The first piece Victor Navasky published in The Nation ran under the byline “G. Mennen Williams”—not a pseudonym, but the name of the Michigan governor who had employed the newly minted Yale Law School graduate as a speechwriter.
My own introduction to Victor came in 1979, after Kai Bird told me that so long as I was willing to work for nothing, The Nation would be pleased to have me as an intern. My memories of Victor from that time are not of a warm and fuzzy or avuncular presence. We interns were basically terrified of Victor, especially since he led through a kind of chemical communication rather than actually telling you things. It was my first brush with negative charisma—and the beginning of a lifelong education.
My task that summer was to read through the magazine’s coverage of foreign policy over the previous 50 years and then write a memo for Victor summarizing that history and suggesting ways we might improve. Between that and driving a taxi on weekends to pay the bills, I kept pretty busy, yet somehow managed to finish a book review that actually got published—and then I was well and truly hooked.
At some point it emerged that my undergraduate adviser, the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, had taught Victor at Swarthmore 25 years earlier—which gave us something to talk about, and allowed Victor, who really loved Sidney, to reveal his more tender side. Still, I learned early on that it was a big mistake to confuse Victor’s enormous affability with pliability or sentimentality. On the issues he cared about—free speech, the tragedy of the Cold War, and the terrible danger of nuclear weapons—he was unyielding, and when he needed to be, perfectly content to stand alone.
Vic was devoted to his wife, Annie, and their children (the most personal conversation he and I ever had was about my experience with childhood cancer), and also had some unlikely enthusiasms: vodka martinis, good restaurants, literary gossip—any gossip, really—and boxing. And if he liked you, he didn’t pull his punches. Maybe that’s the reason that out of all the ephemera accumulated over what became a 40-year apprenticeship, the note I cherish most is one of those fabled blue three-by-five cards in response to an article I’d submitted to The Nation arguing that Major League Baseball was too important to remain subject to the whims of men like George Steinbrenner or Walter O’Malley and should be nationalized. “This piece is too Marxist for The Nation,” he wrote. “Why don’t you try the New York Times? Vic.”