By Betsy Rothstein - 03/29/06 12:00 AM EST
Bob Novak is a blend of charming and repellent. Just when he seems likable, he starts to snarl — it’s just his way, nothing personal.
You should see his hate mail, which he says has grown “really vile,” from viewers and readers who wish him a painful death or hope his house burns down.
There are guidelines for interviewing the “Prince of Darkness,” as he is nicknamed. The day before we are to meet, Kathleen Connolly, his secretary, who is conservative pundit Pat Buchanan’s sister, phones to say I’m not to mention Valerie Plame, the CIA agent whom the syndicated columnist outed in 2003. If I do, the Prince will end the interview.
So be it.
Novak’s office on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House suits him. The lobby is elegant, but the office is not. It’s small, cramped, disheveled. Its resident looks as though he’s just blown in from a gale, even though the day is sunny and clear. His white hair is in perpetual motion, with a tuft flying about. His extra-bushy eyebrows are at odds — one up, one down.
Novak, 75, in black trousers, a white button-down shirt and black suspenders over an ample gut, says, “I don’t do any exercise. None. I don’t like to exercise. I don’t think it’s necessary. A lot of people think it’s necessary. I think it shortens their lives.
“It’s one of the problems with the world today. People spend too much time exercising and not enough time thinking.”
Novak is set to release a memoir this summer. The manuscript is complete, but it’s twice as long as it should be and he needs to whittle it down.
What could he write that hasn’t been written about him?
“Washington’s changed a lot,” he says, looking back over the 50 years he has covered politics here. “I’ve changed a lot. I’ve gotten more conservative. I’ve gotten more thoughtful and analytical.”
Excessive humility isn’t a problem for Novak. Among his more endearing qualities is that he doesn’t hide how he feels. In one caricature and photograph after another hanging haphazardly on the walls, he’s obviously bored, happy, bored, grim, bored and delighted.
Shortly into the interview, the angrier side of his personality kicks in as we discuss his dropping the F-bomb on CNN last year, which prompted the network to suspend him. Eventually, the network dropped his shows. His profanity wasn’t what got him fired, he insists.
“I wanted to leave,” he says. “They canceled all my programs. They wanted me to leave.
“It was a foolish thing to do. I lost my temper. I didn’t want to be on with James [Carville] in that format. I was aggravated by the stupid thing he said.”
Now a contributor on the Fox News Channel, Novak says no one has warned him against profanity on air. He says he has a “much lower profile” at Fox and reasons, “At my age I think I should be doing less work.”
Novak gets irritated and asks why the F-bomb is brought up: “It’s ridiculous to dwell on this after years of TV with heated arguments. It was hardly a regular or ordinary procedure on my part.”
So how often does he get angry?
“I lose my temper a lot,” he concedes, a glimmer of amusement relaxing his face. “I’d say I’ve been losing it for 70 years.”
Does he care what others think of him? “Not a lot.” But ask if he cares what people think of his column and he leans forward in his chair and answers with a forceful “yes.”
“One is my personality,” he says, “which some say is an acquired taste and others would say, ‘Don’t acquire it.’ The other is professional, and I work hard at it.”
Novak’s journalism career began while he was an only child growing up in Joliet, Ill. He wrote a neighborhood newsletter that his mother typed up. He swears it wasn’t controversial; it dealt mainly with where the neighbors were vacationing, which sounds controversial enough.
His father wasn’t keen on young Novak’s aspiration. “He thought most reporters were bums, they drink too much.”
Novak has cut down on drinking in recent years, but only because his doctors insist on it. He has had spinal meningitis, three kinds of cancer, two broken wrists, two broken hips and a broken ankle.
“I liked to drink, and I drank a lot,” he says. Scotch and soda was his poison, but now he chooses vodka — perhaps two to three a week.
“If I didn’t have good checkups I’d have been dead a long time ago.”
Novak, who was reportedly shy with women in college, met his wife, Geraldine, on Capitol Hill. She worked for then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and was also a secretary. It took Novak a year to ask her out. “I was busy,” he says.
Novak was first called Prince of Darkness by an old colleague who found his view on Western civilization pessimistic. Now the discussion turns to religion. Eight years ago, Novak converted from Judaism to Catholicism.
“Do I think I’m the Antichrist?” Novak asks. “No, I’m a Catholic convert.”
It is striking to hear this notorious curmudgeon talk of his faith: “It’s an attempt to achieve holiness, to become closer to God, which is a very difficult thing for anyone to do, and I got a late start on it. At this advanced stage it’s a great blessing for me.”
If his father, a Jew, were alive, what would he think of his son’s conversion?
“He’s in heaven, and he approves,” Novak says. But what if he were here on earth, what would he think? Novak replies, “He’s in heaven.”
One more dangerous question must be asked. It’s a food question — well, sort of — as we’ve started discussing which restaurants he enjoys around town. Here goes. What was he having for dinner with the source who told him about Valerie Plame?
The temperature falls and darkness descends. “We’re not going to discuss it,” he says. “We’re not going to have any questions [about it].”
The interview is over — Novak flashes his toothy grin.