My Interview With Robert Novak


by Conor Clarke

Columnist Robert Novak is dead, from a malignant brain tumor, which by most accounts was a pretty terrible way to go. Just about everyone in Washington has a Novak story -- being a Washington institution will do that to you -- and I'm no exception. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a profile of Robert Novak for the Guardian newspaper. This, naturally, called for interviewing him, so I did.

Novak was, to be perfectly honest about it, the least pleasant person I've ever interviewed. He didn't shake my hand upon entering or leaving his office, and expressed fairly open contempt when I asked him a question about the Valerie Plame affair. His response was: "You can't imagine how tired I am of answering those questions." And then he proceeded not to answer the question.

I don't mean to rag on the guy. It wasn't his job to be pleasant -- certainly not to the kind of nervous and uppity young reporter he ate for breakfast -- and I didn't get the sense he tried to give anyone an impression to the contrary. I hope it's fair to say that he embraced the reputation that preceded him, and that the face grew to fit the mask. You don't call your memoir "The Prince of Darkness" if you're hoping to make new friends. (And on the day that I sat down with him I remember, distinctly, that he was wearing the same suit and tie that he wore glowering on the cover of his new book.)

There are many people who think, for good reason, that his career was spotted by ethical lapses -- like trading access for protection (you were, famously, a "source or a target"), or outing sources after they died. Novak was unapologetic about all of that. About his conduct in the Plame affair, he told me: "It's an irrelevant question to ask what I would do if I could do it all over again, because I don't have the chance to do it all over again. It's done."

So he was perhaps a bit of a jerk, but an admirably fatalistic one. The first thing he said to me was this: "I don't watch my words very closely. I'm 76 years old, and I don't have that much time on this earth. There's very little people can do to hurt me, and so I say what I want to say." And, to his credit or not, he did just that.

(Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty)