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The Prince

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I discovered Bob Novak when I was in college. My political science teacher assigned us Rowland Evans and Robert Novak's classic tomes: "Lyndon B. Johnson: The Exercise of Power" (1966) and "Nixon in the White House: The Frustration of Power" (1971).

It was like giving the Bible on baseball to a kid who'd watched the game all her life without ever really knowing what all those signals mean. This is how power works. This is how Washington operates. This is how you get someone to do something he doesn't want to do. This is what happens when people get in the room with the president.

You know what happened: This is why it happened.

You are there because they were. I got it. I loved it.

My professor was a liberal and a Democrat. He knew where Evans and Novak were coming from politically, even if we didn't. I fear too many teachers today would have found different books. Professor Gibbons went with Evans and Novak because he was a lover of politics, and so were they. He was looking to light a fire by letting us in the back rooms -- rooms he himself had seen -- with guides who knew every nook and cranny. By the time I went to Washington as an intern in the summer of Watergate, I had found my passion.

Years later, I debated Novak on Internet sites, TV shows and radio programs. I came to understand that, issue by issue, we agreed on nothing.

I heard all the stories. He liked being the Prince of Darkness. He liked all the parts of the game that I have come to like least. He played all the angles with a zeal that makes me shake my head. He cozied up to folks who made me want to take a shower. He played people off each other, protected his favorites and destroyed his opponents, and took chances with people's careers (Valerie Plame will surely be mentioned in the obits). He did all the things that have made me wonder, in later years, about my choice of passion.

How could I have ever fallen in love with this world?

What's to love?

Not all the games, certainly, which have hardly become less vicious since Johnson and Nixon.

Not the ugliness, certainly. The old days, when business was business, when people had a drink together at the end of the day and put aside their quarrels, when we attacked ideas and policies and not each other, may only look golden in retrospect. But I know just how mean and ugly it is now. Forget about drinks after work; you get eaten for lunch (by both sides) if you dare to debate the wrong people.

Novak covered politics not just because he was good at it and celebrated for it, but because he cared about it. Because it mattered. Because it was important. Because he loved his country.

For a freshman in college who had been to Washington once with the Girl Scouts, he opened the door to a world where people who feel passionately about issues and policy wield their power, devise their strategies, refine their positions, forge and break alliances, and, for better or worse, change the course of history.

It wasn't any game; it was the one that mattered most. And with humor, and with passion, and with wit, and with zeal, Bob Novak gave his life to it. He was a master manipulator, but he was also generous to a newcomer, a gentleman and a fighter. For a guy I never agreed with, he certainly taught me a lot.

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