stench of the grim, hazy afternoon event still in my nostrils. I was sure it was also on my clothes and in my pores. How could such a vital and vile thing not be?
I went to my rented house in the Escalon district of Salvador and slumped in a chair in front of an old TV set with rabbit ears. At certain times in the late afternoon, if the weather was just right and you fiddled with the antennae, we could get a few minutes of CNN.
There was Robert Novak, screaming at someone -- probably Michael Kinsley on "Crossfire" -- like an enraged health care town hall meeting participant: "Death squads in El Salvador is a liberal MYTH!"
I haven't been accused of being a liberal all that much, and, as Christiane Amanpour said so wonderfully in Iraq, "Wolf, I can only tell you what I can see," but I can tell you reliably that Salvadoran death squads were as real as Scooter Libby and Evans and Novak.
At the time, I wanted to reach through the TV screen and strangle the guy into sensibility. Or have the two tragic dead men delivered, without benefit of makeup, on his front lawn.
It wasn't a liberal-conservative thing. Death squads were a fact.
Whatever else Bob Novak did well, even superbly in his professional life -- a great deal, I don't doubt -- at that moment he did a huge disservice to the truth and to the memory of thousands of people who died violently, painfully and without justification in El Salvador.
Now, please let's return to our ritual of respectful remembrance.
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