There were things to admire about Robert Novak, who died today at 78. He was a hard-working reporter long after the age when most journalists have left the field. He was not afraid to be unpopular, which is a deeply impressive quality. He had a loving family. His friends, some of whom I count as friendly acquaintances, say he was actually a nice guy or not as unnice as he seemed. I feel for him, suffering through a brain tumor, which seems like as bad a way to go as any.
But there was a lot in Novak not to like, a mean gruff manner visible to anyone on TV, a stiletto pen that seemed more about destroying than illuminating. I disagreed with his politics but it wasn't his politics which were infuriating. It was his arch, cutting style that made him one of the journalists I wanted to avoid becoming. It was his behavior in the CIA leak case that made me think still less of him.
Our lives were famously entangled. Shortly after Novak published the name of Valerie Wilson--or Valerie Plame as he identified her by her maiden name--I wrote a piece for Time called "A War of Wilson?" Novak had acted as a transmission belt for the malevolent leakers who sought to trash former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had the temerity to criticize the war and report that he had been to the African country of Niger at the behest of the CIA where his wife worked. My piece noted that the trashing of Wilson continued. My goal was not to serve as an open mike for the leakers--which Novak did--but to show them up.
The rest is First Amerndment history. A special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, was appointed to pursue who leaked Plame's identity since exposing her could be a crime. While a slew of journalists--myself, Tim Russert, Judith Miller, Walter Pincus, Bob Woodward and others--would be caught up in the case, a constant refrain was What Happened to Novak?
Miller was jailed for 85 days until she divulged her source, Scooter Libby, who granted her permission to speak. I avoided prison because Libby and Karl Rove also gave me permission to talk. But all along Novak said nothing, for two years he maintained a Greta Garbo like silence. No one knew why he wasn't in legal and mortal jeopardy until long after the case was over, when he revealed that he had cooperated with the prosecutor from day one.
The decision to become a government witness isn't an easy one and in the end, every journalist involved in the case became one. So Novak's sin wasn't the cooperation but his total unwillingness to tell his readers, and those of us facing jail, what he had done. On one level, it's amusing that Mr. Tough Guy caved without putting up any kind of fight. But on another it's just disheartening that he could go for so long without answering the basic question about whether or not he was cooperating. According to Novak he chose to remain silent because the prosecutor had asked him to and because his lawyer advised such. But all of us in the case were asked by Patrick Fitzgerald to keep quiet and we were under no such obligations, which is why I wrote two first hand pieces about the case here and here. A prosecutor must keep grand jury testimony a secret. A participant need not. My lawyers thoroughly believed that our case would have been strengthened had we known whether Novak had testified. Novak chose not to share that little tidbit with his readers or the other journalists suffering through the case--the case, really, that he started by disclosing the name of a CIA operative. Throughout the case he pooh poohed the moral implications of what he had done, made it seem as though Plame was a clerk when, in fact, the CIA thought enough of her outing that they brought a criminal referral to the Department of Justice and denied that the CIA tried to wave him off writing about her. The case was demoralizing for everyone involved but it seemed worse because of Novak's failure to disclose his role until it was all over.
Novak's worthy of a good biography. His life spanned the rise and fall of modern journalism. His own career was multiplatform long before it was cool. His religious journey from Jew to Protestant to Catholic is interesting and there are a ton of source materials to work with. I hope someone writes it. I'm glad though it won't be me.