Thursday, August 20, 2009

Personal Aside: Bob Novak—Brilliant and an Anomaly.


I first met Robert Novak when I was in deep trouble with the Nixon administration (where I was the newly-named assistant commerce secretary in charge of minority business development). None of my ideas (liberal then: you must remember that I was at the time an urban lefty liberal) were going through but I had sneaked through an historic one which has plagued the nation ever since—section 8(a) which guaranteed that government contracts go to a portion of minorities who qualified with the end-date of 10 years hah! I had in mind nothing less than a revolutionary…albeit private-public sector like Comsat…institution. Nobody in Nixonland was interested because Strom Thurmond, architect of the Southern Strategy, had warned the president that favoritism to blacks would destroy his compact to get Nixon reelected and Republicans solidified in the South.

I decided to go over the heads of the Nixon people and make my case to the nation via the country’s most widely-read newspaper column, Evans & Novak. Of the two men, Evans and Novak, I knew Evans better at the time since he had married into a wealthy Minnesota family with whom I had good connections…so I decided to leak the thing to Evans. Quite soon it was apparent that Evans was disinterested since his forte was to be foreign policy—so he referred me to Bob.

I knew Bob had deep Chicago connections, having been born and reared in Joliet, Ill. At that time people took Bob as the liberal half of the writing team (Evans, a country club patrician was not in the slightest interested in blacks). The minute I sat down with Novak we became fast friends because of his insuperable knowledge of the personalities and temperaments in the Congress with which I was dealing. We hit it off. Moreover, Bob developed a passionate interest in getting minorities off the dole and into the private sector even if it took federal monies to do it.

Together Bob and I crafted his column for Evans & Novak. You must remember that at the time there was no cable TV, no talk radio and all of Washington unfolded the Post every morning with an abiding desire to find out what Evans& Novak had discovered the night before. Bob Novak wrote it almost as if I had dictated it (come to think of it, I virtually HAD). The column rattled all the windows of the Nixon administration including those of the Oval Office It said that I had a plan that was better than anyone else’s to redeem Nixon’s Black Capitalism pledge and that I wasn’t getting a hearing. Moreover it contained a sly threat, concocted by me, that if I were to be removed from office the aspirations of the black community for reform would be dashed. The column gave the program…and me…greater visibility that I had had before and led me to form a compact with Jack Javits, the New York liberal Republican senator. The Nixons were in awe of Javits because he was the key to liberal New Yorkers gritting their teeth and supporting Nixon.

In the months that passed, the Nixon people…Haldeman and Ehrlichman et al…were paralyzed, not knowing what in the hell to do with me. Before the column, it was a sure thing that I would be transferred somewhere else but I had said I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t going to resign but that I would have to be fired right on the spot. Now the prospect of me being fired immediately was doused.

That was my introduction to Bob Novak. The crisis passed for me and I went back to Quaker Oats where I was made veep in charge of government relations…and thereafter started a long association of me leaking Chicago stuff and conferring with him on occasion—plus Quaker paying him (very well) to make speeches analyzing politics and public policy for our board. I signed up for his Evans & Novak forums which featured the two of them interrogating brilliantly key players in the `70s, `80s and `90s. Drinks, dinners usually followed—although Rowlie Evans usually had a more important Georgetown cocktail party and dinner to go to. Bob liked steak and we would do the town on occasion.

Analyzing Bob, I found that I had somehow blundered into friendship with an intellectual who took great effort to hide it…burying his love for ideas into his avocation for the University of Maryland basketball team, among other things. I found myself rather dismayed with Bob’s foreign policy. His pro-Palestinian views for one thing and his deep suspicion that a tie with Israel was the worst thing that could happen. Kate O’Bierne once described it to me…she later became his spiritual godmother when Bob embraced the Catholic Church…as being that of a self-loathing Jew—but I didn’t agree with her. Bob was the embodiment of what we call paleo-politics in the Republican party but he hid it well: a kind of retreat to Fortress America where we would not have to be bothered by alliances at all…not unlike that of Pat Buchanan. But this never matriculated in his writing: he was a reporter first and could spot weaknesses in the Republican party’s firmament as well as the Democrats’. I found him to be a devotee of Ronald Reagan—for his economic Supply Side policies rather than Reagan’s foreign policies. At one dinner with him, he was very critical to me of Reagan’s speech “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” He felt it was the kind of arrogance that this country should exhibit.

His marriage was rock-solid; his kindnesses were legendary. You simply must read his autobiography published a few years ago “Prince of Darkness.” His conversion to Catholicism was surely as idealistic as have been other legendary conversions: G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman. I was stunned that in so short a time, Bob developed an insight into Catholic teaching that was almost unexampled among Catholics I knew. The conversion started with a thunderbolt quite out of the blue. He had developed a talk on politics to a university group and was shaking hands with people who gathered to congratulate him and ask him questions. One of those was a young college girl who said quite unanticipated: “Mr. Novak, have you ever thought of what is going to happen to you when you die? In essence, have you given any thought to your spiritual life?”

The question rocked Novak as none other had. No one had expressed that concern for him in quite that way—not even his wife Geraldine. It must have been like Saul at Damascus for him, so involved in political thinking that he was overwhelmed. So being Bob Novak, he went straight to a brilliant source—that of Fr. C. J. McCloskey, a priest of Opus Dei who ran the Catholic Information Center in Washington and who was responsible for a number of conversions of Bob’s friends including the economist Lawrence Kudlow (like Bob an unobservant Jew). McCloskey gave Bob the book “Triumph,” a history of the Church by Harry Crocker who has made no effort whatsoever to whitewash. Bob’s reaction was typically Novak-ian. Any church that can survive the echelons of evil human beings who temporarily occupied positions of power in it must be divine. Then he read about the great saints—Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Francis—and was convinced. So while he called himself the Prince of Darkness he became for all of us the Prince of Enlightenment.

Once a Catholic, Bob resolved to be the very best one extant and I am convinced that just as the Church has not known of or appreciated some of its saints…having not canonized them officially…there are many out there who had led exemplary lives of great purity, spirituality and courage. Thus I am saying that in my estimation, Bob was an un-canonized saint with a spiritual depth I hope to cultivate myself one day…if God allows me the time. I went to Mass with him when he spoke at Legatus (a group of Catholic business execs) in Park Ridge and was impressed with his deep intonation of all the responses to the Mass celebrant…this only a matter of weeks following his conversion. So while the secular world celebrates him as a sterling reporter, I believe for the short time that I knew him following his conversion to death, he was truly an un-canonized saint…a saint all of us are called upon to be…with courage. In fact I can readily see him as one of the earliest Christians, marching to death to the lions with a song on their lips.

For the signal virtue that Bob had was courage: courage exhibited many times as a journalist. And in his last years, Bob had truly come home. I imagine that for him death was a beautiful thing—which it was meant to be for us. God love him, cherish him and see that he has everything a good journalist has in heaven. I know that since his death I have started praying to him. And believe that with Bob up there I may have found a truly spiritual conduit to which I can readily leak my supplications as I did my Illinois tips when he was the nation’s preeminent political journalist.

1 comment:

  1. TOM:
    Thanks for that wonderful column on Robert Novak. Thanks to you, somehow we all know the real Bob Novak a bit better.