Victor Navasky

A Matter of Opinion, Part II

VTR Date: June 23, 2005

Journalist Victor Navasky discusses the influence and ethics of journalism.


GUEST: Victor Navasky
VTR: 06/23/2005

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Victor Navasky, long the Editor, now the Publisher of The Nation, America’s oldest journal of opinion. And the centerpiece of “A Matter of Opinion” my guest’s absolutely enchanting new Farrar Strauss and Giroux memoir, intellectual history, great story … describe it as you will, just treat yourself and read it.

And Victor, I want to pick up … not quite where we left off last time because I don’t know where in the world we left off last time, but I do know that toward the end of “A Matter of Opinion” you wrote about talking about magazines or journals of opinion with Kuttner and Blumenthal and Chase and others who finally did their own thing.

And you said … you wrote, “I was too polite to interrupt and make the case for The Nation as a Left Liberal big tent with room for both radicals and FDR Liberals. But I also know he was partially right. What he didn’t know and I didn’t say was that I believed and still do, that Katrina vanden Heuvel’s Nation would fill that niche.”

And I made this note: why didn’t your Nation fill the niche and what’s so different between …

NAVASKY: She is fairer than I am.


NAVASKY: She is more consultative than I was. She is … I don’t want to say “more moderate” because she’s not more moderate in her political views about where she comes out. But in the process she seems to be able to … well, I shouldn’t say … I shouldn’t say contrast this in this thing. Let me say, in 1995 I took … when our … I took a leave of absence from the magazine and that’s when you and I … we were fellows for half of my leave of absence and my goal was to begin writing this book during that year, and I’d been Editor for 16 years and I needed a break.

And I had to think of someone to sit in for me. And the, there were only two people in the office that I could think of who both were intellectually up to the job who wouldn’t create a … a problem with one or another of the many different political factions that then beleaguered us. And, you know, people said, how could you do this? And Katrina was one of them. The other was my colleague Richard Lingerman, who is such a reticent person, that it would have been cruel and unusual punishment to inflict the job on him.

Katrina, who started as an Intern with us … and grew into this very talented Editor was someone who, who can and does and showed promise of being able to both … to operate in what we think of as the “big ten”. And not to try to inflict one or another view.

Now I never tried to … what you try to do in a magazine like this, is you have the internal debates and then, if you’re lucky, you come to some kind of consensus about where you stand, whether it’s on “should we be invading Iraq?”, “should we pull out of Iraq?”…whatever the issue … “should we support Jesse Jackson for president, or Bill Clinton or nobody.” You come to terms with that. You don’t always achieve that consensus and then it’s up to the Editor to decide … “am I going to put out, in the unsigned Editorials that as a magazine’s position … position A or position B, even though it’s not widely reflected in the office. But you feel keenly about it and/or it’s your job to say, “am I going to publish this article or that article?”

And when I did it, and Katrina I think has the basic same mindset in this way … that I thought of the editorial section, the unsigned editorials, as the statements of the magazine… and the Editor is ultimately responsible for that.

I thought of the signed editorials as within the zone of values of the magazine, but they could differ with the unsigned editorials in their position.

The columnist … you, you make a long term commitment to them that if they’ll turn in their column every week or every other week, you’ll publish whatever they have to say, you’ll clean it up, you’ll edit it, you’ll subject it to a legal reading, and you’ll question them if you think they’re wrong or illogical, but you’re basically saying “We value and we think our readers will value hearing you every week, knowing where you come from. And that will add to the mix of the magazine.”

The articles in the body of the magazine, on the other hand. It’s a much broader spectrum of views or talents or perspectives and again, our friend Bob Sherrill once said to me “You should never publish anything in this magazine that could appear in The New York Times magazine.”

Now Bob Sherrill … I worked at The New York Times magazine, as you know. And Bob Sherrill used to write for The New York Times magazine. (Laughter) What he meant by that was first of all, don’t waste your space if you can get in the mainstream press. And secondly, you should be out there on the frontier, exploring new ideas, putting new issues on the agenda, or reporting what they’re missing; and not just disqualify it because it couldn’t appear then.

And then we have an independent literary section. And again, we hire a literary editor who shares the basic values, but once that decision is made, there’s a lot of consultation, but its his or her job then to decide what books are worth reviewing, which reviewers would be the most interesting to do it; which of the arts should get how much space, etc.

HEFFNER: Now, if you think I’m going to let go by what you started to say about Katrina being fairer …

NAVASKY: I think you wouldn’t let anything go by, Richard.

HEFFNER: Come on … tell me about you …

NAVASKY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … tell me about you and fairness.

NAVASKY: Me and fairness. Well, I’ll give you some examples … starting way back with my little satire magazine … of some unfair things I did that I think are worth doing.

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute. Tell me what you mean …they’re unfair, but they’re worth doing.

NAVASKY: Well, I’m going to give you an example. That’s the only way I can do it.


NAVASKY: Okay. So when Arthur Miller’s play “After the Fall” came out, we took the first act, and I … and we had someone re-type it … change the names of the characters and we had an Intern from Bennington, I believe, at the time and had her submit it under her own … she took a pseudonym for her name, but had her it send it around to a whole bunch of Broadway producers saying that she was a student at Bennington, which she was … that her drama professor had told her that she had a great talent … which he did … and would you please read the enclosed and tell me whether it’s worth pursing. But the enclosed, which looked like it was hers, was actually the first act of “After the Fall”, which had opened, but it, it … and, to mixed reviews and etc.

Now, we got back from that … she sent it to maybe 20 producers. About 10 of the things just came back, they just stuck it in an envelope and they didn’t read it and/or never got it.

But we got back four or five letters saying that this is worthless. We got a couple of letters saying “you have a great talent and come in if you want to talk.” And one letter from George Sentsuber who said, “You ought to consult your lawyer, this is plagiarism.”

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

NAVASKY: Now. Okay. It is not fair …first of all, it takes up time of people who are busy doing other things and it’s a … it’s fraud, it’s a lie … journalists are not supposed to misrepresent themselves, to, to undertake a hoax of that sort. This is a hoax.

The spirit in which we did it was … there are tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of young writers who are trying to break in and they don’t get an even break. They don’t even get their stuff read. How do you do it? And how do you dramatize that fact? You can write an article about how hard it is to get an agent or this and that.

We chose to do it that way. And we made a … we made a mark by doing it that way. It got some news value and, and it reminded these Broadway potshots that “Hey, you’ve got to pay attention to … you may be missing some good things out there.” And also it raised the question about whether this is one of Arthur Miller’s better works, or one of his … you know, it had been treated totally up to that point in terms … autobiographically and when it was reproduced later on, it got judged on it’s own a little more closely.

So, so that was the spirit of an unfair project that was a hoax, in the interests, though, of illumination of truth and of fairness to the poor undiscovered writers who are out there. So that’s what I mean by it.

HEFFNER: Boy, you’re really a prankster.

NAVASKY: Well, in part. We also did a report from Iron Mountain which also was a hoax. Which also … a hoax … I mean it’s a too long a story to go into here, but it was designed to reveal the limitations of think tank, Rand Corporation type thinking about issues of war and peace.

HEFFNER: Now Victor …


HEFFNER: … is the next book … in your next book are you going to reveal that all of this has been a prank?

NAVASKY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: A joke?

NAVASKY: I … I don’t think … you know people want to believe that the Left does not have a sense of humor …

HEFFNER: Oh, you disproved that.

NAVASKY: … I happen to be on the Left. I don’t like to think I don’t have a sense of humor. No, you can … you can do satire and you can do journalism and you can do philosophy and you know, you should follow your … both follow your instincts in terms of … the best diction for what you have to say. And each one may have a different one, you know.

When, when I was growing up and I used to … my father would say, “what’s your ambition?” And I always thought “well, you should do what you do best.” And then I realized … about halfway through high school, what I did best was type. I was the world’s fastest and most accurate typist. But I didn’t want to be a secretary all my life. I was interested in writing, I was interested in editing, I was interested in playwriting. And I … and I was interested in public affairs and I was interested in politics. And I could type. So, I typed all my papers, but that’s not the only thing I did, you know.

HEFFNER: Why does everybody seem to go after you about Alger Hiss?

NAVASKY: Ah. Because … everybody doesn’t.

HEFFNER: Almost everyone.

NAVASKY: (Laughter) I think his case is a … has tremendous symbolic resonance for a generation; the generation of … the New Deal generation. And then there’s a successor, revisionist generation for whom it has … it also has resonance, they’re trying to understand the meaning of those years.

And this is a case that you know where this famous New Dealer who had gone to the Harvard Law School and who had clerked for Oliver Wendell Holmes and who was … had this brilliant career and was, by this time, maybe president of the Carnegie Endowment, but who … was headed for the top … but who was accused of having stolen secrets and given them to the Russians. Accused of having done it, by the way … well, having done it in the thirties and, and it was at the time, received as an attack on the New Deal. And he was defended by people like Felix Frankfurter and Dean Atchison and the kind of … the establishment of the day.

And Whittaker Chambers, his accuser was a very disreputable looking guy who had an apocalyptic way of presenting information, it was hard to believe that he could be telling the truth about this upstanding guy.
And then Hiss was convicted of perjuring himself and although Chambers had said … in more than a half dozen appearances … there was no espionage involved … they had both been members of a Communist cell … at the trial when Hiss sued Chambers for plagiarism, Chambers came forward with some documents which the jury believed to be authentic, which he said he had gotten from Hiss. Hiss went to prison, came out and then spent the rest of his life trying to prove his innocence.

Subsequently some papers have been released under the Venona … what they call the cables that the Russians sent … exchanged with their spies during wartime … and one of the cables has a code name which people who believe Alger Hiss was guilty … say that could only have been Alger Hiss.

Right. I started out thinking … I had read a fair amount in the Cold War, I’m not a specialist on the case, when I came to The Nation, I knew this was the case in 1978 that had still … had great interest for the, for our constituency which was partly the old Left, but partly the academic community and partly young people coming up wanting to understand what had and hadn’t happened.

And a new book had come out at that time, called “Perjury” by Allan Weinstein, now the Archivist of the United States. I knew this would be of great interest even before I got to the magazine, I asked the literary editor to send me galleys of it. I looked at it, I read it, and I thought “hey, if this guy is right …”, he concluded that Alger Hiss was guilty. He said he started out believing he was innocent, but concluded … I said, “If he’s right …”, he had a half dozen or seven new sources there … “I’ve got to change my view about this.”

And so I took these seven key people … I Xeroxed the pages that involved them, where they were quoted … I said to each one of them … six of them responded … and I got the same response from all six … which was “yes, he quoted me accurately, but no, he makes it sound like I was confirming espionage … I knew nothing about espionage. And I wasn’t …” and then, when you looked closely at it, I saw the system of footnoting in the paragraphs was … it was a group footnote at the end … it would be as if he said, “Navasky went and did The Open Mind with Heffner. And they went down to the City University studio and they taped it.” And at the end of the paragraph he said, “At the end they shook hands. Navasky gave a $5,000 check to Heffner which he deposited in account number 32 in the such-and-such bank.” And then the interview subjects would be you, me, the make up person, the scheduling person and Whittaker Chamber’s book “Witness” and that’s where the espionage part was.

So it seemed to me he was using Chambers to confirm Chambers and that he hadn’t proven his case. And I said that in a review and it got picked up and a debate started. So I became one of the people who believed that he hadn’t proven the case. Not that Hiss was innocent necessarily, but he hadn’t proven the case against him.

Subsequently, Hiss’s friend and lawyer, John Lowenthal, wrote to every intelligence agency in the Soviet Union, as if they had a Freedom of Information Act, which they didn’t, but perestroika was happening, glasnost was happening, things were changing. And said, “Listen, if you have any papers related to this case, could you please make them available to my client, who insists on his innocence, and etc.

The head of the whole apparatus, who also happened to be a historian sent his researchers to all of the archives that he had access to and reported back … he said, “There’s nothing there on him. If he had been guilty, it would have been there. You can tell Mr. Hiss (and he says it on camera) that he can go to his grave knowing he’s innocent.”

There were front page stories declaring his innocence and all that. Those stories … then the guy who said it came here to discuss prisoners missing in action in Vietnam and he, he was attacked by … I don’t … you know, going into more detail than you asked … but, but he as attacked by a fellow named Herb Romerstein who had worked on the old UnAmerican activities committee and … with them … and, and he was asked, “How can you say with certainty that files were shredded … “ And he said, “Well I can’t maybe, maybe I spoke too soon, maybe I shouldn’t have ….

So the debate goes on. That’s all. And now the Venona papers are out and there’s now a debate about …

HEFFNER: About them.

NAVASKY: … whether he is, you know, whether this code name …someone named in … in one or one and a half of the files. So, in my view, when you read what people say about it, they only want to hear what confirms their pre-existing view. And they haven’t yet looked at the other side. So they cite one historian who says that Hiss was probably guilty. They don’t cite … I mean Russian historians … they don’t’ cite another Russian historian who says “Hiss couldn’t have been guilty …” And so …

HEFFNER: Victor …


HEFFNER: … you’ve read them both …


HEFFNER: Or all.


HEFFNER: All I’m asking …


HEFFNER: … is what Victor Navasky today thinks …

NAVASKY: Oh, I think that the case against Hiss hasn’t been proved. And that he probably was innocent of those charges. I think that he made some tactical errors in presenting himself and that when he … in the famous scene when he was asked “Did you know Whittaker Chambers” and he said “I did not know anyone named Whittaker Chambers”, he was playing a game, he knew that his person he knew under the name George Crossly now had the name Whittaker Chambers and he said, he knew a George Crossly, it might be him, and he looked at his .. and he looked at his … Keith … I think that was a charade, and it hurt him in the end.

But I think he probably was, was … probably was innocent. Can’t … you can never know now.

I was an agnostic on the Rosenberg case and I’ve been persuaded that Julius was probably an espionage agent. And not a … didn’t steal the secret of the atom bomb … there was no secret to steal. And Ethel probably knew about it, but was used as a lever to get Julius to confess … he didn’t … and she was sacrificed in this overheated atmosphere of the Cold War.

So I don’t have fixed opinions that I’m unwilling to change, if I’m persuaded the other way. And because there are … there are a number of people out there who, who know more than I do and who not only share my skepticism of the evidence against Hiss, but who believe positively that they know that he couldn’t have done it and why … and can explain why and … but there aren’t that many folks out there, so that may be one reason why.

HEFFNER: Next question.


HEFFNER: Why are you so cheap … as so many of your fellow workers at The Nation say.

NAVASKY: Well. Well … Calvin Trilling made a reputation by going around saying that I pay, or we pay “in the high two figures.” We told Bud we were thinking of the high two figures …

HEFFNER: You never went that way.

NAVASKY: And we ended up paying him a hundred dollars a column … he used to write a column. And then when he started writing poems, we kept paying him a hundred dollars and then once he had the nerve to turn in a three word poem, which made him the highest paid poet in America. It was on the O.J. Simpson case and I know that … I can recite to you the poem … it was “O.J. Oy Vey”. And that poem … so … anyway.

But also The Nation … the one of the reasons that it is America’s oldest weekly magazine … it was founded in 1865, July 6th, 1865 … is that it had … E. O. Godkin came up with a formula that survives to this day. And that formula was a very low budget magazine that’s printed on cheap paper … Trilling told Johnny Carson once, he said, “how would you describe The Nation?” He said, “Pinko.” He said, “Pinko?” He said, “Surely you have more to say?” He said, “Yeah, pinko on very cheap paper. It’s the only magazine where the Xerox looks better than the original.”

Well, the fact is it’s a quite distinguished looking magazine that’s been designed over the years by people like Milton Glazer and Walter Bernard and there are other contributing artists now who are as good as anyone in the business, and, and not in the business.

But it is a … it doesn’t play these slick paper, up-town games and we can’t match the up-town prices, either, for, for talent. So it’s been supported over the years by its readers, by the people who work in the office, although they have a union that well represents their interests. By a group called Nation Associates, who, who send in money over and above their subscription prices. These days they’re sending in over a million dollars a year. And by shareholder, famous and not famous … school teachers and others who subscribe to this magazine over the years. And when I became publisher, I, I … we, we set it up sort of like a Broadway show where I’m the equivalent of the producer but the investors have no say in the day to day operations of the magazine. And we’ve got Ed Coren who does these great cartoons for The New Yorker of these scraggly animals, to do up a stock certificate, which he signs and numbers so I can tell them, “Yes, the value of your stock may go down, but the value of your stock certificate is going to go up.”

HEFFNER: Always the comedian

NAVASKY: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: Victor, what did The Nation do in the last Presidential election?

NAVASKY: The Nation, after serious internal discussion, published an open letter urging Ralph Nader not to run. Ralph Nader published his first article when he was a law student at Harvard …

HEFFNER: In The Nation.

NAVASKY: … happened to be when I was at Yale … in The Nation magazine … I knew him at that time, and we have a deep respect for him and affection for each other and basically agree with 95% of his platform and thought it was a big mistake for him to run because we thought that the Bush Administration had gotten us into this impossible situation and was in danger of getting it … making it much worse. And so, we, we thought anything that contributed to the possibility of a Bush victory was a mistake. And we urged our readers not to vote to keep Bush and the administration for another term.

HEFFNER: Can’t you get yourself to say it? You urged them to vote for Kerry.

NAVASKY: We did … I mean we, we were very … quite lukewarm about Kerry, but we, we did urge them to vote for Kerry although not, not necessarily if they were in New York State or other states where it didn’t matter because it was a foregone conclusion … what …who the candidate was going to be. We said vote your conscience because we had a lot of reservations about Kerry’s candidacy, although what had … there was no question in the choice between Kerry and Bush, of who we were for.

HEFFNER: What do you think your …

NAVASKY: … And we were, we were, by the way, attacked from the Left for supporting Kerry.

HEFFNER: What do you think your feelings will be three years from now? In 2008 about a Presidential candidate?

NAVASKY: Well, I think … I look at both parties, I don’t see the charismatic figure that is going to come, who I am ready to put everything aside and go to work for. I think the war is a critical issue and that’s one of the litmus tests within the Democratic party an the Republican party, too. The degree of how you judge the people who hold themselves forth as possible candidates. And …

HEFFNER: What will your litmus test be, vis-à-vis the war?

NAVASKY: My litmus test will be that we ought to have a … we ought to withdraw and I don’t, you know, it ought to be phased and if I were in charge, which I’m not, and I know this is not politically possible, but nevertheless my way of proceeding would be … first of all to turn, to announce that we are setting up the equivalent of a Marshall Plan, do it under UN auspices and to repair all the damages that we have inflicted on this country.

And, and to offer our troops under a UN flag along with other troops as a peacekeeping forces in that country, but to get out of there. And the problems that they might have with their own civil society, they might be great, they might not be as disastrous as some projections are. They might be, unfortunate.

We have created and contributed to an unfortunate situation. And miserable as the lives of people were under Saddam Hussein, it’s not … you can’t have a world where we go around kicking out people who we don’t like. It doesn’t work any more. Not that it ever did. In this nuclear world of terrorists and everything else.

HEFFNER: Victor …

NAVASKY: … that’s what I’d do.

HEFFNER: … have you softened? Hardened in the one minute we have left. Have you …

NAVASKY: Well we don’t have …

HEFFNER: Are you the same old Victor?

NAVASKY: Yeah. I don’t have perspective of myself. My friend Ed Doctoroff tells me that most people get more Conservative as they get older and he accuses me of getting more radical as I’ve gotten older. I don’t see it … I think … you know one of the kind of odd things is … when I worked at the New York Times, people assumed I had the, the politics of the New York Times, and I had my own politics then.

The Nation is different because as Editor I had responsibility for it and it does express my political values. But it’s my political values informed by, tempered by and in conversation with the, the staff; the contributing editors who are throughout the country and our readers who are in touch with …

HEFFNER: Victor Navasky …

NAVASKY: Jerry McWilliams, by the way, said the Editor of The Nation, which Katrina now does, is a captive of its tradition. And that’s a very important other element that we haven’t had a chance to talk about.

HEFFNER: The other thing I’ve got to tell people again is buy and read “A Matter of Opinion” by Victor S. Navasky. Thank you for joining me today on The Open Mind.

NAVASKY: Thank you for having me, twice.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time, and if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.