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Book Review: A Matter of Opinion

Navasky Nation

Dec. 7, 2005

A review of A Matter of Opinion
By Victor S. Navasky
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York) 2005
Hardcover, 426 pages; $27.00

As publisher emeritus of The Nation, Victor Navasky immediately qualifies as both an important journalist and a leading progressive. Hence, though Navasky claims that A Matter of Opinion is neither a personal memoir nor a history of The Nation, the fact that it is partly both makes the book naturally appealing to anyone with Left leanings.

A good memoir gives the reader a sense of the writer's persona, and A Matter of Opinion seems to do that. In Navasky we find a dynamic personality who refuses to take himself too seriously. How else does one explain a man who proudly points to his production of The Illustrated Gift Edition of the Communist Manifesto as an early publishing credit?

Indeed, Navasky's climb to the top is punctuated with satire and comic relief. He seems to take more pride in his involvement in Monocle, a college journal of political satire that subsequently became a professional business venture, than in his stint at the New York Times.

But it would be misleading to suggest that pride is a key ingredient in the Navasky psyche, as we see in his description of Monocle: "Most people thought of Monocle as a humor magazine. Actually, most people didn't think of Monocle at all, but those who did thought of it as a sophomoric humor magazine."

The stories of great journalists often contain tales of bold adventure. One recalls Theodore White crawling through the caves of rural China to interview the revolutionary Mao, or Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from amidst the air bombardment of London. Though lacking such feats of physical daring, Navasky substitutes a different kind of gusto that is grounded in humor, wit, and appreciation of the little absurdities of professional life. Barely concealing his glee, he tells of convincing Truman Capote to cover the Charles Manson trial in Los Angeles for the New York Times Magazine in 1972, but then getting Capote locked up in jail after failing to resolve a legal matter before sending him to California. Oops.

Thus is the story of Navasky's career, a series of anecdotes, almost all containing at least a touch of comedy, one ordeal after another in a saga of journalistic and publishing ventures. Whether it's the awkwardness of dining with Henry Kissinger shortly after The Nation's publication of a scathing article condemning Kissinger's human rights record, or the excitement of dining with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward to successfully raise money to keep The Nation afloat, Navasky exudes a sense that he understands the unlikelihood, if not bizarreness, of it all.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Navasky is merely a regular guy who happens to have crossed paths with titans. Besides knowing far too much Latin to be a NASCAR fan, Navasky's intellect is apparent throughout the almost slapstick narrative. Just beneath the lighthearted demeanor is an analytical mind with ideological inclinations. The comedy recedes, for example, when Navasky discusses in some depth the journalistic and philosophical issue of objectivity, not breaking any new ground on the subject but certainly covering it sufficiently for casual readers.

The satire and wisecracks are also noticeably absent when he discusses the role of opinion journals, a subject obviously dear to his heart. In fact, Navasky sometimes seems to place the art of opinion journalism on a higher shelf than the progressive ideology that underlies the journal he publishes. Though Navasky's political leanings are clear, one almost gets the impression that he has a bit more affection for the medium than its message.

Interestingly, in demonstrating the influence of opinion journals, Navasky points to the success of the conservative opinion flagship, National Review, which he credits (or blames) for the nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In pointing out this interesting fact, however, Navasky overlooks the apparent logic of his assertion. If National Review deserves such credit, one must conclude that the opinion journals of the Left, including Navasky's, have been less successful in shaping modern history.

Navasky is silent on this point, and would perhaps dispute the conclusion, but surely one would expect that, as publisher of The Nation, he might have a thing or two to say about the decline and fall of progressivism in recent decades. Oddly, other than a few comments about corporate power and media consolidation, the opinion publisher voices no opinion on the issue.

Indeed, though Navasky seems to admire the concept of social democracy, he expresses little interest in leading the charge to bring it to America. He accepts the role of publisher of the leading journal of liberal opinion, but he shows no interest in designing a strategy for the resurgence of progressivism. Lacking the intensity of a W. E. B. Du Bois, who saw his leadership of The Crisis as a mission to transform society, Navasky approaches opinion publishing seriously, but not that seriously.

Navasky's silence, his coy omission of commentary on the state of progressivism in America, is the book's biggest disappointment. It would be asking too much to expect that Navasky, as a leader among progressives, might see America's predicament as many humanists do -- that there is a connection between America's rejection of social democracy and its embracing of conservative religion (both traits being unique to America among Western, industrialized countries), and that the emergence of humanism as a publicly respected and admired worldview (as it is in most of the rest of the West) would be a key element in weakening religious conservatism (and therefore strengthening progressivism). Few liberals in America have discovered this fundamental flaw in American progressive thinking, so we really canít blame Navasky for overlooking it.

But Navasky's analysis of the failure of progressivism never gets close to this point, because it never even starts. Maybe he's saving it for another book. As a result, the reader is left with the conclusion that Navasky surely qualifies as a legendary publisher, but has yet to prove himself as a legendary progressive.

David A. Niose is an officer and director of the American Humanist Association.

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