Sticking to Principles, Turning a Profit at The Nation

By Nathaniel Popper

Published May 06, 2005, issue of May 06, 2005.
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In the 27 years that Victor Navasky has overseen the magazine The Nation — as its editor and then as its publisher — the scrappy journal of leftist thought has seen its circulation skyrocket to more than 184,000 from a modest 20,000. The liberal weekly has even started turning a profit during the past three years, something it has generally failed to do since its founding back in the days when Abraham Lincoln was president.

Navasky has reeled in readers with The Nation’s ongoing allegiance to what, in the current conservative climate, is seen as a far-left perspective.

At a time when the American left is in search of motivational precepts, Navasky’s new book, “A Matter of Opinion” — released this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux — serves as a paean to journalism that refuses to soft-pedal its beliefs, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. He extols the virtues of journals on the left, like Mother Jones, but he also praises fellow journalists on the right, like National Review, for their determination to express a point of view.

So it is somewhat surprising, on meeting Navasky, to find him speaking in jovial, measured terms, breezily recounting discussions with men who stand at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Cable news networks may prefer political discourse that is rife with finger-pointing, name-calling and shrill partisan rhetoric; Navasky, now 72, with smiling eyes and a white beard, seems more willing to agree to disagree, civilly, with his ideological opponents.

Two years ago, The Nation’s unbending opposition to the Iraq War was enough to make columnist Christopher Hitchens angrily resign his position at the magazine. However, this did not stop Hitchens from nominating Navasky this month for Vanity Fair magazine’s in-house hall of fame, citing Navasky’s preference for “being furry to being spiky.”

Navasky is not an ideologue who turned to writing; he is a writer and editor in search of good ideas. After a stint in the military, he opted for law school rather than a magazine job because, he said, “in truth, I didn’t have anything especially to say at that point.”

Reading about the journey Navasky took through the world of the East Coast intelligentsia, it is not a simple matter to describe the path that shaped the leftist politics that have so defined The Nation under his stewardship. Given his Jewish upbringing in New York, it’s easy to imagine him coming out of the socialist milieu of Russian Jews on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but the full story is not that simple.

Navasky did grow up in an agnostic Jewish household, where the grandparents talked — a great deal, it seems — in Yiddish. The family had three sets of plates, Navasky said: “one for meat, one for dairy, and one for my father’s bacon.” But, “It wasn’t a political household,” Navasky said, noting that his father owned a clothing manufacturing business and “had no love for the garment unions.”

Navasky had religious training to prepare for bar mitzvah, but during the day he went to a German experimental school, the Rudolph School. Those were the war years, and Navasky witnessed discrimination — not against his fellow Jews, but against his German classmates, who were harassed for being “Nazis” when they went to movies on the weekends.

During his childhood, Navasky said, he had two transformative political experiences. The first was watching Jackie Robinson break the color barrier in Major League baseball. The second was working as an usher for Ben Hecht’s 1946 Broadway play, “A Flag Is Born” — a celebration of Israel’s imminent birth, starring Marlon Brando. However, while the message of Robinson’s feat has stayed with Navasky, the Zionist message of Hecht’s play has lost some of its allure over time.

Looking back, Navasky told the Forward that when he was passing around the hat for donations to the Zionist cause, “It never occurred to me that we were displacing other peoples from their land.”

During Navasky’s reign, The Nation has printed a number of pieces critical of Israel’s continuing existence as a Jewish state. The magazine published numerous writings about the “Zionist entity” by late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, and more recently it has given space to New York University professor Tony Judt, who has argued for solving the Middle East conflict with a single Palestinian-Israeli state.

While Navasky has published these opinions, he does not necessarily agree with them in full. “A one-state solution,” he said, “means the end of Israel, as we’ve known it — in the best sense, as well as in the worst sense. I’m not ready to give that up.”

Navasky goes to some lengths to point out that during World War II, The Nation’s editor, Freda Kirchwey, put the magazine behind American intervention in Europe at a time when many on the pacifist left saw efforts promoting intervention as a Jewish plot. After the war, Kirchwey worked behind the scenes at the United Nations to help create the State of Israel.

When penning his editorials about the Middle East for The Nation, Navasky writes in his book, “I did my best to honor the impulse that gave birth to the Jewish state.”

But such discussions of ideological editorializing are not the core of his book. It reads instead like a picaresque novel of publishing misadventures. Navasky’s father sold the family business so that his son would be freed of any business responsibilities. “Business was not held in high esteem in my family,” the younger Navasky said. Yet despite this training, Navasky seems to have some preternatural entrepreneurial flame that could not be extinguished.

In 1994, he raised $1 million to buy The Nation from its former owner. For the past decade, he has been the magazine’s publisher and editorial director, until he gave up the latter title last month.

Since he became publisher, the magazine’s circulation has continued to rise, and its red ink has turned to black. Navasky says it would be easy for his magazine to make more money; if subscription prices doubled, he said, The Nation would lose half its readers but cut production costs and keep the same overall revenue. Running The Nation, he said, is a delicate balancing act between making money and fostering a discussion of ideas and opinions.

Perhaps Navasky’s smartest business maneuver was to stick with opinions at a time when the polarized political climate has driven people to seek out like-minded media sources. Navasky makes little mention of the strongest evidence for the success of opinion journalism: Fox News, which has thrived by sticking to its ideological guns.

He does, at one point, talk about his appearance on Fox News’s program “The O’Reilly Factor,” with famously right-wing host Bill O’Reilly. It’s easy to imagine Navasky managing to keep things civil with O’Reilly in a way that few other editorialists of the left could. But when a friend asked him why he was going on the show, Navasky said, “I was embarrassed to tell him the real reason: to sell magazine subscriptions.”

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