Victor Navasky: A Generous, Mischievous, Endlessly Entertaining Genius

Victor Navasky: A Generous, Mischievous, Endlessly Entertaining Genius

Victor Navasky: A Generous, Mischievous, Endlessly Entertaining Genius

The Nation’s former publisher remembers his former partner and lifelong friend.

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I first met Victor in June of 1974, in his office at the Ramsey Clark for Senate campaign. I was 22.

Clark, a former attorney general under President Johnson, was running as an anti-war candidate in the Democratic primary against Lee Alexander—the mayor of Syracuse—and the colorful Abe Hirschfeld, a parking lot magnate. Hirschfeld’s two big ideas, delivered in thickly accented English, were (1) we needed a builder because there were already too many lawyers in Congress, and (2) to fix the economy, we should no longer allow checks to be made out to cash. (Many years later, I went down to Miami Beach to discuss the possibility of opening a Mexican restaurant in one of his hotels. The project failed to materialize, which was probably a good thing, as Abe was later indicted for hiring a hit man to kill his business partner.)

Victor decided I would become the director of fundraising—the first in a succession of jobs Victor would assign to me that no one else wanted. Clark famously refused to accept more than $100 per contributor, which was an admirable stance, but it seriously complicated the task of raising money. Clark also refused to interrupt his law school teaching schedule throughout the campaign, which made it hard to schedule events. And when we did manage to gather folks at the homes of prominent and powerful people who were willing to recruit their friends to make time to hear Ramsey, he had a habit of building his remarks around quotes like “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Somehow Victor managed to steer this unorthodox enterprise past the primary and into the general election, where we faced Jacob Javits, the New York political icon and Nixon supporter. Javits eventually convened a press conference with US airmen who had been imprisoned in the same POW camp in North Vietnam that Ramsey had visited on a peace mission. The war heroes said his visit lowered their morale, and Clark lost by six points.

Victor unveiled his next big idea to me over drinks maybe two years later. “The Nation magazine is for sale,” he told me. “I think we should buy it.” I nodded thoughtfully, affecting all the worldliness a 24-year-old could muster. I didn’t really know a lot about The Nation, beyond the vitriol it had aimed at my grandfather—who had been a prominent critic of the New Deal as a Republican congressman—but I was just finishing up work on a film that applied the lessons of Nuremberg to the US intervention in Vietnam, and the idea of working with Victor on a serious magazine of politics and ideas was appealing.

So I made the mistake most people have made with Victor—at least once. “How will I get paid?” I asked. “You’ll have to raise it,” he responded without blinking. It’s possible he said, “We’ll have to raise it”—but I don’t think so.

That after-work encounter launched a love affair with independent journalism and culture—and Victor—that has endured to this day. As Katrina has suggested, he was a natural teacher, as much by his own example as by instruction.

We secured an option on the magazine and spent the following year traveling around the country looking for people who were crazy enough to believe it was a good idea to invest in a moribund, decidedly noncommercial left-leaning journal of opinion printed on newsprint and with a circulation made up largely of nursing homes and libraries.

Victor recruited E.L. Doctorow and Ralph Nader to give us heft, and the vaunted law firm Paul, Weiss took us on as a pro bono client and gave me an office. They also supplied us with a private placement memorandum that I believe they had previously prepared for ExxonMobil; for a brief time, Victor was the general partner of a giant offshore oil deal.

We scoured the country looking for partners, and by the time we were done many of the most remarkable people I have ever known came together to back Victor’s vision, including most notably Norman Lear, Dorothy Schiff—the onetime owner of the New York Post—the activist and philanthropist W.H. “Ping” Ferry, and Doctorow himself.

Funds in hand, we closed on the magazine. Our plan had been to install Alan Sagner as our publisher, but at the last minute New Jersey governor Brendan Byrne intervened to appoint him to lead the Port Authority.

We tried other candidates but struck out. So for the second time in two years Victor assigned me to a job for which there wasn’t even a short list. Being publisher of The Nation, of course, turned out to be the job of a lifetime—much of which was happily spent chasing Victor through the dazzling worlds of independent journalism, New York letters, and the misshapen politics of the Carter and Reagan years. But above all, for me it was a chapter of unbounded affection and admiration for the generous, mischievous, endlessly entertaining genius in our midst.

“How much will I get paid?” I asked when my partner and lifelong friend proposed that I become his publisher. “I thought you knew,” he said. “You’ll earn your age.”

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