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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You're a man who's written two very important books, and so you've been a journalist and a researcher. One is called Kennedy Justice, which was an analysis of Robert Kennedy as attorney general. The other, Naming Names, which won the National Book Award, is about the Hollywood Ten and the [McCarthy] period of bringing before the House Un-American Activities Committee people who were charged with being Communists. As a writer, looking at both of these books, what is required in doing good research, getting at the facts of a story that the national myth keeps us from understanding?

In both cases it was a combination of scholarly research and traditional reporting, which means going out and talking to people. One of the peculiarities is that journalists don't routinely spend a lot of time in the library doing scholarly research, and scholars don't talk to people.

Except to themselves!

You know -- it doesn't occur to them!

A number of university presses have asked me to read manuscripts about people whom I know about in the business. They're scholarly manuscripts; I read them, and they add to the literature, and [the publishers] want me to recommend, "Should we publish?" I say yes; and, "Do you have any suggestions?" I say, "Yes. There are a lot of people who are still alive who know these women or men. Why don't you have the writer go out and talk to them? They were there."

If you're writing a book of the sort that I did, which was after Kennedy had left the Justice Department, people will tell you things that they wouldn't say while he was there, so you get a whole different view and perspective of the history. book coverIn the case of Kennedy, he got killed by Sirhan Sirhan in the middle of my research, and then people I had interviewed the first time -- where I would travel across the country and see his former press secretary who would tell me nothing that I couldn't have learned from reading all the newspaper clippings -- opened up, because they knew I wasn't trying to write a book to cash in on his death.

There was a whole Kennedy industry that built up, but I was making a serious attempt to explore what it was like to be the "maximum attorney general," which, as the president's brother with his full confidence, he was, because he knew how to franchise the Kennedy charisma. I got to go into the files of Burke Marshall, head of his civil rights division, and spend weeks in his attic, going through all these memoranda. So, it was a very exciting kind of research.

In the case of Naming Names about the Hollywood blacklist, there are two things about it. One was, having had the experience of spending five, six, seven years working on the Kennedy book, I decided I wanted to spend my next book-years in a place that would be fun to be, and that was part of my interest -- not my whole interest in Hollywood, but I grew up with kids whose parents had been victims of the so-called McCarthy purge, the "great fear," whatever you want to call it, and I thought, "Well, Hollywood wouldn't be a bad place to have to go to from New York," just as interviewing the Kennedys wouldn't be a bad thing to do before. book coverSo that was the "subversive" motive for wanting to write the book: to understand what had been going on in that period.

Also, as you suggested earlier, I was keenly interested in civil liberties and civil rights. I did get that interest heightened when I was at Yale Law School. One night Joe Rauh, a Washington lawyer, was coming to talk about the ten things wrong with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had been the playwright Arthur Miller's lawyer and got him off before the court. Miller, at that point, was engaged to Marilyn Monroe, and the word seeped through the law school that Marilyn Monroe was going to show up for Rauh's speech, because Miller was going to introduce him. Never have so many Yale law students been interested in civil liberties. The place was crammed to the rafters.

I got a real education in civil liberties that night, because the head of the New Haven Civil Liberties Committee was [also] the head of something called the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born, which was on the attorney general's list of subversive organizations, and he was Arthur Miller's rabbi. Joe Rauh was going to disassociate himself from the American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign-Born because they were sponsoring the evening, and Miller said he didn't feel he wanted to choose between his rabbi and his lawyer, so he stayed home. I claim he stayed home in bed, as it were. But I got my education in civil liberties there, so that carried over to my interest in the Hollywood blacklist.

In both of these books, in addition to digging for the information and doing the research, whether it was in the Justice Department or wherever, I was struck by the extent to which buried within your work, and informing it, was political theory. In the Kennedy book, for example, [you made] references to Max Weber, and on the other hand, in Naming Names, you laid out a very interesting theory to understand the different kinds of informers, and so on. I am intrigued by the fact that your background, and kind of a love and regard for theory, has also informed your work, as you were suggesting, as you wear this hat of a scholar.

I'm glad you think so. I don't know that I was conscious of that at the time. At Swarthmore I studied political theory and at Yale too, to a degree, at the law school; but I saw the excitement of the Kennedy project not just in terms of a guy who, when I started, might become President of the United States, but it seemed to me no one had written a book about the attorney generalship before, a serious study of it. There had been a gesture towards that, but it wasn't a good book and there was no case study. Here you had a situation where Kennedy had a chance not only to be "maximum attorney general," as I said, because of his relationship to his brother, but he came up against the "maximum bureaucrat" in the form of J. Edgar Hoover.

Something I didn't fully understand when I took on the project or the assignment was that the FBI represented technically about 40 percent of the Justice Department's resources in terms of its budget and in terms of its manpower, but it actually was 50 percent of the Department's ability to do anything, because the Bureau did all the investigations for the Justice Department. You couldn't do it without Hoover's [approval] -- and the head of the FBI, the maximum bureaucrat, was like the landlord. He's there in perpetuity. Attorneys General come and go, so what do you get when the immovable object meets the irresistible force? What happens? That was as much my interest as how Kennedy went about his business at a time of great civil rights trauma, where you had the uprisings in the south, and all the other things, and the wind-down of the Cold War. That was part of my interest.

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