Newsletter 144: Robert Novak, and Going Back to the Daily Illini

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from February 2018. I’m headed back to Champaign in a couple of weeks and am honestly counting down the days.

It was November 1995, and I was in Daily Illini Edit Board. Edit Board took place every Sunday at noon, and it featured the newspaper’s top editors, as well as its opinion columnists, gathering in the DI conference room to write the week’s editorials. Our opinions editor, an infinitely patient kid named Kris Kudenholdt, would toss out 10 timely topics of the day, abortion, the Chief, campus parking, Quebec separatism, whatever, and we would all debate them. At the end of the debate, we would take a vote to decide the Official Daily Illini Stance, and Kudenholdt would write the results and publish them in the paper throughout the week.

They appear to still be doing Edit Board at the DI — takes this week include, “It takes two seconds to put on a coat” and “Don’t be a jerk during finals” — and I would like to apologize to the current staff of the Daily Illini for not strangling this baby in the crib when we had the opportunity. There was nothing more miserable than Edit Board. Edit Board had five fatal flaws:

  1. It featured editorial staff, who had work to do and were in fact starting their work week at that exact moment and thus just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible so they could get back to their desks, combining with editorial columnists, almost all of whom had nothing else to do with their day and had countless opinions that they were convinced the entire world would be incomplete without and thus felt compelled, lo, obliged, to go on and on and on and on about.
  2. It was 30 college students locked in a room together for three hours debating issues none of us particularly understood.
  3. It was, like nearly all college newspaper staffs at the time, almost entirely white, which only accentuated problem №2.
  4. There was always that one person who took every argument so personally that they would inevitably pound the table and/or leave the room screaming, which would be worthy of investigation and our own self-reflection if it happened once or twice but got pretty freaking old when it happened every week, even when we were discussing, like, overcrowding in the dorms or something.
  5. It was at noon, on a Sunday, after a weekend, which is the worst possible time to get a bunch of hungover college students in a room to discuss matters of serious import. Or of anything, really.
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I hated Edit Board so much that it legitimately made me dislike actually discussing politics, or religion, or life, for several years afterward. ’90s college kids were the worst. I swear to God, I think we had 30 different debates about Mumia. (Who just got an appeal granted, by the way. TOOK US LONG ENOUGH.)

Anyway, it was November 1995, and Kudenholdt’s topic today for hungover teenagers was Victor Salva. Specifically, the director Victor Salva, who had just released his film Powder through Buena Vista Pictures, about an albino boy played by Sean Patrick Flanery with special electromagnetic powers. The issue was not the film itself: It was Salva. Powder was Salva’s second film, and his first, Clownhouse (which was the film debut of Sam Rockwell, as it turns out), would have been unremarkable had it not been for one horrific fact: On the set of the 1989 film, Salva had videotaped himself molesting the film’s star, and when the boy contacted authorities, scores of child pornography magazines were found at Salva’s house. Salva was arrested, served 15 months of a three-year sentence and vanished for a few years, working as a telemarketer and writing scripts on the side. One of those scripts was Powder, which Buena Vista bought, produced and released, claiming later that they did not know about Salva’s history until after the film was completed and stressing that there were no minors ever alone with him on set.

One would expect a major outcry upon Powder’s release, particularly when the boy molested in Clownhouse staged a protest at the film’s premiere, but there wasn’t one: The film was a surprise hit, and Salva’s agent said opening weekend that he was already meeting with studios about his next film. (That film might have been Jeepers Creepers, which ended up being the biggest hit of Salva’s career.) So Kudenholdt’s topic: Should Salva have been allowed to make his film? Should he be allowed to make another one? How should we feel about this?

Just as he was about to open the floor for another grueling discussion, there was a knock on the door. It was our publisher, Jim McKeller (the one adult overseeing this building of college idiots), welcoming in an alumni visitor for the weekend, a former DI staffer who wanted to see what the kids were up to these days. His name was Robert Novak.

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For those of you too young or too preoccupied with things that actually matter to know who that is, Robert Novak was a longtime conservative political columnist known as “The Prince of Darkness,” a nickname he liked so much he made it the title of his autobiography. Novak was famous in 1995 less for his reporting and more for his appearances on CNN’s “Crossfire;” years later, he would hit his career nadir by being the reporter who outed Valerie Plame as an undercover CIA agent. He died nearly a decade ago of a brain tumor. But from 1948–52, he was a sportswriter for the Daily Illini, and he always came back to see the staff when he was in town.

A hush came over the room when he walked in: We knew who Robert Novak was, and as good little activist college students, we knew we weren’t supposed to like him. Our editor-in-chief tried to be polite, asking him to take a seat, but he crossed his arms, shook his head and growled, “I’m fine up here. Go ahead.” He was going to watch us debate Victor Salva.

Our hangovers evaporating immediately, we decided, collectively and silently, that we were going to stick it to Novak. He was The Prince of Darkness who had lost his soul; we were the college kids who were going to show him what being good-hearted and kind and young really meant. So, after an hour’s worth of angry fights about the traffic situation at The Armory, we found something we could all agree on.

Namely: That Salva had served his time. Why shouldn’t he get to move on with his life? He paid the state back for his crime. If you don’t think he should direct a movie, then throw him in jail for life. Since we have not done that, he can move forward. It’s embarrassing, embarrassing we tell you, that they would drag a man’s past into this, when he has already been punished for his offense: We can’t help but wonder if this is partly persecution for his open homosexuality. (We actually said this.) This Daily Illini Edit Board stands proudly with Victor Salva … a convicted child molester who videotaped an encounter with a 12-year-old boy on the set of a film he was directing.

We voted. It was unanimous. (Unanimous!) We looked at Novak with pride, and with accusatory self-righteousness: You wouldn’t be as magnanimous as we are. You’re the bad guy.

He kept his arms crossed, and snorted. “You kids are insane,” he said. And then he left the room and, as far as I know, never visited the Daily Illini again. When the door shut behind him, we all cheered.

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This week, I will be making my annual visit to Champaign to meet with journalism students and staffers at the Daily Illini. (And catch an Illini game, of course.) It is one of my favorite trips every year. I find it renewing and uplifting and cleansing.

And the one thing I remember every year, particularly when I think of that Victor Salva story: They are so, so much smarter than we were. Thank God for that.

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