I was 10 when I first heard the name Victor Navasky. My father was throwing Kennedy Justice around our living room. He had worked in the Kennedy Justice Department, and thought Navasky’s book got it wrong.
Years later, another book by Victor, Naming Names, changed my life. It led me to apply to The Nation’s internship program, and in 1980, with Victor as lead professor, I embarked on my journalistic and political education.
I’d just started my internship when Victor asked me to come to his office to meet the widow of former Nation editor Carey McWilliams. Iris needed someone to help organize her late husband’s papers and Victor thought I’d be the right person. I was finishing my undergraduate thesis on the McCarthy era, and in my intern application I’d explained that I wanted to work at the magazine, which had fought so courageously for civil liberties during those scoundrel times. I considered McWilliams—and Victor—lead watchmen during (and after) those dark nights.
Years later, when Victor passed the baton, I came to realize what an idiosyncratic mentor he was. He was a true believer in independence—of journals, of countries, and of those who sought his mentorship. He trusted you to make up your own mind. There were many days I’d leave his office more confused than when I entered!
I once asked Victor how the founding editor of a political satire magazine, Monocle, ended up at The Nation. Days later, he slipped me his 1964 assignment letter asking Alger Hiss to write an “essay-review on books about and by Richard Nixon.” Victor wrote: “I know that Mr. Nixon is not much in the news these days, but we suspect that after the election there will be considerable speculation regarding his future.” I never found out if Hiss replied.
Victor taught me to sharpen the skills necessary for editing a magazine as tempestuous in its politics and personalities as The Nation. I once asked him why he seemed to have an aversion to confrontation.
He told me he much preferred humor and satire—even cartooning—as ways to defuse conflict.
Victor believed “our job” as editors was to decide who should and shouldn’t be a columnist, how often the column should run, what it should cover, what the political and cultural mix of the magazine should be, and the hundreds of other editorial (and interconnected) decisions that go into putting out a magazine. Critics, he once said, will weigh in but “history will decide how well we did our job.” There are some decisions on which it is important and wise to have a consensus, he believed, and there are others where it would be a disaster to try to reach consensus.
A longtime contributor to The Nation wrote me on hearing of Victor’s passing, “I loved his willingness to be disagreed with and then without argument suggest the person who disagreed with the magazine go investigate the situation himself/herself.” In an interview for his college (beloved Swarthmore) paper, I described Victor as “velvet steel.” There was the genial temperament, yet a steeliness at the core. (If you wanted to see both sides, you asked ask him about Alger Hiss.) Fortunately, we shared an appreciation of vodka—his Grey Goose, mine Stoly—which kept the spine and spirit strong.
If Victor had an “ism” (he was accused of having a few), I believe it was humanism. He was that rare person who was fierce in his convictions, yet kind and compassionate in his personal relations. (Longtime Nation columnist Christopher Hitchens once lamented, “The only thing I don’t like about Victor is the fact that everybody likes him.”) Victor resisted the cynicism common in some circles. (No naming names.) He was also remarkably responsive, patient, generous with his time, and didn’t let petty matters get to him. He laughed easily. (I still need mentoring from Victor on how to be better at the last two.)
Over the years, I gathered a small file of my correspondence with Victor. There are e-mails, scrawled handwritten notes on yellow legal pads, even sketches and notes on napkins. One of his e-mails goes like this: “Katrina—Don’t despair. No advice—I think what you are doing is exactly right.” I have no memory of what I was despairing of. What I do know is that Victor’s passing is an incalculable loss to The Nation and to the nation. I will miss him.