WASHINGTON -- Robert Novak, the longtime syndicated columnist and television commentator who was at the center of a furor late in his career as the first journalist to disclose the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, died Tuesday. He was 78.
Novak died at his home in Washington after battling brain cancer, his wife, Geraldine, said. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in July 2008.
Novak's Plame column for July 14, 2003, set off one of those perfect Washington storms, in which White House officials, famous journalists and CIA sources became part of a courtroom spectacle that was played out in the world's media.
Before it was over, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, had been convicted of perjury and obstruction of justice, and the controversy had exposed journalists' coziness with official sources and tarnished the reputations of two key administration figures -- political guru Karl Rove and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage -- who confessed to leaking Plame's identity to reporters. President George W. Bush later commuted Libby's 2 1/2-year sentence.
Robert David Sanders Novak was born Feb. 26, 1931, in Joliet, Ill. At the University of Illinois he skipped classes his senior year, expecting to pass enough exams to win a degree. But the university decreed that he had fallen one hour short in his course work. Years later, after he had become a public figure, university officials conferred a degree in 1983, finding an excuse in his physical education course work.
Hooking up with The Associated Press in Nebraska and Indiana after college, Novak first covered sports, then switched to news. Taking assignments that more senior reporters disdained -- "It took more elbow grease and chicanery than cerebral brilliance," he observed -- Novak gained notice. And when The Associated Press in Washington needed a replacement on its Midwest regional desk, he got the call.
That was in 1957. Soon came a gig at The Wall Street Journal. And then, a few years later he formed a partnership with Rowland Evans, a fellow journalist who was as patrician as Novak was hard-scrabble, as much a part of the Washington establishment as Novak was not. Evans, then 41, played the gentleman reporter while Novak, 32, the scruffy rookie. They worked a yin-and-yang combination that eventually won them syndication in many major newspapers and prominence as a good source of information on the cable television talk shows just beginning to turn political discourse into shouting matches.
They began with CNN when the network launched in 1980, hosting "Evans and Novak." Derided by liberal critics as "Errors and No Facts," Evans and Novak were actually more reporters than commentators and had their share of scoops over the years.
In their first column in 1963, they predicted that Barry Goldwater, then considered a long shot, would win the Republican nomination the next year. In 1972, they quoted an anonymous Democratic senator as saying that George McGovern's presidential campaign was doomed because the candidate favored "amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot."
They were the first to report that President Richard Nixon had chosen Rep. Melvin Laird of Wisconsin as secretary of defense. Novak reported from battlefronts in Vietnam and Nicaragua, and was given sit-down interviews with world leaders such as China's Deng Xiaoping.
He got his nickname "Prince of Darkness" from friend and fellow journalist John Lindsay of The Washington Post and Newsday, who was struck by Novak's pessimistic view of the future of Western civilization.
After Evans retired in 1993, Novak continued the column and was a regular on several CNN shows. He kept the column going online even after he officially retired in the summer of 2008, shortly after his diagnosis was made.
Evans died in 2001.
Besides his wife of 47 years, Novak is survived by their son, Alexander, and daughter, Zelda Caldwell, and eight grandchildren.
In an interview in 2007, Novak predicted with regret the first line in his obituary, lamenting to PBS' Charlie Rose that his Plame column was "a very minor story compared to some of the big stories that I have had. But ... that's going to be in the lead of my obituary, and I can't help it."