This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
By 1978, the term “liberal” had acquired all sorts of baggage, from Hubert Humphrey’s timorous silence over the Vietnam War to the liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller’s brutal response to a revolt by inmates at Attica Correctional Facility. For the generation that came of age in the 1960s, “liberal” just didn’t cut it. And by his own admission, Victor Navasky was a liberal.
But like every new editor, Navasky wanted to shake things up. He and publisher Hamilton Fish asked graphic legends Milton Glaser and Walter Bernard to redesign the magazine. And when New Republic owner/editor Martin Peretz responded to a story in The New York Times reporting that a “feud” had developed between the two liberal journals following The New Republic’s shift “to the right” with a letter insisting “We have no feud with that magazine. Its readership is too tiny, its contents too reflexively gauchiste to trouble with,” Fish and Navasky took out a tiny classified ad on the bottom of the Times front page. It read: “Martin Peretz, please come home. All is forgiven. The Nation—still unfashionably liberal after all these years.”
So which was it: liberal or radical? Navasky, who confirmed his admiration for The Nation and what he describes as a “reverence for Carey McWilliams” reading through back issues related to the Hollywood blacklist (the subject of the book he was then writing, Naming Names), says that when he arrived at his new office, “I did not have an ideological program I intended to enforce. But I did think that debates within The Nation would not be between the Democrats and the Republicans, but between the radicals and the liberals.”
In 1982, Navasky persuaded Andrew Kopkind to join The Nation. Simply by being there, and being who he was—gay, deeply radical, charismatic, politically sophisticated—Kopkind pulled The Nation’s center of gravity further to the left. A magazine that had been more comfortable with the class-oriented analysis of the white male left was slowly coming to realize, and embrace, the importance of women’s liberation, gay liberation and what was sometimes denigrated as “identity politics.”
Navasky’s own political compass had its fixed points. In a memo to publisher James Storrow, he’d confessed to “a simplistic, absolutist view of the First Amendment,” said he was an “integrationist” on race who nonetheless thought The Nation “an appropriate forum for black nationalist…views,” remained wary of multinational corporations, and had “a profound presumption in favor of disarmament over armament” and was “paranoid about nuclear weapons.” He was, he allowed, soft on “old World Federalists,” a privacy fanatic who worried about new technology and believed “all forms of electronic eavesdropping ought to be banned.” He admitted to “an enduring sympathy for socialist experiments, preferably decentralized, and keep looking for one that works.”
Though clearly left of center, the list is as notable for what it does not mention—economic policy, energy policy, women’s rights, communism, imperialism, the environment, trade unions, Cuba—as what it does. While he obviously saw The Nation as committed, and made no pretense of impartiality or objectivity, Navasky’s letter ended on a note of skepticism. What made The Nation unique, he said, was its willingness “to question the conventional wisdom, to be suspicious of all orthodoxies, to provide a home for dissent and dissenters.”
Beginning in 1984, one of the most prominent dissenters was columnist Alexander Cockburn, who, in the long, still-to-be-written history of Nation feuds, would surely occupy pride of place. Yet his work was also a constant advertisement for the freedom the magazine offered its contributors—which, for writers who needed it, was worth more than any fee.
With Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Kopkind up front, and Arthur Danto, Edward Said and Katha Pollitt in the back, The Nation regained a reputation for literary distinction. Meanwhile, just as Navasky and Fish projected, circulation rose almost immediately to 32,000 and then steadily to 90,000. Advertising picked up as well, though of course most major corporations were leery of subsidizing a journal that went out of its way to attack their interests.
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Perhaps the most surprising thing about Navasky’s decision, in 1995, to turn the Nation editor’s chair over to 35-year-old Katrina vanden Heuvel was how uncontroversial that choice was at a magazine whose writers often seemed at war with one another—and whose readers, as Milton Glaser once observed, regarded even the introduction of color as “using the tools of the enemy.” But Navasky had no doubts. “She seemed to me to have the character, values, and not least the temperament for the job,” Navasky wrote in his memoir, A Matter of Opinion (2005), “and to understand that, as Robert Borosage once put it, ‘The Nation walks on two legs—one inside the establishment and one outside.’ I knew that unlike anyone else in the office…she would not cause factional grumbling.”
It is hard to imagine the 1996 special issue on “The National Entertainment State” under any other editor. Building on years of reporting by Ben Bagdikian and Herbert Schiller—Nation contributors since the McWilliams era—the issue contained The Nation’s first ever “gatefold,” opening to reveal not an unclothed human model but the unsightly forms of the corporate colossi who together held a monopoly on television news. Though the World Wide Web was just out of its CERN swaddling clothes, The Nation’s focus on the dangers of what vanden Heuvel calls “consolidation, conglomeratization, Murdoch-ization” could hardly have been more prescient.
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Nation issues used to close Wednesdays. September 11, 2001, was a Tuesday. From Irving Place to the World Trade Center was a little over two miles. “Like everyone else in America, we watched television—horrified, saddened, angry,” vanden Heuvel later recalled. “People wept, and at the same time took notes and got on the phones.” But The Nation’s phone lines ran under 7 World Trade Center, which caught fire when the twin towers collapsed, and then itself collapsed just after five that evening. It is a measure of how little was known that the lead editorial still held out hope of survivors: “We have taken a great wound, we Americans, and our first task is to rescue survivors if that is still possible, to grieve and to remain alert until we better understand what happened to us.”
One of those trying hardest to understand was Jonathan Schell: “On Tuesday morning, a piece was torn out of our world,” his cover article began. “A patch of blue sky that should not have been there opened up in the New York skyline.” In the weeks to come, as the debate inside the magazine raged between those who agreed with Christopher Hitchens’ column on “fascism with an Islamic face,” castigating leftists who drew a causal relationship between US foreign policy and the attacks, and those, like Robert Fisk, who pointed to “the historical wrongs and the injustices that lie behind the firestorms,” Schell’s sober, stunned, heartbreakingly rational “Letter From Ground Zero” columns came to represent the voice of the magazine—or at least the voice of sanity.
“One of my roles as editor has been to figure out the bridge from personal to political,” vanden Heuvel wrote. “How do you balance individual grief and anger at the attacks with proportionality, justice and wisdom in response?” Those questions, which divided The Nation—and the left—dominated “A Just Response,” a special issue whose lead essay, by Richard Falk, tried to grapple with what justice might mean in a world “on the brink of a global, intercivilizational war without battlefields and borders.” Amid the news of FBI roundups of Arab-Americans and calls for the CIA—as spectacularly ineffective as ever in thwarting the attacks—to be “unleashed,” Eric Foner reminded readers that civil rights and civil liberties “are not gifts from the state that can be rescinded when it desires.” Invoking The Nation’s—and the country’s—proud tradition of dissent and debate, Foner wrote: “At times of crisis the most patriotic act of all is the unyielding defense of civil liberties, the right to dissent and equality before the law for all.”
It would be vanden Heuvel’s task as editor—and The Nation’s triumph—to resist the siren song of consensus, either for or against the war, and the stampede to join the Bush administration’s bandwagon.
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The Nation’s new confidence, and higher profile, helped turn a haven for dissent into a campaigning organ. In October 2002, the magazine ran “An Open Letter to the Members of Congress” urging them to vote against Bush’s war in Iraq. “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” said the editorial, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment on the Vietnam War. Addressing the failure of nerve on the part of congressional Democrats—“You are the opposition party, but you do not oppose”—it echoed Nation editorials dating back to the annexation of Hawaii and the conquest of the Philippines, warning that today Americans are “threatened by a monster of unbalanced and unaccountable power—a new Leviathan—that is taking shape among us in the executive branch of the government. This Leviathan—concealed in an ever-deepening, self-created secrecy and fed by streams of money from corporations that, as scandal after scandal has shown, have themselves broken free of elementary accountability—menaces civil liberties even as it threatens endless, unprovoked war.”
Under vanden Heuvel’s editorship, subscriptions had already risen past 100,000 and would even approach 200,000. Navasky, who stayed on as publisher emeritus, credited George W. Bush. “If it’s bad for the country, it’s good for The Nation,” he quipped.
The Nation’s commitment to sustained coverage isn’t about winning prizes, though it has earned more than a few of those. In 2008, The Nation devoted a special issue to “The New Inequality.” Amid an election campaign in which the widening gap between rich and poor never got much attention—this was four years before Mitt Romney’s slip about the “47 percent”—articles by Doug Henwood and Barbara Ehrenreich fleshed out the facts behind, as the issue’s centerfold put it, America’s “Plutocracy Reborn.” Though this issue did win the Hillman Prize, the real dividend on the magazine’s investment came three years later, when Occupy Wall Street put inequality on the world’s agenda.