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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  • Chris

    Bertrand de Born appears in the Inferno, which is Hell, not Purgatory. He is a “Sower of Discord” in circle 8. If he were in Purgatory, he wouldn’t be there for “all eternity”.

  • Robert

    I haven’t read Dante, but if a soul is standing at the door of purgatory, then he isn’t IN purgatory, he is in hell. Therefore, he could be standing there for eternity, in hell, possibly longing to be in purgatory.

  • David

    Would that reporter please try to grasp the distinction between “society”, the government, and actual people? The injunction to help the oppressed is for actual people, not the government. Why is this difficult to grasp?

  • Julia


    Agree. However, sometimes the existence of “Christian Democrats” as a political party in Europe colors people’s perceptions about that.

    Some of the stuff coming out of the Vatican seems to be from the “Christian Democrats” handbook. It is apparently the default political position for the Curia. Europe tends to see market-based capitalism and the US as Protestant territory. I think Benedict has a more positive opinion of the US, particularly our ability to have many religions and cultures in our midst and still function without huge discord.

    The reporter probably thinks Novak as a Catholic would take his politics from the European Pope and Curia.
    Benedict also sees our version of separation of Church and State as a model for Europe. Presently, European states typically have approved lists of religions and financially support these to one degree or another. At the other extreme, in France they backed themselves into a corner by making the state officially “secular” and antagonistic to religion as a result of their Revolution. Benedict sees us as a better way to go – but we never had religious wars here that influence how European governments deal with religion.

  • Julia

    The reporter probably thinks Novak as a Catholic would take his politics from the European Pope and Curia.

    This sentence was supposed to stand alone at the end.

  • Martha

    And another Dante-fan chimes in with the fact-checking: Bertrand de Born is not “at the door to Purgatory” (that’s Cato, the virtuous Pagan); he’s in Hell, in the circle of the schismatics and heretics (along with Muhammed and Ali, just to stir things up) ;-)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Talk about liberal political theology, typical leftist spin. Conservatives are “Darwinian” and directly opposed to helping the poor and oppressed.
    Presumably it would be a perfect world if the government ran everything (to make sure there are no more poor and oppressed, of course).
    Maybe some day the New Jerusalem will arrive when the government runs our financial institutions, runs our biggest auto companies, controls the banks, passes out marching orders to our doctors and nurses, etc., etc.
    OOPS! we are virtually
    there. Can the Second Coming be far behind????
    We are finally doing what the wise people of Europe did in the 20th Century–Give all the power to politicians that they want. Can our own version of a Stalin (in a more velvet glove) be far behind????
    Or maybe Robert Novak is a real prophet–in the spirit of the American forefather who said: “Eternal vigilence is the price of liberty.”

  • Douglas LeBlanc

    In fairness to Barbara Matusow: She uses the word Darwinian one paragraph before writing this:

    This is, after all, a man who once said on CNN’s The Capital Gang that his Thanksgiving dinner had been ruined by the sight of so many homeless people shown on TV that day.

    “It was a little tongue-in-cheek,” Novak admits. But he’ll be the first to tell you that his views on cutting taxes, shrinking government, and eliminating the welfare state have not changed since he made a turn to the right in the late 1970s. “If anything, I’ve moved further to the right,” he says, “although some people wonder if there’s any room at that end of the spectrum.”

    I think the context indicates that Darwinian refers to Novak’s well-cultivated image as the Prince of Darkness and not merely to his beliefs about welfare.

  • Julia

    So Darwinian implies tough luck for homeless people? As in social Darwinism, I guess.

    There are many people of my acquaintance who are more conservative than me who work at homeless shelters and food banks on a volunteer basis. I wouldn’t consider them Darwinian.