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.”