Victor Navasky: An Avatar of the American Left, 1932–2023

Victor Navasky: An Avatar of the American Left, 1932–2023

Victor Navasky: An Avatar of the American Left, 1932–2023

Editor of The Nation, 1978–1995; editorial director and publisher, 1995–2005.

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I first met Victor in the spring of 1978 when he walked into The Nation’s spartan offices on Sixth Avenue. Three months earlier I had been hired for a three-day-a-week gig by Blair Clark, who had been brought into the magazine as interim editor. Victor had intended to hire Arthur Samuelson, 26, as his assistant editor. Interestingly, Samuelson had made a name for himself as the editor of a small newsletter put out by Breir, a dovish forerunner of J Street, the current lobby group of Jewish Americans critical of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Arthur would have been an excellent choice. But there I was. And I sensed that Victor couldn’t bring himself to dismiss me. Instead, Victor arranged for Arthur to begin a long and successful career in book publishing. This was my first experience with Navasky, the fixer.

The Nation was a very different place then, occupying one small floor of a loft-like warehouse on Sixth Avenue. Water pipes hung from the ceiling. The wooden floors creaked. We wrote our copy on ancient Royal typewriters. There was a copy editor, Marion Hess, and an executive editor: Robert Hatch—a wiry, elderly, curmudgeon who sat at his desk wearing suspenders and a green eyeshade. He looked like he’d been there for a hundred years. Bob wrote all the magazine’s film reviews—and he never saw a film he could recommend to his readers.

In the wake of the McCarthyite scourge, readership had declined to perilous levels. By 1978, circulation hovered at something less than 20,000—and most of these were library subscriptions, along with a bickering collection of aging New Dealers, Adlai Stevenson liberals, elderly lapsed Communists and the occasional survivor of the 1960s culture wars. The demographics—and hefty deficits—didn’t augur well for the magazine’s survival.

Happily, the magazine’s survival was Navasky’s responsibility—and that of Hamilton Fish, our young publisher. My job was to read manuscripts from the slush pile and write up short summaries on index cards. I worked 10 or 12 hours a day—and rarely even took off weekends. I loved it.

Editorial decisions in those years were a mysterious process. Victor mounted a 10-foot-long rectangular corkboard on the wall in his office. This was his schedule for mapping out what was to go in the magazine week by week. My job was to write the author’s name and article subject on an index card—“Fred Cook on the FBI,” for example—and pin the card in a column marking the publication date. Victor sat gnome-like behind his desk presiding over our editorial meetings, attended by the new managing editor, Richard Lingeman, myself, and the literary editor, Betsy Pochoda. It was a largely silent affair. I would stand by the corkboard, waiting, as Victor and Richard stared at the cards and all the possibilities. Sometimes, I dared to break the silence by commenting on the merits of a particular article. Victor would nod. Richard would whisper something completely inaudible. And then more silence. But Victor and Richard were somehow communicating with each other telepathically. It was very scary to witness. Decisions would be made. The cards were rearranged—though I often later had to pop my head back into Victor’s office to confirm what exactly had been decided. It was like magic.

I learned to trust the Navasky magic. Later that year, he sent me on a boondoggle to the Middle East: two weeks—without pay, of course. In 1979, he sent me to Iran to cover the aftermath of the Iranian revolution, also without pay. But somehow, he managed to get The New York Times to pay my air fare—and yet I still published my reporting in The Nation. After a few years, he helped me find a book agent and sell my first proposal to Simon & Schuster’s legendary Alice Mayhew. Years later, he got me to write a cover profile of Jimmy Carter—which led eventually to a presidential biography. He introduced me to Marty Sherwin—and that of course led to all things Oppenheimer. Last autumn, at the age of 90, Victor was gently encouraging me to pitch a new book proposal, this time on Roy Cohn—a scoundrel he once debated on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. I learned to always do what Victor told me. I liked to joke that he was my rabbi.

But as a biographer, what is fascinating to me about Navasky’s life is that he was so intellectually ubiquitous. He arrived at The Nation in 1978, age 46, already a proven provocateur. As the editor of Monocle, he had published satirical, mischievous essays on the Kennedys, the CIA, and the Cold War. In 1971 he published Kennedy Justice, a critical depiction of Robert F. Kennedy’s tenure as attorney general. And in 1980, he published his groundbreaking study of the McCarthy era, Naming Names—which then won the National Book Award for a general nonfiction paperback. Later, there would be a touching memoir, A Matter of Opinion, and much later an important book about censorship, The Art of Controversy: Political Cartoons and Their Enduring Power.

These books were all enduring works of scholarship. But he devoted his life to something even more important to our intellectual culture: the art of magazine editing. He did so by calmly and thoughtfully courting important controversy—making his readers confront the uncomfortable. Recall, in 1984 he scandalized many of his own Nation staffers by publishing a David Levine caricature of Henry Kissinger shtupping a female personification of the world with her head replaced by a globe.

Navasky knew some would be offended. And that there would be many letters to the editor. That was okay. He was a small-d democrat, but he knew that an editor of a weekly opinion magazine could not take a vote on what to publish and what to censor. That was his responsibility and prerogative.

Neither was he afraid to take risks in the cause of a good fight.

In 1979, he published 300 verbatim words from former president Gerald Ford’s upcoming 500-page memoir, A Time To Heal. It was a classic scoop—a news story that revealed why Ford had decided to pardon Richard Nixon. But Ford’s publisher, Harper & Row, sued The Nation, claiming copyright infringement. Citing the “fair use” clause, Navasky fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And lost. It was bad law—and today the copyright law has been revised to give journalists more “fair use” rights. In retrospect, virtually everyone acknowledges that Navasky was right.

Not so on the case of Alger Hiss. Navasky’s first major contribution to The Nation came in the spring of 1978, when he published a long, highly critical review of Allen Weinstein’s book, Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case. The review poked holes in Weinstein’s thesis, pointing out that six of his major sources denied that Weinstein had quoted them correctly. The controversy raged and still percolates. But unlike Weinstein, Sam Tanenhaus (Chambers’s biographer), and a busload of other Cold War historians, Navasky quite simply thought Chambers made an unreliable witness. Navasky was not a Hiss believer but an agnostic. As late as 2007, he wrote in The Nation, “This is a case that will not die. It will not go away. The Cold War is over but this, among other Cold War ghosts, lingers on.” For Victor, it was important and interesting to ask why.

I should say that I, too, remain an agnostic. Victor once introduced me to Alger. I had lunch with him in a diner across the street from The Nation office, then on Fifth Avenue and 13th Street. Alger was virtually blind—but charming and sweet. And many years later, in 2007, Victor persuaded me to write a 20,000-word essay on the Hiss case, and specifically to investigate the Venona intercept evidence on whether Hiss had been correctly identified as the spy “Ales.” The evidence was complicated, and I am still an agnostic, and still uncertain of the truth. I have a nagging thought that when the Moscow archives finally open, perhaps we will learn that the truth was gray.

I think Victor had similar thoughts. But what is interesting about this controversy is that with all the heated emotions surrounding it, Navasky never personally aroused his critics’ ire. He remained on civil terms with everyone. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for instance, believed firmly in Hiss’s guilt, but he and Navasky were social friends.

Israel/Palestine also aroused controversy, and Navasky never hesitated to walk into this minefield. He published Edward Said, Israel Shahak, and many other critics of Israel. He also introduced me to Hillel Kook, aka Peter Bergson, whose political odyssey informed my own perspective on the conundrum of Israeli national identity. Kook’s views later resulted in The Nation’s 1981 special issue devoted to “Myths About the Middle East”—a critique that remains relevant to the debate.

But despite all the controversy, Navasky kept the doors open to his critics, like Sol Stern and Sidney Zion—old friends who disagreed vociferously with his views but still dined regularly with the Navaskys. Victor was always a genial, impish man who never lost his sense of humor. In the spring of 2009, he wrote me that he had gone to dinner at Frankie and Johnny’s Steakhouse with Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Sid Zion, “and we had an hour-long (friendly, sort of) argument about Israel, joined by an obstreperous woman at the next table—so it was three to one against me—who ended by shouting that she hoped I got stuck with the check!”

That was Victor. He loved people and was invariably amused by them even during a good argument. To be sure, he will forever be known as the man who saved The Nation—and elevated it to new heights. He did so by nurturing good talent and provocative writers. He made us think. But he also touched so many of our own personal lives with his wisdom, humor, and special magic.

He was a mensch.

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Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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