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Commentary: My friend Bob Novak

  • Story Highlights
  • Paul Begala: Bob Novak was a friend even though we differed on many issues
  • He says Novak was true to his conservative beliefs even when GOP strayed
  • He says Novak worked very hard at being a reporter as well as an advocate
By Paul Begala
CNN Contributor
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Editor's note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political contributor, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He was a co-host of "Crossfire" on CNN with Robert Novak from 2002 to 2005.

Paul Begala says he admired Robert Novak for his skepticism about authority, work ethic and faith in his beliefs.

Paul Begala says he admired Robert Novak for his skepticism about authority, work ethic and faith in his beliefs.

(CNN) -- In our innumerable debates, I delighted in calling Bob Novak "the finest mind of the 12th century." One time, though, he scowled and growled, "I prefer the 15th century. Spanish Inquisition. Those were the days."

Novak left this world on Tuesday, but he also left his mark. Needless to say I disagreed with Bob about virtually every political issue, and sometimes our on-air debates continued as profanity-laced shouting matches after the show ended. Despite our profound differences, though, we were friends. Here's why:

Bob was an iconoclast. He loved poking conventional wisdom in the eye. If all the media elite were perched on the same wire, Bob would land on the opposite wire and gleefully squawk at them.

Bob was an ideologue more than a partisan. One of the many sources of tension between us was the fact that I am a partisan Democrat who believes that, from time to time, my personal ideological agenda must take a backseat to advancing a broader progressive agenda carried by my party. Not Bob. He was a conservative first, last and always, and when he felt the Republican Party had strayed from his hard-core anti-tax, anti-government ideology he would hammer the GOP with the same withering ridicule he usually dispensed to Democrats.

Bob was deeply skeptical of authority. He was a lowly lieutenant in the United States Army, and he instinctively distrusted big shots -- a rarity in a town that is often dazzled by rank. For a guy who said he preferred business to government, he was not afraid to show his contempt for network executives with whom he disagreed.

Bob had a remarkable work ethic. In the predawn hours after the 2004 presidential debate in Miami, Bob slipped in the shower, breaking his hip. The injury was terribly painful, and Bob was rushed to the hospital. Within 24 hours he was propped up in bed, working the phones and banging out a column on his laptop.

Bob was an old-school reporter. Most pundits (your humble author included) devour the reporting of others and regurgitate our opinions. While strongly opinionated, Bob also reported. His sources, especially in the GOP, were wide and deep.

When I was a White House official, one of my most dreaded responsibilities was dealing with Bob. He didn't support much of anything we were trying to do, but he never lied to me, never broke his word, and tried his hardest to get things right. Accuracy mattered enormously.

Bob could be civil. This will astonish some, because Bob could also be rude. But he taught me at least one lesson in civility. On "Crossfire," I carried a debate over into the commercial break.

I badgered and hectored and attacked the guest who was on the right. I was angry and I let him have it. "Wait just a #*& $@#^ minute," Bob screamed at me. "You're out of line. You're being rude. Get off his back. He's come here on our show to make his case and you're abusing him. We call them 'guests' for a reason, Paul." He was right.

Bob loved sports. One tiny island of common ground Bob and I could share was a love of sports. When James Carville and I joined "Crossfire" in 2002, CNN had a much-hyped debut planned for April 1. Bob didn't care. Maryland was playing for the NCAA basketball championship and he was going to be there. Producers pleaded, but Bob was unmoved. He did the show via satellite from Atlanta, Georgia, and when Coach Gary Williams cut down the net for the Terps, Bob was courtside.

Bob became a Catholic. My brand of Catholicism and Bob's were as different as our brands of politics, but as a cradle Catholic I admire anyone who, at age 67, is still seeking the divine, still questioning, still open to a new faith. We spoke about faith often, and I'm sure his Catholic faith gave him great comfort as he battled the disease that claimed his life. Requiem in pace, friend.

Or, as Bob might prefer: Goodnight, sweet Prince of Darkness.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Paul Begala.

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