Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Remembering Robert Novak

As is often the case, Jack Shafer (I'll have to make it a point to call him and meet him the next time I'm in D.C.) came close to capturing the essence of Robert Novak, who died today at 78, although Ken Tomlinson, from a rather different perspective, offered some good insights as well. Novak was what a lot of us who go into journalism think we would want to be, a real source-working, original reporting kind of guy with a bad attitude and some opinions gained at the school of hard knocks, but few have the persistence or panache to carry it off.

I met Bob Novak a few times, but I rather doubt if he remembered me. In the late 1970s, after I had alienated most every groups in Washington by trying and after three years failing to establish Libertarian Advocate, the lobbying group I formed (and which did do a few things, including being involved in the airline deregulation coalition), I had to take a job as an office-supply salesman, and Evans & Novak were one of my clients -- not a big one but I loved having them anyway. I saw both of them from time to time when I came in to take orders -- Novak usually on the phone with a bemused frown on his face -- but I dealt with their assistant and office supply salesmen are generally pretty invisible.

We attended one Hoover Institution conference together, and he once made a visit to the Register, but our contact was mainly limited to pleasantries. And behind the frown he struck me as surprisingly pleasant. There's something liberating about not expecting much but deception and insincerity from politicians that when accepted can make one -- not complacent exactly but perhaps at least sometimes more amused than constantly outraged at the ongoing hypocrisy.

Many have noted his ideological shift over the years, from being seen as a moderate liberal in the 1960s to adopting an increasingly conservative persona. I think by the end of his life he was close to a libertarian, and his writing was functionally libertarian -- skeptical of politicians and institutions, opposed to the Iraq war, skeptical about Afghanistan and the empire in general, for free trade and liberalized immigration. I haven't read his book, "The Prince of Darkness," though I've been tempted by reviews. I'll probably get it and read it now.

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