The Corner

Cousin Bob

Often enough, we used to get each other’s mail. Once on an airplane, I overheard two nuns behind me talking about what a scowl Michael Novak wore on Crossfire every week — he must be a very angry man. I felt like turning around and saying: “Sorry, you mean Robert Novak. I’m Michael Novak. We call each other cousins. Just to pull your leg, he calls himself the Prince of Darkness. In the Hebrew translation, I am the Angel of Light.” But of course I didn’t turn around, and I didn’t say anything. I was honored.

We aren’t really cousins, Bob and I. Brothers is more like it. But not brothers in the flesh, rather, in affections. I have always loved the guy, especially when he is playing the bad Robert. He sometimes affects being cynical. That was, I have always thought, a protection against his own deep love for this country, and for the honorable profession of politics. He is a stern moralist, not a cynic. He was not taught by nuns, but somewhere he mastered the art of the slap across the wrist in disapproval. He works so darn hard. He was until his illness always on the go — and more often than always (if that is possible), on the telephone. Tirelessly on the telephone. No reporter in our time works harder.

One Christmas eve, I spotted him coming into a church that was then the parish of neither of us. There was a lot of time before midnight mass, so I left my seat to cross over and walk up to his aisle, to give him and his dear wife a greeting. “Merry Christmas, cousin,” I said. “Same to you, cousin.” He wore the big smile one often saw on his face, when he wasn’t playing bad guy.

Once, at a program we both spoke for in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, I heard him tell a classroom of young people why he converted, and how. He didn’t initiate this, he was asked. He told the same story he tells in his book, about accompanying his wife to mass and taking personally a question asked by the priest, Monsignor Vaghi (at whose new parish we were both in Christmas Eve attendance). It was a simple question, as all profound things are, about judgment in the light of eternity. It made him look at himself, he said.

We didn’t see each other all that often; I don’t think we ever did socially. But I find myself thinking of him a lot, sometimes every day. Of course, his work has been ubiquitous. It reminds me of him often.

I have to say, too, that I really love his book, Prince of Darkness. It is a truly good and honest Washington book, wonderfully written in that dry, factual way that sentimental detectives affect in crime novels. Full of details. Full of revelations. He poured a lot of himself into it. It is his best writing ever, and serves as an introduction not only to a dedicated, surprisingly intimate man, but also to the rapidly changing era he worked so hard to understand and to report. The new details in the first chapter — on the Pflame affair — are worth half-a-dozen typical, lazy Washington books written from old columns.

Well, I just heard that Bob at this moment is undergoing surgery for his tumor. When he gets to read this, I just wanted him to know that he was being prayed for minute by minute, and that much affection and gratitude were flowing his way.

Michael Novak was a Catholic philosopher, journalist, novelist, and diplomat.

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