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Victor Navasky’s Vast Intellectual Universe

The former longtime editor of The Nation, who died on Monday, opened up unimaginable worlds to countless journalists like me.

Karjean Levine/Getty Images
Navasky in 2001

It took me a while to figure out that I wanted a career in journalism, and to get serious about it. When I was around 13, my parents subscribed to The New Yorker, and Dad brought home the Sunday New York Times from the one newsstand in town that carried it; from my older sister and her bohemian, chain-smoking friends, I learned about The New York Review of Books and The Village Voice.

Even then, I read these exotic publications imagining what it might be like to have one’s words appear in them. But given the time (late 1970s, early ’80s) and place (Morgantown, West Virginia), mine were impossible dreams. That was some other world, for other people—people born and raised to write for such publications, which I certainly was not. So I drifted a bit in my college years, graduating but basically loafing around, until finally I’d had enough of that. I moved to Washington for a year, and then, because NYU for whatever reason accepted me to grad school on my meager credentials, to New York.

I landed a journalism job, at a community weekly. I enjoyed it and learned a lot, but it wasn’t opening up the worlds I knew New York held. Then someone mentioned the internship program at The Nation. I was reading The Nation fairly regularly. The idea that I might work there was too much for me to comprehend. But I applied, and they said yes. And so, sometime around early January 1986, I shot into the narrow lobby of 72 Fifth Avenue, squeezed into the tiny elevator, and delivered myself to the fifth floor.

They gathered us around a conference table in the middle of the office. We were scheduled for seminars with this staffer and that one, to culminate in an hour with the esteemed editor. My memory is fuzzy, but at some point, we, the seven interns, were sitting there nervously, and an elderly, bearded man scuttled past us. He smiled; in fact he smiled awkwardly, shyly, which subsequent years would instruct me suited perfectly his humble personality. And that was the day I met Victor Navasky.

I had known him since grad school as the author of the seminal Naming Names, his 1980 book about the Hollywood blacklist imposed by the studios during the red-baiting era of the 1950s. It was a riveting book, and also a human and humane account, analyzing the moral complexity of the situation for so many of those involved. And now I knew him. And he seemed like such a nice guy!

Suddenly, interesting things started happening. One night I was the last intern there. Victor came into the interns’ office to find me sitting there and explained: There’s a man on the phone from overseas, calling from France, and he needs someone to take dictation over the phone of a piece he’s writing for the next issue. Can you do it? He speaks English. Of course, I said. Great, said Victor, thank you. Oh—his name is Marcel Ophuls. Around the same time, I was assigned to fact-check a big piece on the Constitution by someone Victor referred to, as he asked me to pick up the extension to talk to him, simply as “Ed.” This was E.L. Doctorow.

Now, those worlds were opening.

So that’s what Victor, who died this week at age 90, did for me as a young man, which is to say, he opened a whole universe up to me. During my five-month stint at the magazine, I came to know both Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens; whatever else I might say about them, they were extraordinarily kind to the young, intellectually curious imitator manqué in their midst. Andy Kopkind was more approachable, around the office more. He was the uncle who let the teens into the liquor cabinet. But Victor was the captain; affable and self-effacing but certainly the figure toward whom everyone turned when a big question needed to be settled.

The Nation in those days was still kind of a throwback, defiantly clinging to the old ways. Its pages were numbered, then, in a fashion that I assumed was designed somehow to placate libraries, or, if you dare remember such a thing, the Reader’s Catalog: Pages were numbered consecutively by volume (that is to say, by year), so that the second page of an issue from mid-November 1980 would not be numbered page 2, but page 1,512. There was no art (that was a Katrina-era innovation). There were just words upon words upon words; a few too many of them, to be honest, settling old Cold War scores, but enough of them lively, biting, engaged in the moment. Victor’s Nation was at its best, I think, on the Israeli occupation and the U.S. adventurism in Central America and the early warnings about this new and hard-to-decipher American right wing—in retrospect, the magazine maintained a better batting average on those matters than this magazine did. We used to sit around the Nation offices snarling at The New Republic’s support of Reagan’s Contra war (that war was wrong, but, life being complicated, the passing years have shown us that his critics seem to have had a point about Daniel Ortega).

As I aged into a career and, eventually, something approximating stature, Victor and I became friends. While my wife and I still lived in New York, we would go out to dinner with Victor and Annie up in the Berkshires, where we both had houses. I guess he admired that I was one of those “intern made good” stories, but we simply had a good rapport. I appreciated his impish sense of humor. He told me a story once of going out to buy a new car. The sales associate was particularly proud of the cruise control function. Victor told me that he thought for a moment and asked the young man: And what problem was this invented to solve? The young man was flummoxed, of course; no one had ever asked that question, because he was accustomed to people who took capitalist innovation at face value. Victor wondered, and he wondered with a humility and openness that made him a great journalist and a better person.

And I’ve had a lucky run. I’ve seen my byline in almost all those lofty outlets (cough, Remnick!), and I remember every day that I’m lucky enough to hold a job that few have held and where worlds open up continually. And I never forget that I, and hundreds or maybe thousands like me, were first welcomed into this world by this brilliant, gentle man who like all of us made his share of mistakes on political questions but left nothing but sunshine to those with the good fortune to have known him.