I couldn’t help but think back a few years after reading about the recent death of conservative newspaper columnist and former CNN “Crossfire” co-host Robert Novak at age 78.
The journalist known as “The Prince of Darkness” came to Wingate in 1997, one of many prominent figures brought to our campus by the school’s most prominent former student, U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., over the years.
The guest list, as you might imagine, usually skewed to the political right — then Vice-Presidential candidate Bob Dole, ex-Vice President Dan Quayle, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, as examples. But the names also included the Dalai Lama and then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, so the speakers helped accomplish what a good university should do — expose students to a variety of viewpoints, including ones they won’t agree with. It’s called education.
But back to Novak. On that visit to Wingate, the Senator graciously gave some of our Communication Studies majors some time with him before his lecture that evening.
Novak took his nickname from a combative public persona and, he said in his memoir, his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western Civilization.” His appearances on the CNN shows like “Crossfire” and “The Capital Gang” were great theater. He once said he gave politicians the choice between being a source or a target. Not every reporter can make that work for them.
But the man who spoke to my students couldn’t have been nicer. He spent nearly an hour talking with them about politics, the state of journalism and — with the young man who was our student newspaper’s sports editor — University of Maryland basketball. Turns out he was an avid fan of the Terrapins.
I remember asking him a question related to something I had heard him discussing a few days earlier with his fellow panelists on the most recent edition of “The Capital Gang.” Someone was kidding him about his being registered to vote as a Democrat. Knowing his background, that didn’t seem likely, and I wondered if it was all a joke.
Turns out it wasn’t. Novak resided in the District of Columbia, where at the time you didn’t have much choice if you wanted to vote in local elections. With little significant Republican opposition, the candidates who won the Democratic primary generally were elected. And if issues that affected his home and family were going to be left to liberals, Novak said, he at least wanted to have some say in choosing them.
In his last years, Novak made the news in a way that he would have preferred not to. In 2003, he wrote a column which outed a woman named Valerie Plame as a CIA agent. Plame was married to former diplomat Joseph Wilson, who had accused the Bush administration of twisting intelligence information to exaggerate the threat posed by Iraq in the months before the U.S. invasion.
The investigation to determine who leaked the information to Novak resulted in the perjury and obstruction of justice conviction of then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, Richard “Scooter” Libby.
“I had a terrific time fulfilling all my youthful dreams and at the same time making life miserable for hypocritical, posturing politicians and, I hope, performing a service for my country,” Novak wrote in his memoir, “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.”
Whether or not you agreed with his politics, he was a presence. You could also say that about the recently-departed Walter Cronkite and another influential journalist who died this week, “60 Minutes” creator and producer Don Hewitt.
All three were larger-than-life journalistic figures — a breed which, sadly, is disappearing.