Up With Rags

A Matter of Opinion by Victor S. Navasky (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 464 pages, $27.00)

When I was in college and a member of my university's Liberal Party, a common question posed to candidates for party office was a dichotomy: “New Republic or Nation?” (The American Prospect did not yet exist.) Most people didn't hesitate. They picked The New Republic.

The preference wasn't really ideological; we all considered ourselves liberals. In those days The New Republic, alternately edited by Michael Kinsley and Hendrik Hertzberg, brimmed with a sly wit, an inside-Washington savvy far rarer then than it is today, and brainy arguments that challenged liberal orthodoxy. The intelligence jumped off the page. Indeed, after college, when I joined the magazine as a “reporter-researcher” (read: intern), attending editorial meetings felt like what it must have been to sit in at the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s.

Reading The Nation, in contrast, felt dutiful and annoying. The tone was often strident and moralistic. Except for Calvin Trillin's twee doggerel, humor was largely absent. The relentless Israel-bashing and apologetics for Louis Farrakhan were disturbing, and the foreign-policy articles rarely credited the United States with any positive role in the world. To be sure, some wonderful writers graced the magazine's pages -- where would we be, still today, without Katha Pollitt? -- but their work was often followed by scabrous attacks on liberals. Besides, the thing looked as if it were meant for wrapping giblets.

The editor was Victor S. Navasky.

Navasky, who stepped down (or up) as editor to become publisher in 1996, has written a memoir, A Matter of Opinion. In it, he gets in a few digs at his old rival magazine -- noting, for example, that while The New Republic in 1961 caved to White House pressure and killed a piece about the planned Bay of Pigs invasion, The Nation bravely ran its account. There are also some potshots at my old boss, New Republic Editor-in-Chief and part owner Marty Peretz, and yet another round of accounting in Navasky's death duel with historian (now U.S. Archivist) Allen Weinstein about Alger Hiss' guilt. But overall, for a memoir, the dearth of score settling is quite remarkable (even disappointing!).

Happily enough, A Matter of Opinion is a brisk, delightful read -- funny, smart, self-deprecating. Navasky comes off as thoroughly likable, broadminded, gamely entrepreneurial, and sensible in his politics. He even boasts that a predecessor of his in the editor's job, Freda Kirchwey, steadfastly supported the state of Israel during its infancy. All of which makes one wonder: Is this the same guy who used to edit The Nation?

Actually, Navasky's was always one of his magazine's most appealing voices. Still, the great charm of this book may be unexpected. If anyone still puts stock in the distinction between autobiography and memoir, A Matter of Opinion is the latter. Not a comprehensive life story, it has a discrete and pronounced theme: the business of running “little magazines.” Politics aren't absent, but the book is no reveille for radicals. Rather, it's full of insights into how you found, fund, write for, edit, promote, preserve, protect, defend, and otherwise superintend a rag whose unfashionable views are bound to alienate advertisers and draw only a small corps of hardcore readers.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the appetite shown by the intellectual Navasky for the nuts and bolts of the magazine's business side. After steering The Nation editorially through the regimes of Hamilton Fish III (technically, the fifth of the Hamilton Fishes) and Arthur Carter (now the publisher of The New York Observer), Navasky in 1994 took control of the purse strings himself. Raising $3 million from Paul Newman and other liberal angels, Navasky plunged into the world of balance sheets, cash flows, and price-earnings ratios -- with help from a crash course for CEOs at Harvard Business School. Despite his penchant for rattling the received axioms of his well-heeled classmates -- questioning, for example, the morality of a usurious racket called Cash America that they beheld as a model of entrepreneurialism -- Navasky emerged from “HBS” thinking of himself as a businessman.

It turns out, actually, that Navasky had practiced these business skills decades before. At Yale Law School in the 1950s, he started what sounds like a crackerjack satirical broadsheet called The Monocle. An artifact of the Mort Sahl, Nichols-and-May era of collegiate humor, The Monocle outgrew its varsity origins and graduated to New York City, nabbing soon-to-be famous contributors including Trillin, John Leonard, Nora Ephron, Sidney Zion, Ed Koren, and Ralph Nader (Nader's contribution, a spoof of a speech by an auto executive, was rejected as “heavy-handed”).

Besides publishing their humor, the Monocle crowd performed Yippie-style stunts, like running the paper's then–35-year-old managing editor, Marvin Kitman, for president (he was the only staffer old enough), and issuing a bogus government report about converting from a Cold War economy to a peacetime economy called “Report from Iron Mountain.” Written in “impenetrable, bureaucratic prose, replete with obfuscating footnotes,” the sham report not only notched a story in The New York Times -- the headline, in typically balanced fashion, was “Some See Book as Hoax/Others Take It Seriously” -- but, 30 years later, it was seized on by right-wing militia movements that missed the title's irony, and the book had to be exposed as a hoax all over again.

Navasky carried his insouciant wit with him as he began freelancing for The New York Times Magazine. His description of his lunches with his editor there will resonate with anyone who's faced daily bouts with four walls and a computer screen (or blank typewriter page, as was the case around 1970):

I had always looked forward to having lunch with my editor. This was because he paid; but also because the lunch was more elegant than it would have been had I been on my own. And no editors took you to lunch unless they were interested in your writing. Then there were the martinis, the literary gossip, and finally there was the content, the ideas, the conversation. At least it got you out of the house.

Soon the Times hired Navasky as an editor, enabling him to treat writers to fine lunches and martinis as he trawled for story ideas. He reeled in good ones, including a groundbreaking essay by Merle Miller, Harry Truman's biographer, in which Miller came out of the closet (this was 25 years before such accounts became routine). After detours into politics, teaching, and book writing -- Kennedy Justice and Naming Names remain important contributions -- Navasky assumed the editorship of The Nation in 1978.

There he presided over what he recalls not as a knee-jerk band of devotees of radical chic but a quarrelsome gaggle of anarchists, feminists, globalists, anti-imperialists, human-rights activists, unrepentant Trotskyists, and other denizens of the battered but defiant American left. Yet compared with the stark ideological divisions that rent The New Republic in those years -- over whether, for example, to support Ronald Reagan's hard-line anti-Soviet foreign policy -- the in-house uproars Navasky relates seem likely to confirm an observer's stereotypes about the left (such as the mutiny over a David Levine cartoon of Henry Kissinger raping the world because the world was depicted as a woman and because Kissinger was on top). Some conflicts, to be sure, were more serious. Navasky confesses dismay over the resignations from his editorial board of such luminaries as Alan Wolfe, Sidney Morgenbesser, and Robert Lekachman, the last of whom could no longer countenance The Nation's Middle East politics.

Despite Navasky's characterization of his critics, The Nation's problem was never that it was monochromatic -- even if its internecine squabbles may strike outsiders as stemming from a narcissism of small differences. On the contrary, the problem was that in trying to make The Nation “a left-liberal big tent, with room for both radicals and FDR liberals,” Navasky was sometimes too accommodating. He quotes the 1960s radical Robert Sherrill charging him with being “soft” (his exact words were “too fucking soft for your own good”). To which Navasky replies: “I don't know if Bob was right about my being too soft. (See, that's a softy statement right there. Maybe he's right.)”

In fact, it's hard to see what Navasky accomplished, for the left or for civil discourse, by providing a regular platform for the vitriol-spewing Alexander Cockburn. And when Gore Vidal, long known for his old-line nativism and anti-Semitism, wrote in The Nation that Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz should register as a foreign agent for Israel, Navasky convinces himself that Vidal's libel was simply an “ironic way of commenting on the folly of Jewish intellectuals making alliances with the Moral Majority.” As one can tell from A Matter of Opinion, Navasky is an open-minded and bighearted man. But his brand of liberal tolerance is vulnerable to exploitation by left-wing authoritarians, leftover Maoists and Castroites, anti-Semites disguised as anti-Zionists, and other fringe-dwellers who, we now know, have no love for liberalism.

Later, Navasky quotes another resignation letter from Sherrill. (“I plan to donate my cache of Bob's I-quit letters to the Smithsonian,” Navasky explains.) Sherrill accuses Navasky of being “an eastern liberal -- extremely clever, very intellectual, very reasonable,” and describing himself, in contrast, as “a western anarchist … very unreasonable” and possessed of a “gutter” hatred toward corporations and politicians. But instead of welcoming the departure from his intellectual journal of a writer proudly inspired by hate and unreason, Navasky coaxes Sherrill back, praising his irrationality as one of “the qualities one hopes for in a magazine of The Nation's sort.”

Navasky's tendency to seek common ground -- commendable in most situations -- also comes through in his approach to his counterparts on the right. After he ceded The Nation's editorship to Katrina vanden Heuvel, he repaired to Harvard and Columbia to study more formally his lifelong interest in what Lionel Trilling called “the function of the little magazine.” He discovered Jurgen Habermas' writings on 18th-century coffeehouse culture and concluded that magazines like The Nation, The New Republic, and the National Review represent a continuation of the “public sphere” of discourse that has otherwise withered in postindustrial America.

Of course, Navasky hardly needed Habermas to reach this conclusion. One of the many appealing elements of A Matter of Opinion is its recurring theme that these magazines, whatever their politics, pursue a joint enterprise -- finding a way, in a capitalist society, to keep afloat an inherently money-losing venture because they care about politics and ideas. Navasky writes of convening conferences for magazines from across the spectrum, of having right-wing editors lecture in his classroom. He waxes eloquent about the political interests these magazines share (subsidized postal rates) and, more important, their common commitment to free-flowing, enlightened exchange.

A fascinating revelation in A Matter of Opinion is the now-forgotten plan, shortly after World War II, to merge The New Republic and The Nation. The idea was to combine the readerships and literary firepower of the two leading liberal publications, making the combined entity (The New Nation?) more financially secure. After years of courtship, the romance collapsed amid conflicts about power, politics, and money. Looking back, Navasky concludes, “At a time when independent voices, not to mention dissenting, iconoclastic, and minority views, are fewer and fewer,” both sides can agree that “we are all fortunate that the merger that didn't happen didn't happen.”

Given this spirit of putting aside old grudges that suffuses Navasky's delightful, winning memoir -- the patent regard for high-level debate at a time of piercing shrillness -- it would be mean-spirited to dwell on The Nation's shortcomings. Indeed, the publisher Navasky deserves admiration and congratulations for achieving the impossible: making a little magazine profitable. Guided by his business acumen, The Nation entered the black in 2004, taking in $251,000 more than it spent. Its circulation, which used to hover around 80,000, has skyrocketed to 184,296 -- a staggeringly impressive figure for a left-wing opinion journal printed on fish wrap and, incidentally, a lot more today than the glossier New Republic, or, for that matter, The American Prospect.

David Greenberg is a professor of journalism, media studies, and history at Rutgers University and a columnist for Slate. He is the author of Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image.

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