Victor Navasky was, first and foremost, a journalist and author. But like a striking number of journalists and authors during a politically disruptive period in mid-20th-century America, he wasn’t satisfied to leave politics to the politicians.
Navasky, who died on Monday at age 90 after a career that included 27 years as editor and then publisher of The Nation, was in the early 1970s becoming something of a media phenomenon. He joined The New York Times in 1970 as an editor, a staff writer for the paper’s magazine, and a frequent book reviewer, and in 1971 penned Kennedy Justice, a critically acclaimed study of the late Robert F. Kennedy’s tenure as US attorney general. Then, in the spring of 1974, another former attorney general, Ramsey Clark, asked Navasky to manage a deliberately unconventional campaign for the US Senate.
Clark—an outspoken foe of economic, social, and racial injustice who had overseen the crafting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1968—had served on the left wing of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Toward its end, he had been the highest-profile target of Richard Nixon’s venomous attacks on LBJ’s appointees. Texas-born and plainspoken, Clark was the opposite of a New York politician. But he thought that he just might be able to upend the electoral patterns of his adopted state and the nation.
As someone who had written extensively about Clark’s courageous tenure at the Department of Justice, Navasky shared the prospective candidate’s faith that another politics was possible.
In his “minor memoir” of their foray into electioneering, Navasky recalled: “When Ramsey Clark was told that the man he had just asked to be his campaign manager had no experience at that kind of work, he said, ‘That makes two of us. Besides, anyone programed to do this the conventional way will be too frustrated by what I have in mind.”
What Clark had in mind, and what Navasky signed on for, was a challenge to one of the most popular and influential members of the US Senate, New York Republican Jacob Javits. Prominent Democrats, who were unwilling to take him on, saw the liberal Republican as invincible. Indeed, Javits had won his last reelection bid by almost 1.2 million votes. But Clark and Navasky believed that, in the waning days of the Vietnam War and at a moment when the Watergate scandal was about to force Nixon from the presidency, Americans were ready for an alternative to politics as usual.
Navasky was not the only writer to leap into politics during this period. His friend Gore Vidal mounted campaigns for the US House from New York and the US Senate from California, and the writer was encouraged to make a third-party bid for the presidency in 1972. William F. Buckley Jr., who helmed National Review, had run a cheeky Conservative Party campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965. Norman Mailer campaigned for the Democratic nomination for the same job in 1969, promising to make the city America’s 51st state. Mailer’s running mate that year was newspaper columnist and author Jimmy Breslin, who sought the office of New York City Council president. And the pair reportedly tried to convince another author and activist Gloria Steinem to run for city comptroller.
The Mailer-Breslin bid was managed by street-savvy Village Voice reporter and novelist Joe Flaherty, who earned high praise for his book-length account of the failed campaign, Managing Mailer.
So Navasky was in good company. And he proved to be an able manager for an unorthodox campaign that, to the surprise of just about everyone, displaced the candidate of party bosses to win the Democratic nomination and gave Javits a run for his money in November. Yes, Clark lost. But he held the incumbent to a victory margin that was just one-third of what it had been six years earlier, and earned national notice for shaking up the politics of New York State.
How Clark and Navasky do it? By breaking almost all the rules of politics. Clark’s campaign set a $100 limit on campaign contributions, and then set up a pioneering Control Data 3600 computer program to assure that donations above the limit were rejected. Ultimately, the campaign returned tens of thousands to overly generous donors, yet, as Navasky noted, “The experts predicted he would be lucky to raise $25,000, with his $100 a person limit, but before it was over he had raised the astronomical sum of $850,000 from more than 35,000 contributors.”
In an era when politicians and political commentators were wrestling—often half-heartedly, often ineptly—with the question of how to counter the corrosive influence of campaign cash on American politics, Clark declared, “We’ve got to drive big money out of politics with little money.” That stance, which Navasky constantly defended in interviews with skeptical print and broadcast reporters, anticipated the small-donor driven campaigns that former California governor Jerry Brown would run for the presidency in 1992 and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders would mount in 2016 and 2020.
The Clark campaign also rejected the vapid character of campaigning, arguing that voters could and should be treated seriously. It refused, for instance, to run 30-second television commercials. When he was offered a free spot on an upstate TV station, Clark appeared only to announce that the time allotted was insufficient to deliver a meaningful message. He urged people to write him about issues that concerned them and promised to respond with detailed position papers.
But the campaign that Clark and Navasky ran was about more than style. It was a deeply thoughtful exercise in providing what Clark referred to as “moral leadership.” The candidate rejected the era’s “tough-on-crime” rhetoric and instead focused on the need to reform policing—one of his nominators at a Democratic State Committee meeting was Frank Serpico, a former New York City officer who has exposed police corruption. The other was Herbert X. Blyden, who had been incarcerated at the Attica Correctional Facility. On foreign policy, Clark criticized the military-industrial complex, rejected US meddling in the affairs of other countries, and talked up Palestinian rights. That drew blowback from Javits and from the editorial pages of New York City’s daily newspapers, with the Daily News announcing that Clark’s election “would be a shame upon the state and a danger to the nation.”
Navasky took it all in stride, managing a campaign that rejected paid speechwriters and strategists and took no polls because, as he explained, “most candidates use them to tell them what to say and Ramsey already knew what he wanted to say.”
After his defeat, Clark would make another unsuccessful Senate bid in 1976 and then abandon electoral politics for a career of outspoken opposition to US militarism and frequently controversial defenses of global leaders who were the targets of successive presidential administrations.
Navasky returned to journalism. Yet he never lost sight of the vision of a braver and better politics, and the faith that it might one day prevail.