Remembering Victor Navasky, the Unflappable Ringmaster of The Nation

The impish editor inspired a generation of journalists.

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It was a usual day in the offices of the Nation, a collection of cluttered warrens overflowing with stuffed filing cabinets, piles of books, and file folders containing who-knows-what in an undistinguished building below 14th Street on Fifth Avenue. This was four decades ago, and I was an editorial assistant for the liberal political and literary magazine that had been founded in 1865 by abolitionists. (The first line in the first issue: “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events.”) I had two main tasks. One was dealing with what we called the “slush pile”—the unsolicited manuscripts and story pitches that never stopped pouring in. I had become well versed in composing rejection notes designed not to be encouraging. (Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to read your article on how post-war monetary policy in Italy has influenced the current economic crisis in Uruguay, but I’m afraid we can’t use the piece at this time.) The other was doing whatever Victor Navasky wanted me to do.

After a successful career writing for the New York Times magazine and other prestigious publications, Victor, who died at the age of 90 this week, had taken over as editor in 1978 and revived a once-mighty publication that had been on the verge of financial liquidation and irrelevance. I had met Navasky at a conference for student journalists and he had encouraged me to apply for an internship at the magazine—no pay! no listing on the masthead! From that internship he had plucked me for a lowly staff position, in which I did research for him, read articles he didn’t want to bother with, circulated and deciphered his impossible-to-read handwritten notes to staff, and tended to a wide assortment of odds and ends. As an aspiring journalist now in the middle of the clubby New York literary-political-journalism world—is that Allen Ginsberg in Victor’s office?—I was in heaven.

On this day, I was bringing to Victor the latest piece that humorist Calvin “Bud” Trillin, a Nation columnist and New Yorker writer who occasionally appeared on Johnny Carson’s late-night show, had submitted. The ever-droll Bud was one of Victor’s closest pals. He had accepted Victor’s offer of a column with the stipulation that he could lampoon the editor, and a running joke in the column became depicting Victor as a cunning cheapskate. In Bud’s columns, he was always the “wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky” who paid Bud in the “high two figures.”

As I walked from the copy department toward Victor’s office, I perused the copy; yet again Bud had poked at Victor for his penny-pinching ways. But this column—which also disparaged Victor’s basketball-playing days in high school—was especially harsh. The money shot was a line that went something like this: “It takes a true exploiter of the masses to run a left-wing magazine.” As one of the exploitees, I quietly cheered the piece, but I feared how Victor would react.

After handing him the column, I hovered at the entrance to his office, watching him read and waiting for a response. He finished, placed the article on his desk, and looked up at me. “It’s not true,” he said plaintively. “It’s not… I was a good basketball player in high school.” That was it.

And that was Victor’s secret sauce. He never got upset. He often described his job as overseeing an outlet in which liberals and radicals could duke it out. He knew things could get rather messy on this playground. But he loved being the guy who provided a platform for the clash between feminists who wanted to censor or even ban pornography as violence against women and civil libertarians who contended free speech rights covered porn. The Nation was famous for hosting left-of-center columnists and contributors who often targeted their fellow left-of-center columnists and contributors. Years later, when I was the magazine’s Washington correspondent, Alexander Cockburn would occasionally direct his poison pen at me and inaccurate claims would appear in the very magazine for which I toiled so hard. When I complained to Victor, he would simply say, “Feel free to respond.” That was his ethos: Let a thousand feuds bloom. Which meant, if he was being personally honest about all this, he, too, could not take offense at the slights. Once Betsy Pochoda, the fierce literary editor of the magazine, observed that Victor was like a “a beach ball. It has no handles. You can’t piss him off. You can’t please him. You can’t be an enemy. You can’t be a friend.” I often thought of him as a sandbag. One could punch him hard, trying to cause a dent, but the sand would just return to fill the space. He was an Upper West Side, Jewish Buddha, ever calm, often hard to read, rarely angry, usually wearing a wry smile, with that bearded rabbinical facade hiding a great many calculations and ideas whirring within him. He knew everyone, and everyone seemed to like him.  

Victor saw the Nation as the guardian of both progressive journalism­—he relished it when we would break news—and intense political debate about the most weighty topics of the day (say, race relations, economic injustice, and possible nuclear Armageddon). As he saw it, the role of journals of opinion, as small as they might be in terms of subscriptions, was to attain disproportionate influence on the political discourse. They were—he never put it to me this way—the tugboats nudging the larger national discussion in this or that direction.

Though he often seemed more a referee than a boxer—he was indeed a boxing fan—Victor did have his pet causes and obsessions, which included the Cold War, particularly the victims of the Red Scare. He was long a defender of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs. Though history and subsequent revelations have not been kind to their champions, Victor did much to force a reckoning concerning the excesses of the Cold War that led to ruined lives and cultural damage. Naming Names, his award-winning 1980 book on the Hollywood blacklist, was a magnificent and balanced work of history that illuminated the injury done to the nation by the paranoid cold warriors.

Though Victor tended to stay out of specific frays and internecine battles, this particular crusade was his passion. At times, I wondered if he devoted too much energy to looking backward. But he demonstrated that the never-ending fights over history are critical. They define and shape the present. That’s why I ended up one day, while still his factotum, in the bowels of the Columbia University library, standing over an antiquated copying machine that I believed was wheezing out carcinogenic fumes. I had been sent there by Victor. But it was Susan Sontag’s fault.

It all began with a Nation-sponsored rally at Town Hall organized in early 1982 by liberals to support the Polish workers who were rebelling against the Soviet-backed government. Kurt Vonnegut, Gore Vidal, Pete Seeger, and others spoke to praise the Solidarity movement’s uprising in Poland—and to decry the Reagan administration’s support of repressive right-wing governments in Latin America and elsewhere. (How hypocritical of the Reaganauts to celebrate the Polish freedom-fighters while backing regimes that crushed dissidents and killed unionists.)

Sontag, essayist, critic, philosopher, and archetype intellectual, was on the bill. She had been part of the left of the 1960s that often over-praised such communist societies as Cuba and North Vietnam, but now she sought to distance herself from the other speakers by noting that the left had failed to recognize the evils within communist nations in the 1950s and 1960s. “Many of us, and I include myself, did not understand the nature of communist tyranny,” she said. She zeroed in on the Nation: “Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman,” she asked. “Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”

This meant war. Sontag was booed and hissed at the event. She triggered a kerfuffle, in which conservatives poked fun at her for finally becoming an anti-communist, and liberals lambasted her for providing ammo to the Red baiters and justifying the witch hunts of the 1950s. Victor swung into action. He commanded me to find back issues of Reader’s Digest, a mass-audience magazine with a decidedly conservative bent, and dig up examples of how it had covered communism in those decades. That led me to the Columbia library.

Several floors below the ground level, I pulled out from the stacks old copies and searched. To save energy, the lights automatically turned off every 10 minutes. I was there for several days. When I returned to the office with the booty, he flipped through the copies and quietly said, “This will work.”

Never one to miss an opportunity, Victor published Sontag’s speech in the Nation, with commentaries from a half-dozen writers. She asked that he excise the Reader’s Digest remark, explaining it had been an extemporaneous comment. Victor did but cited it in a preface to the transcript. And he also fired back with a piece in the magazine that cited the hyperbolic, Red fear-fueling articles I had found: “Red Slave Drivers and Sadists”; “Stalin’s Plans for the U.S.A.”; and “Red Spy Masters in America.” It was pure Victor: he used an attack on the Nation to exploit an intellectual spectacle and demonstrate the essentialness of his magazine. For the literary set, this was hot stuff. 

Victor was part showman, always playing the angles, often with mischievous intent.  That was not surprising given that he had in the late 1950s and early 1960s edited a humor magazine called Monocle, which he had started when he was a Yale law student. Victor had a wealth of stories about a wide range of journalistic accomplishments, such as his coverage of Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, which led to his tremendous book Kennedy Justice. But his eyes would truly light up when he told stories of the old Monocle days. He relished recounting one of the magazine’s most notorious capers: It published Report from Iron Mountain, supposedly the product of a government task force that had concluded that the US economy could not thrive in peacetime and the nation required war for prosperity. The book, full of footnotes and written in think-tank-ese, read as if it were the real deal, and, upon its release, the New York Times reported it might be an actual government report. For years, many did not realize this was a hoax. (In the 1980s and 1990s, far-right hate groups and militias cited it as an authoritative source.) Victor was quite proud of this scam. He once told me he and the Monocle gang wanted to launch a magazine that would entirely be about parking in New York City. Its title: The Good Spot.* He regretted they never got to that.

He was impish. So serious about such matters as the Cold War assault on civil liberties, yet so mirthful about much else. And he was a conniver. He taught me how to run out on a check. In 1984, I was covering the Democratic convention at San Francisco for the Nation (where I had one wild night with Hunter Thompson—but that’s another story). One day, Victor, Andy Kopkind, a wonderful political journalist who was a Nation mainstay, and I were having lunch with Robert Scheer, a prominent and much-hailed reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Toward the end of the meal, Scheer left the table to schmooze with some folks across the room. “Now,” Victor said, “now.” He indicated we should get up and leave. As we exited the restaurant, he found our waiter. “Bring the check to that man,” he said, pointing to Scheer. To me he said, “The Los Angeles Times can afford it.”

Another Victor trick: At that convention or another one, he would examine the list of receptions and pick those he wished to attend. He then would call the phone number for the hosting organizations and ask if he could be placed on the guest list. Often the person on the other end would say, “Let me take your information, and someone will get back to you.” Okay, he would respond and ask for his or her name. If the answer was “Jennifer,” he would then sign off, “Thank you, very much,  Jennifer.” Later, he would show up those receptions and if there was any trouble getting in—often there was not—he would say, “I talked to Jennifer in your office about this.” That sometimes did the trick. At least before the days of email invitations and electronic RSVPs.

Another memory: One evening, Victor took me along to a dinner where he was to receive an award from a civil liberties organization. I was seated at a table with people I didn’t know. Old people. These were ancient New York City lefties. Not exactly my crowd. Eventually, I began to make conversation with the fellow next to me. He was a rabbi. But not just any rabbi. He had married playwright Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe. He was happy to share stories about that event. (“A very nice and polite young lady,” he recalled.) Later, I asked Victor why he had not told me I was dining with the guy who presided at this historic wedding. “Wasn’t it more fun finding out yourself?” he replied.

Victor delighted in being the ringmaster of the Nation circus. Oh, he wasn’t always easy. His inscrutability could be aggravating. And he and I did clash over how best to bring the Nation into the modern world of the internet. At one strategic planning session for the magazine, when asked to summarize the Nation, Victor said, “An artifact of the written word.” That did not bode well for the digital age. But it summarized his devotion to the traditional values that had long animated journals of opinion: thoughtful analysis, deliberate writing, quality over speed. But perhaps his most important legacy is that he encouraged and inspired hundreds of young journalists. I count myself among that crowd. When he was awarded the Richard M. Clurman Award for his dedication to mentoring young journalists, I was honored that he asked me to attend the luncheon as one of his guests—one of his prized pupils, perhaps—even though I had years earlier left the Nation for my current job at Mother Jones.

While researching this remembrance, I came across a 1990 article in the Los Angeles Times reporting on the state of the Nation as it celebrated the 125th anniversary of its founding that I had forgotten. This was the lead:

A dark-haired young man in a striped shirt has been stalking Victor Navasky, editor of the scrappy, left-wing magazine known as the Nation. At the moment, the two men are in the belly of the publishing beast, the grimy white warren of office space on lower Fifth Avenue where America’s oldest weekly does its provocative thing. Everywhere there are bare bulbs, teeny offices, a sink, a refrigerator, mountains of file cabinets, and shelves and shelves of books, books and more books.

“Let’s continue our argument,” says the young man, a writer named David Corn. “Our discussion,” Navasky says, whipping out his mental blue pencil.

That was Victor. Life—politics, journalism, literary tussles—it was all a rollicking discussion, best enjoyed by the archly curious and those with sharp tastes and strong views. He was a disrupter before there were disrupters and showed us how much fun could be had within a ruckus—and within an earnest magazine that addressed the most somber and serious of matters, all in the hope of changing the world. 

* As it turns out, Victor’s comrade-in-humor Bud Trillin and a few pals did publish at least one issue of a parking magazine that was called Beautiful Spot. The premier issue announced that it was “edited by and for the alternate street parker” and that an annual subscription would be $1.50 and a lifetime subscription would be $1.00. It noted, “As readers will probably notice, the Beautiful Spot masthead carries no publisher, advertising manager, business manager, circulation promotion director or advertising space salesman. This is no accident.”

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Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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