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Remembering Victor Navasky: Editor was a "Ringmaster" at "The Nation"

It was a usual day in the offices of the Nation, a collection of cluttered warrens overflowing with stuffed filing cabinets, piles of books, and file folders containing who-knows-what in an undistinguished building below 14th Street on Fifth Avenue. This was four decades ago, and I was an editorial assistant for the liberal political and literary magazine that had been founded in 1865 by abolitionists. (The first line in the first issue: “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events.”) I had two main tasks. One was dealing with what we called the “slush pile”—the unsolicited manuscripts and story pitches that never stopped pouring in. I had become well versed in composing rejection notes designed not to be encouraging. (Thank you for allowing us the opportunity to read your article on how post-war monetary policy in Italy has influenced the current economic crisis in Uruguay, but I’m afraid we can’t use the piece at this time.) The other was doing whatever Victor Navasky wanted me to do.

After a successful career writing for the New York Times magazine and other prestigious publications, Victor, who died at the age of 90 this week, had taken over as editor in 1978 and revived a once-mighty publication that had been on the verge of financial liquidation and irrelevance. I had met Navasky at a conference for student journalists and he had encouraged me to apply for an internship at the magazine—no pay! no listing on the masthead! From that internship he had plucked me for a lowly staff position, in which I did research for him, read articles he didn’t want to bother with, circulated and deciphered his impossible-to-read handwritten notes to staff, and tended to a wide assortment of odds and ends. As an aspiring journalist now in the middle of the clubby New York literary-political-journalism world—is that Allen Ginsberg in Victor’s office?—I was in heaven.

On this day, I was bringing to Victor the latest piece that humorist Calvin “Bud” Trillin, a Nation columnist and New Yorker writer who occasionally appeared on Johnny Carson’s late-night show, had submitted. The ever-droll Bud was one of Victor’s closest pals. He had accepted Victor’s offer of a column with the stipulation that he could lampoon the editor, and a running joke in the column became depicting Victor as a cunning cheapskate. In Bud’s columns, he was always the “wily and parsimonious Victory S. Navasky” who paid Bud in the “high two figures.”

As I walked from the copy department toward Victor’s office, I perused the copy; yet again Bud had poked at Victor for his penny-pinching ways. But this column—which also disparaged Victor’s basketball-playing days in high school—was especially harsh. The money shot was a line that went something like this: “It takes a true exploiter of the masses to run a left-wing magazine.” As one of the exploitees, I quietly cheered the piece, but I feared how Victor would react.

After handing him the column, I hovered at the entrance to his office, watching him read and waiting for a response. He finished, placed the article on his desk, and looked up at me. “It’s not true,” he said plaintively. “It’s not… I was a good basketball player in high school.” That was it.

And that was Victor’s secret sauce. He never got upset. He often described his job as overseeing an outlet in which liberals and radicals could duke it out. He knew things could get rather messy on this playground. But he loved being the guy who provided a platform for the clash between feminists who wanted to censor or even ban pornography as violence against women and civil libertarians who contended free speech rights covered porn. The Nation was famous for hosting left-of-center columnists and contributors who often targeted their fellow left-of-center columnists and contributors. Years later, when I was the magazine’s Washington correspondent, Alexander Cockburn would occasionally direct his poison pen at me and inaccurate facts and charges would appear in the very magazine for which I toiled so hard. When I complained to Victor, he would simply say, “Feel free to respond.” That was his ethos: Let a thousand feuds bloom. Which meant, if he was being personally honest about all this, he, too, could not take offense at the slights. Once Betsy Pochoda, the fierce literary editor of the magazine, observed that Victor was like a “a beach ball. It has no handles. You can’t piss him off. You can’t please him. You can’t be an enemy. You can’t be a friend.” I often thought of him as a sandbag. One could punch him hard, trying to cause a dent, but the sand would just return to fill the space. He was an Upper West Side, Jewish Buddha, ever calm, often hard to read, rarely angry, usually wearing a wry smile, with that bearded rabbinical facade hiding a great many calculations and ideas whirring within him. He knew everyone, and everyone seemed to like him.  

Read entire article at Mother Jones