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Columnist Robert Novak Dies at Age 78

BY Tom LeGro  August 18, 2009 at 2:28 PM EST

Robert Novak in 2007; Wikimedia Commons

His wife of 47 years, Geraldine Novak, told the Associated Press that he died at his home in Washington, D.C. Novak was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2008.

“He was someone who loved being a journalist, loved journalism and loved his country and loved his family,” Geraldine Novak told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday. The newspaper had been the columnist’s home since 1966.

Novak also was long known as the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire.” He joined the cable news channel in 1980 as a political analyst. He also founded and was executive producer of CNN’s “Capital Gang” and appeared regularly on CNN’s “Inside Politics.” He left CNN in late 2005 and signed a contract with rival cable news channel FOX News.

Syndicated columnist and NewsHour regular Mark Shields, who often sparred with Novak on CNN political roundtable shows, said he was ” an incredibly loyal and generous friend” despite their frequent differences of opinion.

“Long after people had lost their position of power, their value as a source, Bob Novak was their constant friend,” Shields told the Online NewsHour.

In August, Novak announced his immediate retirement from television and the Chicago Sun-Times after learning he had cancer.

In recent years, Novak became a central figure in the Valerie Plame-CIA leak case. In 2003, Novak was the first to publish the name of the CIA employee, and he came under heavy criticism for that column, which Novak said began “a long and difficult episode” in his career.

The column was published eight days after Plame’s husband, former special envoy Joseph Wilson, said the Bush administration had twisted pre-Iraq war intelligence to exaggerate the Iraqi threat of weapons of mass destruction.

Citing two Bush administration officials, Novak revealed that Plame worked for the CIA. That blew her cover as an operative and led to the investigation of who leaked that information and eventually to the conviction of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.

In 1963, Novak teamed up with Rowland Evans to create “Inside Report,” a syndicated political column that lasted 30 years. Evans retired in 1993, and Novak continued to write the column until his brain tumor diagnosis in July.

Dubbed the “Prince of Darkness” by a journalist friend early in his career, Novak wrote in his 2007 memoir that he became proud of the label derived from his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.”

“Bob was always the pro,” Chicago Sun-Times editor-in-chief Don Hayner told the paper. “No matter what he had going on, he was always at the ready to help out on stories, and he broke more than his share. Even as he became a national figure, he was always proud to be part of the Sun-Times. And we were proud of him.”

Even though Novak often encouraged his reputation as “Prince of Darkness,” he was anything but in his personal relationships, according to Shields.

“As a political reporter, he had very few equals and no superiors,” Shields said. “He was tireless, relentless and as smart as they come.”

Shields said Novak’s success as a columnist was due to the fact he did not lose his reportorial instinct. He regularly courted junior staffers, not just the power brokers they worked for, to become sources.

Novak’s last appearance on CNN was a memorable one: After swearing on the air, he walked off the set during a political debate with Democratic strategist James Carville in August 2005. Novak quickly apologized, but CNN never let him back on the air.

Although he became known as a staunch conservative, Novak often differed with conservatives on many issues, expressing doubts about invading Afghanistan and frequently criticizing the war in Iraq.

“I’m told that President George W. Bush has not liked my criticism, particularly of his Iraq war policy. But the president is a compassionate man, and he telephoned me at 7:24 a.m. on Aug. 15, six minutes before I went into surgery,” Novak wrote in one of his last columns on Sept. 7, 2008.

Novak is survived by his wife, a son Alex, 41, and a daughter Zelda, 44.