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Victor Navasky, editor of the Nation and voice of the left, dies at age 90

Victor S. Navasky, a genius champion of left-liberal politics who was a longtime editor and publisher of the Nation – one of the nation’s oldest magazines – and wrote acclaimed histories of the Kennedy Department of Justice and the Hollywood blacklist, died on January 23. in a hospital in Manhattan. He was 90.

The cause was pneumonia, said his son Bruno.

As editor and then publisher, Mr. Navasky served as president of the Nation from 1978 to 2005, cultivating a roster of classy, ​​sharp-witted writers while earning pennies and soliciting donations to keep the small magazine afloat. Founded at the end of the Civil War, the New York-based weekly had hardly ever been profitable, but it developed an inordinate influence over the years, publishing articles by James Baldwin, Henry James, and IF Stone, among others.

Under Mr. Navasky, the magazine expanded its readership while maintaining its spirited reputation. Contributors included left-wing provocateur Alexander Cockburn, British contrarian Christopher Hitchens, American historian Eric Foner, novelist Toni Morrison and humorist Calvin Trillin, whom his editor affectionately referred to as “the crafty and thrifty Navasky,” joking that the magazine ” in the high two digits.”

“The one thing I don’t like about Victor is the fact that everyone likes him,” Hitchens told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2005. “I think he should have made some more enemies now. Even far-right people could never bring themselves to say, ‘Navasky is a real snake…’ They would say he’s a really nice guy.”

Raised in a liberal New York City environment, Mr. Navasky began his journalism career in the mid-1950s while still a student at Yale Law School. He and some friends founded a satirical political magazine, Monocle, which the editors described as “a relaxed quarterly magazine” – a phrase that “meant it came out twice a year,” Mr. Navasky explained.

“Some people say that contemporary life is too grim to satirize. Others say it’s too absurd to satirize. I say it’s too stark and absurd not to try,” he told Time magazine in 1964.

When asked why he went from an irreverent quarterly to a serious journal of ideas, Mr. Navasky liked to point out that as the editor of Monocle Alger Hiss, the US government official accused of spying for the Soviet Union, he had invited six books by and about one of his former persecutors, Richard M. Nixon. That article was never printed — it was unclear if Hiss responded to his request at all — but Mr. Navasky found much better luck landing guest writers at the Nation.

“He was someone who really believed in being a voice for the voiceless, for the disenfranchised, and picking up where the founders of the nation left off,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, who served as Mr. succeeded Navasky as editor in 1995 and is now editor-in-chief of the magazine. director and publisher. “He loved opinion magazines – he believed they were breeding grounds for new ideas and set the standard for public debate and discourse.”

“If he had one big commitment, it was independence,” she added in a phone interview, noting that Mr. Navasky was “a First Amendment absolutist” willing to alienate readers with his reporting , including articles from the 1970s on American civil liberties. Union’s efforts to defend the freedom of speech of Nazi protesters in the Chicago suburbs.

During his tenure as editor, The Nation received backlash from conservatives and liberals alike, who variously accused the magazine of being too radical and too timid. He also made national headlines in 1979 when he published excerpts from a leaked copy of Gerald Ford’s unpublished memoir, “A Time to Heal,” including material about the former president’s decision to pardon his predecessor Richard M. Nixon.

When the book’s publisher, Harper & Row, sued for copyright infringement, Mr. Navasky and the magazine’s attorneys said the clips were newsworthy and protected under the fair use doctrine. The Supreme Court disagreed in a 1985 ruling and the nation was held liable for $12,500 in damages. Publishers and legal experts were divided on whether the ruling was a win for authors and readers, or simply for the former president and his business associates.

While working as an editor, Mr. Navasky also wrote books, beginning with “Kennedy Justice” (1971), a scientific report for the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “This is probably the best book ever written about a Kennedy brother, and it may be the best book ever written about an executive branch of the federal government,” columnist George F. Will wrote in the National Review, a conservative magazine that was rarely published. sympathize with Mr. Navasky’s views.

The book was a finalist for a National Book Award, which Mr. Navasky won for his next book, “Naming Names” (1980). The product of eight years of research, including interviews with more than 150 people, the book documented the activities of alleged Hollywood radicals and their investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, which jailed 10 screenwriters, directors and producers . because in 1947 he refused to testify about alleged communist ties. The witch hunt continued into the 1950s and countless careers were destroyed by allegations of subversion.

“Those who opposed the committee and refused to name names were acting in the spirit of the Constitution and defending the First Amendment,” Mr. Navasky concluded. “Those who named ended up contributing to the worst aspects of the domestic Cold War.”

In part, the book is inspired by Mr. Navasky’s upbringing in New York, where he studied with a Marxist history teacher at Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as the Little Red School House, and watched the parents of some of his classmates lose their parents . jobs because of their political views.

Mr. Navasky sympathized with those who were persecuted. “I was, I think, what would be called a left-liberal, though I never considered myself the only left,” he wrote in a memoir, “A Matter of Opinion” (2005). “I believed in civil rights and civil liberties, I favored racial integration, I thought responsibility for the international tensions of the Cold War was shared equally between the United States and the USSR”

Victor Saul Navasky, the younger of two children, was born in Manhattan on July 5, 1932. His parents worked for a family business in the Garment District that made clothes for young men and students.

Mr. Navasky edited the student newspaper at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and received a bachelor’s degree in 1954. After serving two years in the military, he enrolled at Yale on the GI Bill, graduating in 1959 with a law degree.

He sometimes took a break from journalism to work in politics, including as a special assistant to Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams, a liberal Democrat. In 1974, after a stint at the New York Times as editor of a Sunday magazine and columnist of monthly books, he worked as a campaign manager—or “mismanager,” as he put it—for Democrat Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. Attorney General who unsuccessfully ran to unseat incumbent Senator Jacob K. Javits (RN.Y.).

Mr. Navasky’s colleagues on the campaign trail included Hamilton Fish, a son and grandson of congressmen, who later purchased the Nation and appointed Mr. Navasky as editor. Mr. Navasky then initiated a writers’ exchange program at the New Statesman in Britain, in addition to launching an apprenticeship program – later named in his honor – which provided early career experience to hundreds of journalists.

In 1995, he became the magazine’s publisher and editor-in-chief after buying out publisher Arthur L. Carter with the help of an investor group that included actor Paul Newman and novelist EL Doctorow, an old friend. By the time he stepped down as publisher, the magazine was turning a profit and its circulation had more than doubled to nearly 190,000.

Mr. Navasky later taught at Columbia University and served as president of the Columbia Journalism Review. He also continued to write books, including “The Art of Controversy” (2013), on the history of political cartoons. His earlier works include “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” (1984), a brutal collection of lies, deceit, and false prophecies that he compiled with co-writer Christopher Cerf.

Survivors include his wife of 56 years, the former Annie Strongin; three children, Bruno, Miri, and Jenny Navasky, all from Manhattan; and five grandchildren.

Reflecting on the nation’s mission, Mr. Navasky noted that there had to be a balance between accurate reporting and genuine advocacy. Two quotes epitomized those ideas for him, the first from the debut issue of the Nation, in 1865—”The week was particularly barren of thrilling happenings”—and the second from the Liberator, the magazine’s abolitionist precursor: “I won’t waver – I won’t excuse – I won’t back down an inch.

“At our best,” he told the observer, “we’ll take on these two charges: telling the truth as best you can, and fighting for the things you know or think are right. And then, if the country has lost its footing, or the world has gone in a crazy direction, you can help restore balance by using common sense.”

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