Robert Novak “Prince Of Darkness” And The Stories He Could Only Tell


When I met and chatted with Robert Novak several years ago on the UW-Madison campus I knew he had a thousand stories to banter and charm folks with.  Within the first section of his last book, he proved that with a story that hits close to home.

During the Wisconsin Democratic presidential primary in 1960, one of those classic stories concerning Jean Lucy, the wife of Pat Lucey took place.  Jean was the center of many a story over the years as most political junkies in Madison are aware.

This story took place in a Madison steak house.  At the time Pat Lucey was the Democratic State Party Chairman and a strong John Kennedy supporter.  While at the restaurant Jean spotted two former Lucy aides who had switched sides and were supporting Hubert Humphrey in the primary.

In true Jean Lucey fashion, she started shouting in the restaurant, “You little sons of bitches!”  Pat did all he could to calm the situation with “Jean, please, please.”

That a Washington reporter was at the table to witness it all and make note of it in his book years later is just one reason that Robert Novak’s “The Prince Of Darkness, 50 Years Of Reporting In Washington” is a must-read for news and political junkies.  In over 600 pages the stories and narrative of his life leave the reader amazed, laughing, shocked, and wanting more.

It was a tremendous pleasure to meet Novak, and walk alongside him down the hall at the UW-Memorial Union in Madison several years ago while talking about how he wrote his columns.  He seemed pleased to be asked about his craft, and the topic naturally was the type I find interesting.  He was walking slowly as he was still dealing with the side effects of hip replacement surgery. I found him to be sincere, earnest, and not as some like to define him.  When Novak stated he wrote articles in one take I was smiling.  After all the years of getting his thoughts out in print, I would have been surprised had he said anything different.

Robert Novak has long been one of my favorite reporters.  His death was a blow to those of us who loved his column with news, views, and insight about Washington and power politics.

In March 2008 I wrote the following.

I think it would be a blast to have a newspaper send me along on the trail of a presidential candidate as the campaign stretches across the nation in search of voters and the party nomination.  The romance that I have long-held about the hard-drinking reporters who could smell a great story, and then write it out in one take on a typewriter as the bus lumbered down the road has never left my soul.  It is those types of reporters who impress me, the ones who have forgotten more about the politics of this country than the upstarts with their college diplomas will ever know.  Robert Novak may be conservative and wrong on many things, but think of the stories he could tell.  He is but one of the many such reporters that I truly find fascinating.

The Prince of Darkness was published in 2007, and finally came to the top of my reading pile this past week.  It is one I strongly recommend to readers who share my interests.  (Four of you?)

In May of 2008 Robert Novak wrote the following.

I continue shoe-leather reporting — but with limitations. At age 60 I stopped entering war zones. I still occasionally go on the campaign trail, but not nearly so much as in past years. (When I have boarded press buses during the 2008 primary season, reporters some 50 years my junior have gazed at me as though Banquo’s ghost had entered their midst.) Nevertheless, at 77, I still make it my principal professional endeavor to find out what is happening behind the scenes in politics and government.

I love how Novak traces his career from his youth with sleepy dreams to the big-time of Washington politics.  It is the classic story of a reporter meeting his path. 

Novak writes of being poor while working in Omaha at newspaper and finding the library one thing he could afford.  It was then in the early 1950’s he read the multi-volume study of civilization by Arnold Toynbee.  That desire to know things and share information is one that I fully understand, and appreciate.

I like….always have liked….his hard-edged clarity.  Even though it comes from the other end of the political perspective I admire and respect this reporter.

Along the way Novak lets us know that the small facts should never stand in the way of the bigger truths.  It was that foundation that allowed him to be an amazing journalist.  It is what makes his book about Washington and politics all the more important to read.

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