Victor S. Navasky, a genial champion of left-liberal politics who served as the longtime editor and publisher of the Nation — one of the country’s oldest magazines — and wrote acclaimed histories of the Kennedy Justice Department and the Hollywood blacklist, died Jan. 23 at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 90.
The cause was pneumonia, said his son Bruno.
As editor and then publisher, Mr. Navasky presided over the Nation from 1978 to 2005, cultivating a roster of stylish, incisive writers while pinching pennies and soliciting donations to keep the little magazine afloat. Founded at the close of the Civil War, the New York-based weekly had virtually never been profitable, but it developed an outsize influence over the years while publishing articles by James Baldwin, Henry James and I.F. Stone, among many others.
Under Mr. Navasky, the magazine expanded its readership while maintaining its feisty reputation. Its contributors included left-wing provocateur Alexander Cockburn, British contrarian Christopher Hitchens, American historian Eric Foner, novelist Toni Morrison and humorist Calvin Trillin, who affectionately referred to his editor as “the wily and parsimonious Navasky,” joking that the magazine paid “in the high two-figures.”
“The only thing I don’t like about Victor is the fact that everybody likes him,” Hitchens told Britain’s Observer newspaper in 2005. “I think he should have made some more enemies by now. Even hard line right-wingers could never bring themselves to say, ‘Navasky’s a real snake …’ They would say he’s a really nice guy.”
Raised in a liberal milieu in New York City, Mr. Navasky launched his journalism career in the mid-1950s while still a student at Yale Law School. Partnering with a few friends, he founded a satirical political magazine, Monocle, that the editors described as “a leisurely quarterly” — a phrase that “meant it came out twice a year,” Mr. Navasky explained.
“Some people say contemporary life is too grim to satirize. Others say it is too absurd to satirize. I say it is too grim and absurd not to try,” he told Time magazine in 1964.
Asked why he went from running an irreverent quarterly to a serious journal of ideas, Mr. Navasky liked to note that as editor of Monocle, he had invited Alger Hiss, the U.S. government official accused of having spied for the Soviet Union, to review six books by and about one of his former persecutors, Richard M. Nixon. That article never made it to print — it was unclear if Hiss even responded to his request — but Mr. Navasky found far 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 Nation’s founders left off,” said Katrina vanden Heuvel, who succeeded Mr. Navasky as editor in 1995 and is now the magazine’s editorial director and publisher. “He loved journals of opinion — he believed that they were seedbeds for new ideas, and that they set the standard for public debate and discourse.”
“If he had one great commitment, it was independence,” she added in a phone interview, noting that Mr. Navasky was “a First Amendment absolutist” who was willing to alienate readers with his coverage, including 1970s articles about the American Civil Liberties Union’s effort to defend the free-speech rights of Nazi demonstrators in the Chicago suburbs.
During his tenure as editor, the Nation drew backlash from conservatives as well as liberals, 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 on the former president’s decision to pardon his predecessor Richard M. Nixon.
When the book’s publisher, Harper & Row, sued for copyright violations, Mr. Navasky and the magazine’s lawyers argued that the excerpts were newsworthy and protected under the doctrine of fair use. The Supreme Court disagreed in a 1985 ruling, and the Nation was found liable for $12,500 in damages. Publishers and legal experts were divided as to whether the ruling was a victory for authors and readers, or simply for the former president and his business partners.
While working as an editor Mr. Navasky also wrote books, beginning with “Kennedy Justice” (1971), a scholarly account of the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. “This is probably the best book ever written on a Kennedy brother, and it may be the best book ever written on an executive department of the Federal Government,” columnist George F. Will wrote in the National Review, a conservative magazine that was seldom sympathetic to 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 as well as their investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, or HUAC, which jailed 10 screenwriters, directors and producers for refusing to testify in 1947 about purported Communist ties. The witch hunt lasted into the 1950s, and countless careers were destroyed by accusations of subversion.
“Those who resisted 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 names ended up contributing to the worst aspects of the domestic Cold War.”
In part, the book was inspired by Mr. Navasky’s upbringing in New York, where he studied under a Marxist history teacher at Elisabeth Irwin High School, also known as the Little Red School House, and saw the parents of some of his classmates lose their jobs because of their political views.
Mr. Navasky sympathized with those who were persecuted. “I was, I guess, what would be called a left-liberal, although I never thought of myself as all that 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 equally distributed between the United States and the U.S.S.R.”
The younger of two children, Victor Saul Navasky was born in Manhattan on July 5, 1932. His parents worked for a family business in the Garment District that made clothing for young men and students.
Mr. Navasky edited the student paper at Swarthmore College near Philadelphia and received a bachelor’s degree in 1954. After spending two years in the Army, he enrolled at Yale on the GI Bill, graduating with a law degree in 1959.
At times he took a break from journalism to work in politics, including as a special assistant to Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams, a liberal Democrat. In 1974, after a stint at the New York Times as a Sunday magazine editor and monthly book columnist, he worked as the campaign manager — or “mismanager,” as he put it — for Democrat Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who unsuccessfully ran to unseat incumbent Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.).
Mr. Navasky’s colleagues on the campaign trail included Hamilton Fish, a son and grandson of congressmen, who later bought the Nation and installed Mr. Navasky as editor. Mr. Navasky went on to start an exchange program with writers at the New Statesman in Britain, in addition to launching an internship program — later named in his honor — that offered early-career experience to hundreds of journalists.
In 1995, he became the magazine’s publisher and editorial director after buying out publisher Arthur L. Carter with help from an investors’ group that included actor Paul Newman and novelist E.L. Doctorow, a longtime friend. By the time he stepped down as publisher, the magazine was turning a profit and had more than doubled its circulation, to nearly 190,000.
Mr. Navasky later taught at Columbia University and chaired the Columbia Journalism Review. He also continued to write books, including “The Art of Controversy” (2013), about the history of political cartoons. His previous works included “The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation” (1984), a cheeky 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 of Manhattan; and five grandchildren.
Reflecting on the mission of the Nation, Mr. Navasky noted that there needed to be a balance between accurate reporting and wholehearted advocacy. Two quotes epitomized those ideas for him, the first from the Nation’s debut issue, in 1865 — “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events” — and the second from the Liberator, the magazine’s abolitionist precursor: “I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch.”
“At our best,” he told the Observer, “we take these two charges — the telling of truth as best you can, and fighting for the things you know or believe to be right. And then, if the country has lost its moorings, or the world has gone off in some crazy direction, you can help restore the equilibrium by talking common sense.”
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