Last fall, just before the election, Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, visited conservative columnist Robert Novak at his home in Washington, D.C. Keene took his longtime friend his usual gift — a brace of wild ducks he had shot.
At the time, polls were showing Barack Obama in the lead. Despite the brain cancer that this week would claim him, Novak was jovial. Keene asked him why.
“Well, my Democratic friends think they’ve died and gone to heaven,” Novak said. “If they’d been around as long as I have, they’d realize that it isn’t heaven. And they don’t have a permanent invitation to stay anyway.”
If Novak was prescient, he was also “truly a seeker of truth,” says Keene, who first got to know Novak when Keene asked for a correction to one of his columns. As a conservative leader of Young Americans for Freedom, Keene had met with President Nixon for an hour to share his thoughts and would later be hired by Vice President Spiro Agnew as an aide. With his partner Rowland Evans Jr., Novak ran an item saying that Keene had met with Nixon after being dispatched by conservatives to get Nixon to “shut up” Agnew, who was acting as an attack dog for the administration.
“I go home, and my phone starts ringing on Sunday morning with my friends telling me what a jerk I am,” Keene says. “Somebody says, ‘Go look at the paper.’ I was a 23-year-old kid, but I called information, and Novak lived in Maryland, and he was listed.”
Keene went over what he actually discussed with Nixon, points that had nothing to do with Agnew and his attacks on the press and liberals in general. Two days later, Novak called Keene back.
“Well, kid, I still think my story’s right, but I have to admit my source had no way of knowing,” Novak said. “So I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll retract next Sunday.”
After that, Keene and Novak became friends.
During his 52 years covering Washington, if there was one thing Novak could not tolerate, it was a liar. Keene recalls that one of Novak’s sources was a senator who was about to be named chairman of the Democratic National Committee when Lyndon Johnson was president. When Novak asked the senator about the report, he denied it. Novak’s column reported his denial.
“As the column was being read, his appointment was announced,” Keene says. “And from that point on, for the next year or so, Novak trashed the DNC on its bookkeeping and other issues.”
Eventually, the man asked to have lunch with Novak, saying, “Look, so I screwed up. What do I have to do to make it right? We’ve always been friends.”
In reply, Novak said, “You didn’t screw up; you lied. And the only currency anyone in politics has is his word. The only way you can make it right is to get out of politics.”
“That was really Novak’s view,” Keene says. “You could be anything you wanted, but you couldn’t lie.”
Novak’s friends included liberals as well as conservatives. One was former ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, who introduced Novak at a Conservative Political Action Conference run by Keene two years ago. Another was Robert McCandless.
“Every presidential campaign has sort of a wunderkind, and Bob McCandless was the wunderkind of the 1968 Hubert Humphrey campaign,” Keene says.
On the evening of the 1968 election, “McCandless was in a steak house drinking too much, and at the next table was Novak,” Keene says. “And he began taunting Novak about the election, saying Hubert Humphrey was going to win, and the Democrats were going to have a great night. Novak wasn’t a partisan at that point. So Novak finally said, ‘You want to bet, kid?’ And he said yes, and so they made these bets.”
The next morning, McCandless woke to find that Richard Nixon had won, and that he owed Novak several thousand dollars. McCandless went over to see the columnist in his office.
“Mr. Novak, it’s going to take me a while'; I don’t have the money right now, but I’ll pay you off no matter how long it takes,” he said to Novak.
Novak never looked up from his desk. ‘“See that you do, kid,” he responded.
McCandless eventually made good on the debt.
“From that point on, he was one of Bob Novak’s closest friends,” Keene recalls. “And you always knew that if you wanted to get something in the column, and there was no other way to do it, McCandless could talk to Bob.”
Novak became known as the “Prince of Darkness,” the title of his 2007 memoir. As he described it in his book, the nickname derived from his “unsmiling pessimism about the prospects for America and Western civilization.”
While Novak relished the moniker and was known for his bluster, “If you knew him, he wasn’t that way at all,” Keene says. “He was one of the nicest people that ever walked the earth.”
Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of Newsmax.com. View his previous reports and get his dispatches sent to you free via
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