A Matter of Opinion, By Victor S. Navasky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 458 pages. $27.00.
From the August 2005 Issue
There are editors. And there are editors. And then there’s Victor Navasky, who’s been at the helm of The Nation, our flagship for the past three decades. (And cut it out already, Dissent, you are not, as you claim to be, with your puny readership and low profile, “The Leading Magazine of the American Left.” That distinction belongs to The Nation.) Navasky has taken The Nation from 23,000 subscribers to about 184,000. He’s lifted the profile of the magazine by grabbing some of the most talented writers in the land and by pushing those who are telegenic (or egotistic or masochistic) onto the TV screens. And he’s raised scads of money to stabilize the publication.
Oddly, it’s the latter that he’s most proud of. Odd because the business of running a magazine, to me anyway, is not where the joy lies. Oh, I get as excited as the next editor (maybe even a little more so) about the success of a direct mail package. And my pulse quickens when I see an unexpected big donation roll in. Lord knows, we need it.
But the joys of editing, for me, are in the editing: finding the ideal writer for a story, breaking a big investigative piece, overhauling an important but unwieldy story until it is wieldy, glazing the copy of the best writers, and then trying to present a whole issue that leavens urgency and truth with beauty and humor.
Navasky is a chef who doesn’t seem to like to cook. This is not Max Perkins working with Thomas Wolfe. For the most part, Navasky removes himself from the editor-writer fray. Instead, he presides. He referees. With enormous patience, he endures this staff dispute or that sectarian debate. (My predecessor, Erwin Knoll, always marveled at this ability of Navasky’s.) He takes martini lunches with prospective writers or donors. He goes to conferences. He moderates debates and participates in symposiums. He testifies in lawsuits or before Congress. In his off hours, he writes books and teaches journalism courses at universities.
And he schnores, as we say in Yiddish. He fundraises. Much of A Matter of Opinionrevolves around the process of extracting The Nation from the clutches of one-time owner Arthur Carter and then finding, with the help of Ham Fish and others, including E. L. Doctorow and Paul Newman, the necessary cash to keep The Nation not only floating but cruising, and you’ll have to excuse that pun.
He writes, with understandable pride, about the all but unimaginable: The Nation cleared a profit of $251,000 last year. And he offers two recurrent bits of advice. Run a political magazine “like a business or else you will be out of business,” and leave the editor alone. Both are unassailable.
But I longed for the thrill of the big story and the dazzle of the great catch.
There are a few exceptions to this. One is his fascinating account of how he came to acquire an advance copy of Gerald Ford’s memoirs, published by Harper & Row, which discussed the Nixon pardon. Navasky leaped the embargo, quoting a few hundred words from the book and commenting critically on Ford’s stated reasons for the biggest get out of jail free card of all time. For this wise journalistic decision, Navasky was sued on the grounds of copyright infringement, and he lost.
Another is his abiding affection for Christopher Hitchens (whom I also respect, despite his apostasy). Navasky tells how he introduced the British polemicist to The Nation in 1980 and how the relationship ended, with Hitchens storming off before the Iraq War with an ill-tempered farewell. Characteristically sweet and indulgent, Navasky writes: “I thought that was too bad,” adding that The Nation “benefited from having literate, informed, and original second, third, and fourth guessings of Christopher’s sort in its pages.”
Such pieces seem to be his favorites, and so he lauds Richard Falk’s internal wrestling match about the proper response to the attacks of 9/11. One week Falk calls Bush’s war against Afghanistan “the first truly just war since World War II” and then, weeks later, writes that “the United States is waging an unjust war in Afghanistan.” Later still, as I recall, he reverts to his original position.
But I wanted more—not about how the magazine has survived financially, but about how Navasky brought together the writers that make up what we know as The Nation today. Who found Katha Pollitt (the moral center of the magazine for the last decade), and who convinced her to split her writing life into two vastly different sensibilities: half poet, half columnist? Alexander Cockburn, who carried The Nation through much of the 1980s, is held at arm’s length. I could have stomached more dish here.
Though he explains how he brought on Calvin Trillin, he doesn’t tell us how The Nation grabbed William Greider from Rolling Stone or plucked Naomi Klein.
And how did Patricia Williams and Eric Alterman and John Nichols (you thieves!) clamber aboard?
Or what about the poetry, the book reviews, and the theater and film criticism? What role does all that play in the magazine?
Then, it being The Nation, there is the question of its politics. In the historical chapter entitled “Looking Backward,” Navasky escorts us through the 140 years of the publication. He strains to defend the publication against the charge that it was soft on Stalin, but ultimately he cops a plea to Susan Sontag’s indictment that subscribers to Reader’s Digest would have had a better grasp of the horrors of the Soviet Union than subscribers to The Nation. “Internationally The Nation was indeed slower than the Digest to comprehend the internal corruption and repression of Stalin’s Russia,” Navasky admits, though he argues in extenuation that The Nation grasped the domestic politics of the Cold War far better, as well as the reverberations in the Third World. He also takes several pages to keep rising to the defense of Alger Hiss. As far as the Rosenbergs, who took up a disproportionate amount of space in The Nation under Navasky’s early tenure, they are blessedly confined here. These are concerns of the old left (Navasky says he still mists up at hearing the Internationale), which may interest some readers but I, at this stage, couldn’t care less about them.
I’m much more concerned about the politics of our current era. And on this subject, Navasky is curiously brief. He points to the problem of media monopolization, and includes a hilarious letter he wrote to Time proposing that The Nation purchase it. But there is nothing here about globalization, precious little about race relations and inequality, or health care, or the environment, or women’s rights, or the unique threat to our democracy that the far right poses. George W. Bush himself makes a cameo on only three or four pages.
But maybe that’s another book, or any random issue of The Nation.
Navasky gracefully passes the editor’s pen to Katrina vanden Heuvel, whom he rightly praises. She manages Navasky’s balancing act with aplomb, she represents The Nation and the left quite well on TV, and she keeps a strong stable.
For those who regularly complain that The Nation is moving rightward, a shift I have not been able to detect, Navasky may add some fodder. Commenting on the prospectus of Robert Kuttner for The American Prospect (in my opinion, not a magazine but an interminable seminar at the Brookings Institution), which wanted to situate it between The Nation and The New Republic as a magazine not for radicals but for FDR liberals, Navasky writes that he hopes “Katrina vanden Heuvel’s Nation would fill that niche.”
Navasky’s own politics, which he sketched out to the prior editor of The Nation, James Storrow, are quite agreeable, including his “absolutist view of the First Amendment,” his “profound presumption in favor of disarmament,” and his defiant assertion that the Great Society programs didn’t fail—they weren’t even tried. But we don’t find him grappling with the current questions of the Iraq War, the response to Al Qaeda, or the promise or futility of working with the Democratic Party.
These issues don’t seem to animate him as much as finding the next bequest or attending the nearest symposium on the fate of journalism in America.
AA Matter of Opinion is not just about The Nation, which is a good thing. It’s a charming memoir about a clever and engaging man who loves magazines, relishes stories, flips phrases, and collects quips. (One example among many: He quotes Elaine May at the 1964 Democratic Convention pretending to be an intrusive reporter who says, “I’m working on a fifteen-part in-depth series on Jacqueline Kennedy’s quest for privacy.”)
He takes us with him to Swarthmore, where he worked on the college paper and got in trouble for “superimposing a photograph of college president John Nason’s face peering through the open door of a coed’s room.” He lightly discusses his summer job as a tour guide at The Washington Post. In the army up in Alaska as the Korean War is ending, he edits The Moose Hornblower and delights in writing a headline, on the last day of maneuvers, that plays off a Jack Benny movie entitled The Horn Blows at Midnight. Navasky’s headline: “Moose Horn Blows at Midnight.”
From there to Yale Law School, where Navasky founded a satire magazine called Monocle, which he continued afterwards for several years until a lack of funding took it under. Even then undercapitalized, Navasky tells of approaching a prospective donor, who brushed him off: “Look, you’re a bright young man. Part of being a bright young man is knowing when to quit, when to move on. It’s time for you to move on.”
In a fetching trope, Navasky writes, in the very next sentence, “By this time we had moved on to the revolving door in front of his office building.”
Navasky remains a satirist first, a leftie second. And he takes his hat off to “Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and Al Franken and Wonkette.com” for keeping Monocle’s tradition alive.
At the end of his chapter on Monocle, Navasky recalls how he perked up, as we all do in the field of obscure magazines, when our work is recognized. He is in a taxi at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and the driver asks what he does. Navasky says he’s a journalist but that the driver wouldn’t recognize him. When Navasky tells him his name, the driver exclaims Monocle! “It made my day, week, year,” Navasky writes.
One of the more interesting chapters recounts Navasky’s interlude at The New York Times Magazine. He almost got fired because he was not successful in getting his story ideas accepted. He wasn’t playing by the unstated, in-house rules: Come up with a story that has appeared in some form in the paper already, otherwise the bosses don’t think the idea has any merit, and propose that the writer be someone who already has written for the magazine, otherwise the bosses won’t think the writer is up to the task. After getting the hang of this, Navasky managed to break those rules once in a while, most notably when he persuaded the editors to run a story by Merle Miller entitled “On Being Different: What It Means to Be a Homosexual,” which brought in a record number of letters.
And Navasky describes how he wrote his great book, Naming Names, about the Hollywood Ten. He even includes a self-deprecating story about his interview with Albert Maltz, one of the ten. Navasky asked if he minded being taped. “Mind? Not only do I not mind,” Maltz said. “This is too important not to tape. I’m taping it myself.” Lucky for Navasky, since his own tape machine malfunctioned.
Navasky also mentions, all too briefly, his role in managing Ramsey Clark’s 1974 campaign for the U.S. Senate. I was interested to hear what Navasky thought of Clark today, since he seems to have drifted hopelessly into the swamp of sectarianism. But not a word.
Another quibble: Navasky’s style borders on name-dropping. He’s the Dominick Dunne of the left, having breakfast at the Royalton Hotel, or going to dinner at the Players’ Club or the Century Club or the Harvard Club. And almost everyone he mentions is famous in one way or another. Some may find this diverting.
For having the chutzpah to take on and save The Nation alone, Navasky deserves our enduring thanks. But I also appreciate the larger argument he makes for magazines of opinion. The hero here is Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher who stressed the role of opinion journals in strengthening the civil society of democracies. “Habermas’s theory, in the Enlightenment tradition, is based on the idea that to flourish, democracy requires a continuous conversation, open argumentation, and debate,” Navasky explains. Magazine readers become “engaged in the art of critical-rational public debate,” he says, and then he quotes Habermas, who claimed that the Enlightenment allowed “the authority of the better argument” to prevail over the dictates of church or state.
Navasky, while giving a course at the Kennedy School that includes Habermas’s work, eventually goes to Frankfurt to talk to the great man. Habermas, ever quirky, upholds breakfast as an occasion for rational argument. But he offers more pertinent advice that editors should hold dear: “Collect the best arguments for the most precisely stated position on the issue under discussion. . . . The key thing from the democratic standpoint is a critical audience which says yes or no. The question is how to keep the audience informed, how to keep it critical, how to keep it attending, how to keep it investing energy.”
Navasky himself philosophizes about the role of opinion journals. They are political lifelines that “perform a rallying function and let people know they are not alone,” especially when times are bad, he says. But Navasky doesn’t buy the argument that magazines like The Nation merely preach to the converted. He notes that journals of opinion have been critical in helping to end slavery, bring about women’s suffrage, promote civil rights, and end the Vietnam War. On the right side of the ledger, few can deny the effectiveness of National Review in recharging the conservative movement from the 1960s until Reagan’s reign, or of The Weekly Standard trumpeting the neocon cause.
Opinion magazines, Navasky argues well, have an influence far beyond their small numbers. And you never know whom you may affect along the way. He quotes a favorite story of Erwin’s, about a woman who yelled: “I hold you and your magazine responsible for my son failing to register for the draft.” Erwin responded: “I hope you are as proud of him as I am.”
How the Internet may affect journals of opinion Navasky doesn’t say. But he has a bias toward print, and sees the “electronic republic of letters” as strictly supplementary. Acknowledging that he “doesn’t get” the blogosphere, he asserts: “The depositing of prose in an electronic database cannot compete with the canonization, the legitimization conferred by these old-fashioned print journals.”
Here he almost sounds pompous, which is not his usual register. (In fact, one of the beauties of the book is the way he punctures pomposity. He refuses to use the word “deconstruct,” and after attending a particularly ludicrous lecture on postmodernism at Harvard that included the assertion that “kitsch is the miniaturization of charisma,” Navasky writes simply, “Yeah, sure.”)
But it’s hard not to sound a little bit pompous when you consider the role of the political magazine editor. I remember interviewing for my job as an associate editor here at The Progressive back in 1983, and I asked Erwin what the mission of the magazine was. Without hesitation, Erwin said: “to change the world.”
Navasky does not flinch from this, either. “That the often intangible influence of these journals is not quantifiable does not make it any less real,” he writes. “How does one measure their influence on intellectual currents, on cultural assumptions, on the sense of the possible, on the climate of opinion? The fight to exert influence is often a fight over the future.”
At the end, he appropriates the slogan of the British anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s: “Protest and survive.”
It’s a perfect motto for all of us, editors or not.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive.