Ultimate Outsider : Leftist and Fractious, the Nation Is Still Going Strong After 125 Years


A dark-haired young man in a striped shirt has been stalking Victor Navasky, editor of the scrappy, left-wing magazine known as the Nation.

At the moment, the two men are in the belly of the publishing beast, the grimy white warren of office space on lower Fifth Avenue where America’s oldest weekly does its provocative thing. Everywhere there are bare bulbs, teeny offices, a sink, a refrigerator, mountains of file cabinets, and shelves and shelves of books, books and more books.

“Let’s continue our argument,” says the young man, a writer named David Corn.


“Our discussion ,” Navasky says, whipping out his mental blue pencil.

So goes the Nation in this, its 125th, year, demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The political and literary magazine was born to be fractious in 1865, when a group of former abolitionists collected in New York to “wage war upon the vices of . . . exaggeration and misrepresentation.” It’s still a hothouse for advocacy journalism, spiced with debate among the various camps that pitch their tent in the left wing.

That might seem an unlikely modus operandi for any publication interested in a long life. Unless, of course, you ask Victor Navasky. He calls it the secret to the magazine’s longevity and success. The Nation comes from a long tradition of patronage by the sympathetic wealthy, the current caretaker being Arthur Carter, founder of a Wall Street firm that became the forerunner of Shearson Lehman/American Express. Each year Carter’s losses on the Nation--far from a lure for mainstream advertising--climb into the six figures .

But at this elderly periodical, losing money pays.

The Navasky analysis: “If it were profit driven, I think it would go out of business. The fact that it’s lost money for 125 years, maybe made money for three, just dramatizes the fact that it’s not profit driven. People who’ve been involved in running it have had other motives than to make money.”

Now the Nation is celebrating its 125th year of poverty-stricken brilliance. Thunder’s Mouth Press just came out with a hefty anthology edited by Nation editor at large Katrina Vanden Heuvel with pieces from the magazine’s vast store of splendid writers--Ezra Pound, Emma Goldman, Henry Miller, Jean-Paul Sartre, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Hannah Arendt, D.H. Lawrence and William Butler Yeats, among others.

The magazine, a slender journal on humble newsprint, has been sponsoring revelries wherever clumps of Nation readers can be found.

In Los Angeles, a Nation hot spot, supporters crammed Dutton’s Brentwood bookstore last month for a book-signing that lured Ed Asner, Dennis Hopper and Steve Allen. On Feb. 3, the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research will honor the Nation and people who were blacklisted at a big bash at the library, 6120 S. Vermont Ave. And in New York, Nation supporters will descend on Grand Central Station for a huge fete tentatively set for April 22.

“The way the Nation survives is by always perpetuating its own community, the attachment to the magazine, the feeling for it, the gathering of the tribes,” says Betsy Pochoda, a former literary editor of the Nation. “It survives on the strength of its piety.”

Indeed, the Nation is partying much like it did five years ago, when the magazine celebrated its 120th year of poverty-stricken brilliance.

For that milestone, the Nation took over the New York Armory to frolic with such deities of the left as I. F. Stone, George McGovern, Abbie Hoffman and Studs Terkel. The Nation scuttlebutt has it that the magazine staged the perhaps premature party because its former publisher, Hamilton Fish III of the congressional Fishes, was planning to leave the magazine to court his own House seat, and he wanted to, well, play before he left.

Navasky, 58, is unflappable in the face of this relentless milestone-marking revelry.

“It’s the brilliance of Victor,” Pochoda says. “Anyone else would be a laughingstock.”

Oddly enough, in these years of Republican hegemony at the White House, the pugnacious Nation is doing better than ever. The circulation is about 93,000, nearly five times what it was when Navasky took over as editor in 1978. That’s partly because the magazine inherited subscribers from a few luckless left-wing publications that went under. And it’s partly because the magazine has only recently begun to attract younger readers--the median age is 45--after a stretch where its audience consisted largely of old-timers, “so that when our subscribers expired, they really expired,” says Navasky.

But the Nation--whose typical reader is a Democrat, a college graduate and a man--is also thriving because of the conservative shift in national politics, not in spite of it.

“We had a joke that Reagan was bad for the country but good for the Nation,” Navasky says. “And I think there was some truth to that, that people were feeling beleaguered and looking for an alternative way to interpret what was going on.

“When a new administration comes into power, there’s a lot of talk about the adversarial press, but in fact the mainstream press generally takes its cue from the administration, not necessarily in agreeing with what they do, but they permit the national administration to set the agenda of what they’re talking about. And frequently the political culture takes on the culture of the administration that’s in power.”

Meet Robert Sherrill, the Nation’s corporations writer and White House correspondent during the Carter and Reagan years. Sherrill was distinguished in his post as White House correspondent by one curious fact:

He wasn’t allowed in the White House.

“The reason was that the Secret Service said I was a physical threat to the President,” Sherrill says.

Then he hoots.

Sherrill’s security file included the fact that he’d gotten into fist fights with pesky bureaucrats in his earlier incarnation as a writer for the Texas Observer--not that the Secret Service told him that when it turned down his request for a White House press pass during the Johnson era. The American Civil Liberties Union ultimately took up his cause, and a federal court ruled on Sherrill’s behalf.

“The fun thing about this was that when I was finally going to get a press pass, I never applied,” Sherrill says. “I didn’t want to be in the White House. I had been in Washington long enough to realize that was the last place to waste your time sitting around for some dumb (expletive) to give a press conference.”

Sherrill is the ultimate outsider, journalistically speaking, which makes him the quintessential Nation writer.

“I think outsiders do have a lot more fun,” he says. “You don’t have to wear an intellectual tie, you don’t have to wear an intellectual vest.”

Later, Sherrill calls back a reporter to argue with his own assessment.

“I don’t like to pretend that people who write for opinion magazines have any more integrity and bravery than the best reporters in the daily press. I think for the last 20 years, the best reporters in the daily press are right out there on the front lines doing as much or more to achieve the kind of reforms that the Nation wants as the Nation itself.”

Witness another important dynamic at work at the Nation--the thrill of the fray. Sherrill has it. Navasky has it. The endlessly critical Nation likes nothing better than to take its own medicine.

Take the Susan Sontag Incident. It started with a rally at New York’s Town Hall in the winter of 1982, celebrating the Solidarity movement in Poland. Gore Vidal was there. So was Pete Seeger. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. sang a Polish song to the tune of “Are You From Dixie?”

Sontag took the opportunity to take the left to task for being too uncritical of repression in communist countries. Here was the zinger: “Imagine, if you will,” she said, “someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only the Nation or the New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”

Intellectually, all hell broke loose. The rally’s organizer griped that Sontag had hijacked his rally because her remark grabbed the limelight. The now-defunct Soho News ran Sontag’s speech with five pages of replies from intellectuals in the United States and Europe. The Nation itself ran a hall-of-mirrors-like package that included Sontag’s speech, comments on her speech from several writers, and Sontag’s comments on their comments.

Then, in a piece that spring in Harper’s, Walter Goodman actually compared both magazines’ coverage of the Soviet Union and huffily slapped Sontag on the wrist: “Particularly irksome to several of Sontag’s critics was her reference to the Reader’s Digest, a magazine nobody reads apart from its 30 million subscribers. For someone on the intellectual Left to utter a kind word about the Digest was stupefying; the magazine is not merely reaction, it is also lower middlebrow. It runs articles about pets.”

Back to your corners.

Navasky didn’t mind the brouhaha one bit: “The serious implication of her statement was that the left for many years had been reluctant to tell the truth about the Soviet Union, partly out of reasons of sentimental attachment, partly in response to the McCarthy period when everybody was bashing the Soviet Union, and partly out of moral blindness. So that’s a position that is worth hearing and it’s also worth contesting, particularly if you’re affiliated with the magazine that is the target of it.

“And, of course, it was done gleefully by all the people who for whatever other reasons are happy to see the old mag embarrassed.”

Needless to say, the critical magazine has its own share of critics. Among them is Joe Goulden, director of media analysis for Accuracy in Media, a right-of-center media watchdog group based in Washington.

“Most of it is just very predictable left-wing cant,” he says. “It’s not interesting. It’s knee-jerk in the worst sense. It’s gone so far left it’s out of control.”

Navasky is used to navigating turbulent waters at the Nation. Even though the magazine has been accused of preaching to the converted, it can often be a house divided. Navasky says the Nation’s constituency covers a broad swath of politically progressive terrain.

“There is the liberal side of the political spectrum, members of Congress who identify with the magazine,” he says. “There are people who are active on behalf of not only civil liberties but also people who are involved in movements that are much further out, who think of themselves as part of the Green sensibility (environmentally aware).

“So in addition to trying to cover a part of the world that the mainstream press doesn’t deal with, the debates both within that community, between the ecofeminists and the nonecofeminists, between the bioregionalists and the anarchists, between the Green party and the Green movement are fierce and to some extent sectarian.

“The irony is that people tend to suggest that one of the problems with magazines of opinion like the National Review or the Nation is that they preach to the converted. But when you read them you see that there’s much more space between the people who are arguing, say, from the perspective of the Green movement and people who are kind of classic New Deal top-down planners than there are between traditional Democrats and traditional Republicans.”

Nation supporters say such debate is critical to the country’s political health. Jon Wiener, professor of history at the University of California at Irvine and a Nation contributor, says: “We live in a world where communication increasingly goes only in one direction, where the powers speak and the rest of us listen. And it becomes more and more difficult to respond and to talk back. That’s in part because of the increasing monopolization of the media, partly because of the power that corporations and the White House and Congress have to generate information. They have full-time staffs turning out facts.”

Ironically, when the Nation first went to press in the summer of 1865, it did so with this inauspicious first sentence: “The week has been singularly barren of exciting events.” But the magazine quickly went on to pursue its mission. Heywood Broun, a Nation columnist during the 1930s, was instrumental in founding the Newspaper Guild. And the Nation fought for the founding of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People in 1905 under then-editor Oswald Garrison Villard.

Over the years, the Nation has published a stream of articles that seem prescient when viewed through the retrospectoscope: Edgar Snow’s warning as early as 1954 that the Indochinese war against Ho Chi Minh could be “prolonged indefinitely” but not won; a 1960 piece describing the government’s secret plans to invade Cuba with the prediction that the Bay of Pigs invasion would fail; Ralph Nader’s 1959 article “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy” which seeded his book “Unsafe at Any Speed” as well as the fledgling consumer movement.

The Nation’s raft of legendary editors included Freda Kirchwey (once voted “Most Famous in Future,” “Best Looking” and “Most Militant” at Barnard College). Kirchwey, who led the magazine for two decades beginning in the early 1930s, eventually came under fire for her sympathy for the Soviet Union.

Her esteemed successor was Carey McWilliams, an adopted Californian. McWilliams guided the Nation through the precarious McCarthy years, when reading the magazine could be perceived as a seditious act and its fortunes plummeted so that it had to be printed in Alabama where costs were lower.

McWilliams had been living in Los Angeles when Kirchwey recruited him, and for a while, he tried to persuade the Nation’s powers that be that the magazine should be bicoastal, with centers in California and New York. Although McWilliams ended up in New York anyway, the Nation did absorb a Los Angeles magazine known as Frontier, and California has continued to play an important role for the Nation--the state has the most subscribers at 15,000 and such L.A.-based sympathizers as producer Norman Lear and activist Stanley Sheinbaum were among the 20-odd silent partners who bankrolled the publication under previous publisher Ham Fish.

Fish was the one who enlisted Navasky, after the two had met working on Ramsey Clark’s ill-fated New York Senate campaign two years earlier. Navasky was finishing a book on the Hollywood blacklist that became “Naming Names,” and, as he later wrote, he was offered “the opportunity to edit the magazine I had come--through my researches on the McCarthy phenomenon--to admire more than any other.”

Many of Navasky’s writers return the compliment, with one disclaimer that goes with the Nation’s uncommercial territory--"He’s cheap,” as Molly Ivins, a contributing editor based in Texas, puts it. “One time Victor was trying to figure out how to get me to write more because I wouldn’t leave Texas. He decided one of the things I could do from Texas was to be the television critic. I said, ‘I don’t watch television because I’m too goddamn busy.’ So Victor agreed to pay for a VCR. Of course, I had to get it from Crazy Eddie’s discount house. I called (Calvin) Trillin, and he said, ‘Hold out for a (satellite) dish.’ ”

Ivins never got the dish, but she did get satisfaction, as well as a VCR, even though the critic stint never worked out: “I may be the only person who got anything out of Victor for nothing.”

Of course, a magazine that courts dissension will likely get what it wants. Even among the magazine’s largely Democratic Socialist staff (about 35 full-time staffers and a host of contributors scattered around the globe), there have been ideological scrimmages. The Nation has itself been accused of sexism in its own ranks because most of its writers are male. That view is not universal, however.

“More women never hurt anybody,” Ivins says. “But I do think they do women’s issues awfully well.”

Still, one particularly sticky wicket was an Edward Sorel cartoon skewering Frances Lear, which ran in March of 1988. The cartoon featured Lear gloating about the launch of Lear’s, her eponymous magazine for older women. The Lear cartoon says: “Men said that a woman with no experience couldn’t do it. But I didn’t choose to play by their rules. . . . All a woman needs is vision, determination and. . . a very rich husband who’ll give her . . . $112 million for a divorce . . . Then she can break all the rules she wants.”

This did not sit well with 34 people on staff. Their protest was duly recorded in a petition to Navasky and a published box that sniffed: “We are outraged that sexism is still a respectable prejudice, especially in a left magazine.”

Lear applauded her supporters in a letter that was published in the next issue, and she deftly pummeled the cartoonist for the cartoon: “I fail to see why he failed to see my still-steamy good looks.”

A similar fate awaited David Levine’s anti-imperialist cartoon of Henry Kissinger ravishing a female figure whose head was a globe. But where others might see trouble among the troops, the even-tempered Navasky sees a possible story idea.

“The really interesting thing about it to me is, what is it about these silly black-and-white drawings that has the power to threaten people?” he muses. “Never in the whole time I’ve been here has anyone except twice signed petitions saying, ‘Don’t publish’ in advance, and both times it was over a work of art.”

The Nation’s editorial pages aren’t the only part of the magazine to undergo the steely scrutiny of its “politically correct” staff. A classified ad for “the penis poster,” a humorous poster featuring male genitalia of varying dimensions, kicked up its own First Amendment dispute after the current publisher took over three years ago. Arthur Carter “felt it was degrading and a lot of the staff felt that it was the funky part of the magazine and it was keeping in the spirit of it,” says Navasky.

The poster’s fate? The entire staff squared off with the publisher in a meeting. Then the ad manager talked to the advertiser, and a compromise was struck: The ad touted “a unique poster of male reproductive organs down through the ages,” Navasky says. “So it was known around the office as Penis-gate.”

Controversy may be the Nation’s stock in trade, but it leaves no mark on Navasky.

“You can’t reflect his personality,” Pochoda says. “It’s like reflecting the personality of a beach ball. It has no handles. You can’t (tee) him off. You can’t please him. You can’t be an enemy. You can’t be a friend.”

But you can be Navasky’s ally, and you can fight the good fight, which is generally why the Nation’s writers continue to write for the crotchety old mag. Says Ivins: “I think it is a wonderful magazine, irreplaceable, invaluable. And aside from the fact that I’m crazy about him, he does pay in the high two figures.”


* 1919--The magazine warned that the Treaty of Versailles would lead to dangerous developments in Germany.

* 1931--Albert Einstein sounded the alarm that “without disarmament there can be no lasting peace.”

* 1957--Fidel Castro explained “What Cuba’s Rebels Want” for their country’s future.

* 1958--An article investigating a sharp rise in strontium-90 in the bones of American children helped lead to the 1961 atmospheric test ban treaty.

* 1959--Ralph Nader’s article “The Safe Car You Can’t Buy” led to his book “Unsafe At Any Speed” and helped spark the consumer movement.

* 1965--Alaska Sen. Ernest Greuning, a former managing editor of the Nation, was one of two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

* 1974 and after--The Nation investigated alleged abuses of government power, including the FBI wiretapping of Albert Einstein.

* 1984--The magazine reported that President Reagan ignored warnings to move U.S. Marines stationed in Beirut, which Walter Mondale cited in the presidential debates.