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Even in decline, Novak still made others scramble

Robert Novak
Robert Novak
Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

As Robert Novak's last reporter, I remember the fateful day that we received his order to close up the office.

Before his first stroke, Novak had just returned from a speaking engagement late one Friday afternoon. Instead of finishing his column on the plane as was his custom, he had given up due to computer issues and was tired and cantankerous.

We worked late into the evening to finish his column, and I knew something was wrong when he kept cussing out the computer for 'changing the words.' When I offered to type the column for him, he abruptly refused my assistance and kept at it.

His final column was riddled with errors, and I quickly patched it up and sent him home to his wife Geraldine and his weekend vacation with his family.

When the stroke happened, we were concerned, but we anticipated a tough recovery and a return to duty. Novak had beaten cancer before, and I was certain he would beat it again. In his first statement disclosing his illness, he vowed to return to his column, 'God willing.'

The news of his retirement was sudden, however, and his decision to close up shop was swift. Long promising to "die in the saddle," it was clear that he was facing his last fight with cancer.

In the following weeks, it was my duty to box up years of his columns and writings, and clean out and sell his beloved black Corvette.

One day, he surprised us by returning to the office after his multiple surgeries, Geraldine pushing his wheelchair.

He went straight to his office, where we had been packing things up, and picked up the phone to make a call. It was then that he noticed we had taken his phone numbers off the wall. "Why did you take down all the phone numbers?" he asked.

"Because we didn't think you were coming back," I bluntly answered, to which he responded with a chuckle.

After making a few calls and speaking with some sources, he wrote a column regarding John McCain's campaign, with the assistance of Geraldine. It was a scoop, and with the assistance of his syndicate, we immediately sent it off to the papers.

I always admired Mr. Novak for the amount of sources he had in Washington from both sides of the political spectrum. But I was blown away when he wrote a campaign column from his wheelchair that sent reporters scrambling.

It was sad to watch the campaign finish without him, but from time to time he would call up for some research for a column. He did pull together his final thoughts on that historic campaign season of 2008 in one of his post-retirement columns. Bucking the trend of shaken conservatives, he dismissed President Barack Obama's victory symbolizing a mandate for change.

"Obama may have opened the door to enactment of the long-deferred liberal agenda, but he neither received a broad mandate from the public nor the needed large congressional majorities," he wrote. "(H)e will be hard-pressed not so much to enact his agenda but to keep his popular majority, which he considers centrist, as he moves to enact ultra-liberal legislation, particularly the demands of organized labor."

Those words read true today, amidst the chaos of today's health care battle.

With many of his sources now working in the Obama administration, I often wonder what excellent columns on the era of "Change" we are missing in his absence. May he rest in peace.

Charlie Spiering worked as a reporter for Robert D. Novak from 2007 to 2008.