The Washington Post and other news outlets are reporting that the journalist and political commentator Robert Novak has died at the age of 78. Novak is probably best known for his role in the Valerie Plame case, but prior to that scandal he was a constant presence on CNN and a prolific writer. He not only co-starred in the debate show Crossfire, but he was a frequent panelist on other programs like The Capital Gang.
Novak had a reputation around Washington as a grumpy and dyspeptic personality, and his television co-hosts would always mock his "prince of darkness" image. Still, Novak was someone who clearly loved politics, and this made him easier to swallow. What was most striking about Novak--at least when I started watching CNN around the time of the 2000 election--was his absolute unwillingness to sound warm and cuddly. George W. Bush was elected as a compassionate conservative that year, and you could hardly get any Republican to sound nasty or angry. The lessons of Gingrich had been learned, and Bush and his allies loved talking about education and diversity. But then there was Novak: He wanted a big tax cut because he was wealthy and he felt he had earned it. He didn't care much for programs that helped the poor--and not because he had a sophisticated neoconservative critique about their effectiveness. No, Novak just did not seem to care much; what's more, he didn't care that he appeared uncaring. As someone who always suspected that many people in the Republican Party wanted their tax cuts above all else, Novak was revealing and somehow refreshing. All Republicans weren't like this, to be sure, but some were, and yet Novak was their only representative on television (Pat Buchanan is interesting to watch for precisely this reason--a lot of people think like he does, but they rarely share their opinions on network TV).
Crossfire was a lousy show and I'm glad it's gone, but The Capital Gang--despite its reputation--was actually a mildly informative and very enjoyable debate show. And unlike too many panel shows these days, it was filled with ideological pundits who were not partisan hacks. Even though it only went off the air a few years ago, it feels like the product of a completely different era.