The death of Robert Novak has led many to remember the career of the expert political journalist. Some noted his conversion to Catholicism later in life, with one former colleague calling it his “most important” change of heart.
Novak died of a malignant tumor at his Washington, D.C. home on Tuesday.
One half of the Evans-Novak “Inside Report,” begun in 1963 with journalist Rowland Evans, Novak was known for his ability to explain the feuds and factions of American politics with the help of his many inside sources. For a long time he was co-host of the CNN debate show “Crossfire.”
Though a political conservative, he opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Later in 2003, he became the object of controversy for exposing the identity of a CIA agent married to retired diplomat John C. Wilson, who investigated and questioned the factual basis for the justifications of the war.
Tim Carney, a former employee of Novak, described the journalist’s late-life conversion to Catholicism as “his most important change of heart.”
“Brought up a secular Jew, and having lived seven decades as an agnostic, Novak entered the church in his 60s,” Carney wrote at HumanEvents.com. “When I went to work for him, I was considering entering the Catholic Church as well. Novak pointed me to the priests who helped answer my remaining questions and cement my faith.”
He reported that Novak told aspiring journalists to pick a different field if they aimed to change the world.
“But, by simply aiming to inform and to do his job as well he could, Novak changed the lives of his readers and those of us blessed to work with him.”
Announcing his cancer diagnosis in his final column for the Chicago Sun-Times on September 7, 2008, he said his health problems first became manifest after he hit a pedestrian with his car. Tests later showed he had lost his left-side vision.
A biopsy revealed a major tumor, leading his oncologist to estimate that he had six months to a year to live.
“Being read your death sentence is like being a character in one of the old Bette Davis movies,” Novak said. “I believe I was able to withstand this shock because of my Catholic faith, to which I converted in 1998.”
Novak went into greater detail about his faith in his 2007 book “The Prince of Darkness: 50 Years Reporting in Washington.”
Novak attended Christian services sporadically until the mid-1960s, but then stopped going to religious services for nearly 30 years.
In the early 1980s, a friend gave Novak Catholic literature after he came close to dying from spinal meningitis. Ten years later, his non-Catholic wife Geraldine persuaded him to join her at Mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington D.C.
The celebrant, Fr. Peter Vaghi, was a former Republican lawyer and adviser to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM). He was also a former source for the Evans and Novak column.
Novak then started to go to Mass regularly and decided to convert a few years later. According to Novak, the turning point came when he visited Syracuse University in New York to lecture. Before he spoke he was seated at a dinner table near a young woman who wore a cross necklace. Novak asked her if she was Catholic, and she asked him the same.
Novak said that he had been going to Mass each Sunday for the last four years, but had not converted.
“Mr. Novak, life is short, but eternity is forever,” the woman responded, thus moving the journalist to begin studying for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the rite by which people learn the Catholic faith. He was baptized at St. Patrick’s in 1998. His wife was also baptized a Catholic.
Novak later recounted his conversion in an interview with a skeptical New York Times interviewer. He said he told her he believed the Holy Spirit was behind coincidences such as his former source becoming a priest.
"I consider this the only one true faith, so I believe the Holy Spirit led me to it," Novak said.