Robert Novak finds peace

Late last year I thought about blogging on a Q&A with Robert Novak in Washingtonian magazine. Now, with Novak's death after a long battle with brain cancer, I've found that the reporter in that Q&A, Barbara Matusow, also deserves credit for recording one of the best quips about Novak. Matusow did this in a remarkable -- and at times painfully candid -- 5,000-word profile published in the June 2003 Washingtonian. She describes Novak's baptism at St. Patrick Catholic Church in downtown Washington:

The ceremony, in May 1998, was mostly a solemn affair. In the course of it, Novak, then 67, was baptized, confirmed, and received his first Holy Communion. "It was an exhilarating experience," he says, "one of the great moments of my life. I thought I was in a different dimension."

The solemnity lifted for a moment when Monsignor [Peter] Vaghi said how privileged they were to witness the transformation of the "prince of darkness" into a "child of light."

After the ceremony, Senator Moynihan quipped, "Well, we've now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?"

It was a clever remark. Everybody laughed when it made the rounds at the reception at the Novaks' apartment. But even Bob Novak's good friends have wondered how he reconciles his Darwinian, take-no-prisoners conservatism with the biblical injunction to help the poor and the oppressed.

In both the profile and the Q&A, Matusow spends considerable space on Novak's often withering opinions about the politicians he covered. His respect and scorn for politicians were not predictable: His wedding reception was at the home of President Lyndon Johnson, and Novak referred to President Nixon as "the worst -- a vicious little man."

The profile also revealed that Novak chose a transgressive role model when he was a college student: Bertrand de Born. ("He raided other people's castles, killed, and caused tumult. In The Inferno, Dante places Bertrand de Born at the door to Purgatory, with his severed head in his hand, where he is condemned to stand for all eternity because in life he was a stirrer-up of strife.")

Novak did not discuss his faith at length in either piece, but what he did say indicated a man for whom conversion was a conscious change in worldview. He grew up Jewish, never felt much interest in Judaism, attended Unitarian and Episcopal congregations, and ultimately chose Catholicism.

This is my favorite paragraph, in which Novak reflects on his decades-long career with Rowland Evans:

Rowly once gave me a very elegant description of what it was we were doing. He said we were trying to intercept the lines of communication. Looking back on my life, I regret I was so determined to do that. I ended up writing a lot of political trivia, which really made my reputation. I think when people stop me now and say they miss my column, what they're talking about is the behind-the-scenes trivia -- the kind of thing that made me acceptable to people who disagreed with me. But I think I would have been better off to write about tax cuts and abortion and less about inside politics.

Both of Matusow's articles are worthwhile reading for people who want to see beyond his image of, to quote Matusow again, "Scrooge in a three-piece suit."

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