Robert Novak: Feared political columnist, harsh critic of Israel



WASHINGTON (JTA) — Robert Novak, the conservative columnist whose scoops broke many a career, made his reputation as a journalist by being unafraid to attack his ideological brethren.

The same dynamic underlay the contentious and at times ugly relationship he had with fellow Jews.

Novak died Tuesday in Washington after an extended struggle with brain cancer. He was 78.

His career, which subsided about a year ago after his brain tumor diagnosis, included an influential column written with his colleague, the late Rowland Evans, as well as a ubiquity on a number of talk shows.

Some of his erstwhile political enemies filled the airwaves Tuesday eulogizing him, a practice that might have baffled the irascible giant slayer: He was not above excoriating the recently deceased, including Orlando Letelier, the Chilean dissident assassinated in 1976, or the journalist I.F. Stone, who died in 1989.

Novak’s views were firmly on the right, but it did not keep him from criticizing his political fellows. In 1976, he and Evans unearthed talking points delivered by Ford administration diplomat Helmut Sonnenfeldt that described Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe as preferable to the nationalism that might otherwise have ensued. The revelation helped attach to Ford a reputation for appeasement and set the stage for Jimmy Carter’s victory that year.

More recently, Novak was unsparingly critical of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq, earning him the opprobrium of the war’s defenders.

But it was an effort to defend the Iraq invasion that almost railroaded Novak’s career: He was the first to publish the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame, as part of the Bush administration’s retaliatory campaign against her huband, Iraq War critic Joseph Wilson. Novak’s role in the affair contributed to the end of his long CNN career.

Novak was born to Jewish parents, but said he never felt particularly connected to the faith.

“The family was not very observant,” he told CNN in 2005, describing his upbringing in Joliet, Ill.

“My father had never been bar mitzvahed and his father was not a very good Jew, but I was bar mitzvahed,” Novak said.

He cooperated in 2003 with the Washingtonian magazine in a feature about his conversion to Roman Catholicism five years earlier, and said that although he joined a Jewish fraternity in college, he was turned off by Judaism.

“I found the same thing in Judaism as a young boy as I did later in the Unitarian Church and then at the Episcopal Church,” he said. “They seemed very ungodly. The clergymen seemed very secular.”

Following his conversion, U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) reportedly quipped,  “Well, we’ve now made Bob a Catholic. The question is, can we make him a Christian?”

Novak’s distaste for robust Judaism was, perhaps, most manifest in his review of David Frum’s 2003 book describing his experience speechwriting for President George W. Bush.

“While Frum calls himself ‘a not especially observant Jew,’ he repeatedly refers to his Jewishness,” Novak wrote in the American Conservative — an unusual broadside for a figure who was not shy when describing his conversion to Catholicism. “It is hard to recall any previous presidential aide so engrossed with his own ethnic roots. Frum is more uncompromising in support of Israel than any other issue, raising the inescapable question of whether this was the real reason he entered the White House.”

Frum counterattacked with an article that named Novak as one of a community of “unpatriotic conservatives.” He cited Novak specifically as the first to suggest, in his  Sept. 13, 2001 column, that the U.S.-Israel friendship was a motivating factor in the terrorist attacks on the United States two days earlier.

Novak’s attacks on the pro-Israel community repeatedly veered into the conspiratorial; he helped purvey the notion that the Iraq War was fought in Israel’s interest. He also was a rare mainstream voice endorsing the widely rejected claim that Israeli forces had intentionally attacked a U.S. naval ship in the Mediterranean Sea during the Six-Day War in 1967.

In his 2008 autobiography, “The Prince of Darkness,” Novak credited Evans with reporting and writing their columns that criticized Israel.

“But,” he quickly added, “my name appeared on every one of them and I agreed with my partner. The issue was just not on the top of my priority list, then or now.”

When he did return to the subject in the years following Evans’ retirement and subsequent death, Novak did so most often because of his concerns over the fate of Palestinian Christians. He formed an alliance of sorts with a fellow Catholic from Illinois, the late U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who in his capacity as chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Relations Committee made Palestinian Christian relief a central cause.

An April 2007 Novak column gave voice to Israel’s arguments that the security barrier has reduced suicide attackers. But he also noted that “Bethlehem’s mayor, Victor Batarseh, has a special problem because tourists and pilgrims no longer stay overnight in the city of Christ’s birth. Out of money and credit, he is ready to lay off the city’s 165 staffers.”

Several times in his autobiography, Novak wrote about what he described as the efforts of pro-Israel critics to get newspapers to drop his and Evans’ syndicated column. Novak claimed that shortly after being told by the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger in 1975 that advertisers were complaining about Evans and Novak’s “anti-Israel” reporting, the newspaper dropped their syndicated column.

“It was one of about a hundred newspapers that we lost in a surprisingly short period of time,” Novak wrote. “Whatever the reason — and I had my suspicions — we never built back our base.”

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