If there is anything that unites most professional journalists, it is a love affair with what most of us call the "killer quote." This is not a quotation that literally kills someone, although I have seen a quotations that all but killed someone's career. So what is the definition of a "killer quote"?
Simply stated, it is a direct quotation, not a paraphrase, that when you read it you want to slap the side of your own head and say either (a) "Oh my, that quote just says it all" or even (b) "Holy smoke (or other words in mainstream newsrooms), did that person know they were going to be quoted saying THAT?!?!?
Now, here inside the beltway of anonymous sources there is another kind of "killer quote." This is a quote from an anonymous source that causes legions of journalists and politicos in this very small town to mutter, "Who in the heck said that? If anyone finds out, that poor soul is deader than a doorknob."
That's precisely what I thought when I read this chunk of the A1 story in the Washington Post on the death of Robert Novak.
Mr. Novak wrote several books about Republican politics, but he said it was his skill at wooing members of both major parties that led to newsmaking exclusives.
A few months before he became presidential candidate George McGovern's running mate in 1972, Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) had confided to Mr. Novak, "McGovern is for amnesty, abortion and legalization of pot. Once middle America -- Catholic middle America, in particular -- finds this out, he's dead."
Eagleton insisted that his name not be linked to the quote, and Mr. Novak reported at the time that the quotation came from "one liberal senator." The column caused a political furor.
Mr. Novak said he faced enormous pressure by Democrats to reveal his source, and some accused him of making up the quotation. Novak kept his promise to Eagleton and did not name him as the source until after Eagleton died in 2007.
Note the unspoken irony here. When Eagleton crashed off the ticket, who did McGovern and the Democratic Party -- belatedly -- turn to fill the gap? One of the last of the old-guard Catholic, pro-life, progressive giants, which would be Sargent Shriver, husband of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
I think the quote is also interesting because it suggests that much of Novak's power in Washington, D.C., was built on his willingness to ask questions that other people would not ask and talk to sources -- yes, mostly conservatives -- that many other journalists did not respect and, thus, ignored.
The prince of darkness? Maybe. The prince of red zip codes? Likely.
Thus, it has been interesting to note the way that mainstream papers have discussed Novak's evolution from being a secular conservative into a Catholic convert who was a political conservative. In between, it's clear that his television gigs yanked him out of the safety of just covering dollars and cents, laws and horse races, into the world of cultural, moral and religious issues. Welcome to America in the era after Roe v. Wade.
Thus, in addition to crucial dissections of the Valerie Plame affair, the Post and other major papers had to discuss:
His family's heritage was Lithuanian Jewish, but Mr. Novak said he grew disenchanted with liberal sermons at synagogue and fell away from religion until undergoing a conversion to Catholicism in the late 1990s because of "spiritual hunger."
After attending the University of Illinois, where he began his journalism career, he reported for the Associated Press in the Midwest before the wire service sent him to Washington in 1957. He said his devotion to work helped end his first marriage, to Indianapolis socialite Rosanna Hall. In 1962, he married Geraldine Williams, then-secretary to a top aide of then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. ...
Mr. Novak, whose memoir was candid about his struggles with alcohol and gambling, faced a variety of serious health problems in recent years. He announced his brain tumor diagnosis in 2008 after a car accident in which he apparently did not notice hitting an elderly pedestrian at a downtown Washington intersection. The pedestrian suffered minor injuries and Mr. Novak received a ticket. Mr. Novak continued writing his column until last year, citing the "dire" prognosis of his tumor.
The death of Novak the journalist is, of course, a major event here in Washington. Howard Kurtz had his say, speaking for the journalism establishment. In a nice touch, the Post also offered a selection of major Novak columns online. Three cheers for the World Wide Web.
However, as Doug noted the other day, the subject of Novak's evolution from secular anti-Communist to humbled Catholic convert deserves more attention, certainly more than a sentence. It appears that Novak's evolution may have begun with a simple interest in the values -- for lack of a better word -- of the American middle class, especially its Catholic flock.
Memory eternal, prince.