Victor S. Navasky Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Journals of Opinion and the Work of Democracy: Conversation with Victor Navasky, Publisher and former Editor of The Nation, September 16, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Welcome to Berkeley.

It's good to be here. Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in New York City on the West Side, on West 74th Street.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

That's a good question. They chose the schools for me, and they sent me to a place called the Rudolf Steiner School from kindergarten until I was ten years old. I was going to be the only boy in the class at that point, and I decided I ought to leave. And my sister, who was a few years ahead of me, was graduating.

They sent me there because my father, whose father had come over here from Russia, believed that public school broke the spirit. He had had a bad experience in public school. He never was able to go to college because his father started a business and all his sons had to go to work for it. My mother was his bookkeeper.

Rudolf Steiner School made a fetish of cultivating the spirit. What my father, I don't think, understood was Rudolf Steiner believed that the spirit survives when the body expires in a quite literal way -- he was a Christian Scientist and he believed in reincarnation, none of which they taught us at the school, but it was a great experience. They cultivated the creative arts and I learned math by following the teacher around the room in a snake dance saying, "Two is one times two, four is two times two," because Steiner believed you develop in three stages. Stage one, you discover the world about you, stage two, you discover the body, and stage three, you discover ideas. I left at about the time you're supposed to discover ideas, but when I got out, at age ten or eleven, I knew French, German, Latin, Greek, and calculus, and I wasn't the smartest kid in the class.

Was your family a radical family politically?

No, not at all. My mother was a homemaker and politically couldn't have cared less. My father was a liberal and he subscribed to The Nation and the New Republic so I grew up with these magazines in the house, but he was a businessman who had no love for trade unions because in the garment trade the union that his business had to deal with gave him a very hard time.

Then you went on to Swarthmore from New York City? That's where you did your undergraduate work?

Yes, I first went to the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School after I got out of Rudolf Steiner, and then I went to Swarthmore, which is a non-denominational school but it was founded by Quakers. It had a peace collection, and this Quakerly belief in nonviolent resistance pervaded the campus. But it was a highly intellectual place, so I felt I had a great experience because on the one hand, at Rudolf Steiner they cultivated the spirit and the arts, at Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin they cultivated the social conscience (it was a progressive school in the tradition of John Dewey), and at Swarthmore they cultivated the mind. Then I went into the army and they cultivated whatever they cultivate in the army.

Your sense of bureaucracy!

That was part of it, but part of it, as I talk about in the book, is that you had to learn the military arts; so I learned how to use a bayonet.

On to Yale Law School then. I sense that Yale had an even more profound effect on you. Is that fair?

Well, yes. I had the GI Bill and I thought -- I edited a newspaper, both at Swarthmore, [where] I edited the Swarthmore Phoenix, and in the army I edited the 53rd Infantry News. I always thought part of me wanted to be a journalist, part of me was interested in politics and public affairs, and because I had the GI Bill I thought I could wait three years to be a writer because I didn't have that much to say yet, if anything, and that I would educate myself.

Then I went to law school rather than graduate school because the Yale Law School seemed from its catalogue like a place where you could carry on your liberal arts education and get a law degree, and I believed I had an entrepreneurial bent and that a law degree would serve me better in life than a graduate degree in political theory or political science.

Any teachers at Yale that influenced you profoundly?

Yes, a number. First there was Fred Rodell, affectionately known as Fred the Red, who wrote in the Yale catalogue that he taught a course on law and public opinion and said, "Beware. People who take this course frequently end up leaving the law for journalism." And there I was. I ended up working for Fred as a legal research assistant. The way he taught that course -- it's the only writing course I ever took -- he would have you write about the law but you weren't allowed to use legalisms, so instead of saying "due process" or "equal protection," you'd have to explain what they meant in layman's terms. This was extremely valuable.

Another professor who was very influential was Tom Emerson, who was known as Tommy the Commie, and then Boris Bittker, who was known as Borie the Tory, who taught tax law. I had great admiration for Tom Emerson, who put together the first legal textbook on political and civil rights, and I did a little work for him, too. I did some research for a revised edition of his textbook. He was a very radical character who wore three-piece suits, parted his hair down the middle and could have been a direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, for all I knew. He was very conservative in his self-presentation. And so, I had some great teachers. Harold Lasswell was there. They had an extraordinary faculty.

I would guess that at Yale you got an important sense of the guarantees in our Constitution of the very rights that you went on to implement at The Nation, that is, the importance of a free press, the importance of an open dialogue on policy issues.

Yes. Yale Law School is very interesting. There was a battle in the legal community that went on at that time between the so-called "legal realists" and the more traditional "jurisprudes" as it were. Fred Rodell saw it as a battle between Harvard and Yale, and the way he talked about it, at Harvard they thought the law was a brooding omnipresence in the sky and at Yale they thought the law was what the judge had for breakfast, that you do what you think is right.

There was a scholar, Jerome Frank, who had argued in the thirties that all judges ought to be psychoanalyzed because lawyers and judges are human, that they [are] not above the law and [that] putting these judges in black robes was disguising the reality that they were making policy decisions. At Yale they wanted you to face up to that fact.

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