In October 1987 The Nation ran an exposé of Henry Kissinger that revealed his winking approval of the Argentine dirty war. A few months later, at a dinner party hosted by then-publisher Arthur Carter, the former Secretary of State approached the magazine’s editor with a question. “Tell me,” Kissinger said, “How is it that a short article in an obscure journal such as yours…resulted in sixty people holding placards denouncing me a few months ago at the airport when I got off a plane in Copenhagen?” Victor Navasky smiled and replied, “I guess we have readers in Denmark.”
Longtime Nation readers will recognize in that sly offhand remark the spirit of rebellion and insouciant wit that characterized Navasky’s sixteen-year tenure as editor and continues to guide him as publisher. To read his delightful memoir A Matter of Opinion (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) is to see how he has embodied that spirit throughout his career, from his early days at Monocle, a satirical rag that sent one of its editors to challenge Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Republican primary–with Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 platform–to his sabbatical in the mid-’90s at Harvard Business School, where he played the role of anticapitalist foil. (When a professor asked for a list of pros and cons specific to a case study, Navasky recalls, “I got a big laugh and a lot of little snickers when I mentioned that unions can increase productivity.”) And for readers in search of Nation gossip, he abundantly delivers, without sacrificing the tact and discretion that helps him maintain the magazine’s big, fractious ideological tent.
Navasky writes with a raconteur’s casual erudition, a style that resembles a chat over cocktails more than a classroom lecture–and you know he’s telling you only a sliver of what he’s learned in the magazine business. Much of the fun comes from following him as he builds a network of increasingly high-profile colleagues, including some prominent conservatives who share his devotion to opinion journalism, notably William Buckley. Navasky seems to move effortlessly through the world of New York intellectuals and politicians, making friends the way others open doors. But even as he recounts his rising stature among the liberal elite–he emerges as a leading champion of the First Amendment, as sentinel for the Hollywood blacklist, as the financier who steered The Nation from the red (so to speak) to the black–he always cuts back with puckish, self-effacing charm. Hired as an expert witness in the largest libel case in American history, he remembers, “Norman Roy Grutman, Penthouse‘s flamboyant and voluble counsel, told me that he had great admiration for me. In fact, he laid it on so thick that I began to be suspicious. Even I didn’t have that much admiration for me.”
A Matter of Opinion is packed with such stories, and Navasky’s spry reflections enliven his tribute to America’s oldest weekly. Despite the levity of his prose, though, his subject–the role of the opinion journal in public life–is a serious one. For Navasky, there is no democracy without an open, freewheeling conversation about our politics and culture, and he makes a convincing case that independent opinion magazines are among the few remaining places where that sort of discussion occurs. Navasky has helped keep the conversation crackling for decades, and American journalism is richer for it.