Legacy Time For Robert Novak

In a recent interview he repeated, with a smile, the characterization of McLaughlin he gave PBS’s Ben Wattenberg a few weeks ago: “The closest thing on this planet to pure evil.”

He’s no longer in contact with most of his former TV colleagues, though he still works with Al Hunt and Margaret Carlson on Bloomberg broadcast projects.

Mr. Novak said he still doesn’t care what any of them think about the Plame case – and he isn’t trying to change their minds with his account. “One thing is a matter of age – at a certain age, it just doesn’t matter what people think of you.”

Still, he admits he reads his own press.

“Well, yeah. I shouldn’t, but I do.”

And a quick check of the comment thread attached to one of his recent stories on the Washington Post Web site unsettled him; he included a sample of particularly unnerving hate mail in his book.

Some of his insider fans – on both sides of the aisle – are equally passionate.

“Deep down he has a heart of pure mush,” said longtime friend and fellow conservative Mr. Wattenberg. “He has a more complicated personality than meets the eye. Part of what he does is shtick. We all have to project a personality, and this is a character he’s playing. There’s a little showbiz in all of us – I think he just embraces that side of himself a little more. But he’s just a lovely human being.”

It’s a softer version of the classic Washington take on Bob Novak, which allegedly originated with Michael Kinsley: “Beneath the asshole is a very decent guy, and beneath the very decent guy is an asshole.”

It’s difficult to tell whether or how Mr. Novak’s "Prince of Darkness” image will be affected by his tendency to point to the “inner peace” that has followed his late-life conversion from non-practicing Jew to Catholic. But even Mr. Novak’s spiritual quests have been controversial in some quarters.

“I think Deb Solomon (his interviewer for today's Times Magazine) was really bothered by this – it was how she asked me about it, and kept coming back to it," he said. "I’m used to that kind of reaction. A lot of people resent my confession, especially Jews and fallen-away Catholics. It really makes them crazy … even though, yes, I still consider myself Jewish. Socially, ethnically, culturally. That will never change.”

According to a throwaway line late in his book, Jews displeased with his religious evolution include many members of his own family.

That minor personal controversy is a pale echo of the raging professional drama that has accompanied Mr. Novak for decades.

“… I have been a stirrer up of strife – for half a century,” he writes in Prince of Darkness. “But I was not merely causing trouble for trouble’s sake.

"I’d like to think I emulated Bertrans de Born in stirring up strife but not in wreaking havoc," he writes a little later, referring to a medieval monk and schismatic, "so that I will avoid an eternity in purgatory with my head in my hand.

"At least I hope so.”