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Remembering Victor Navasky, longtime editor and publisher of 'The Nation'

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Victor Navasky, the longtime editor and eventual publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation, died last week at the age of 90. He was known for his geniality and equanimity. As editor, he was credited with bringing in varied voices and perspectives including writers Alexander Cockburn, the British writer Christopher Hitchens, historian Eric Foner, novelist Toni Morrison, humorist Calvin Trillin, and feminists Katha (ph) Pollitt and Katrina vanden Heuvel, who took over as editor in 1995 when Navasky became publisher. Under his tenure as publisher, the magazine doubled in circulation and turned a profit after years of unprofitability. He went on to teach at Columbia University and chaired the Columbia Journalism Review.

Besides writing a memoir, Navasky wrote two well-received books. "Kennedy Justice" was about the Justice Department under Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. And his book "Naming Names" is considered a classic and was awarded a National Book Award. It's about the investigation of so-called Hollywood radicals by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Those brought before the committee were under the threat of jail and being blacklisted for refusing to answer questions about their alleged participation in communist activities. Terry Gross spoke to Victor Navasky in 1982, and they talked about "Naming Names."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: Well, what was it in your personal history that made you that interested in not only the climate of McCarthyism, but what motivated the people who did testify before HUAC to name names?

VICTOR NAVASKY: Well, I don't know that it's a matter of personal history other than that I did have friends whose parents had been victims of the Hollywood blacklist. And I did - actually, now that you mention it, I worked in a summer resort in 1951 or '52 where - in the Adirondacks in New York State, where one of the guests was a man named J. Edward Bromberg, who was an actor in the old Group Theatre. And he had been subpoenaed by the Un-American Activities Committee, and his doctor had given a certificate saying that he couldn't appear because he had some kind of heart disease. And he came up to the mountains to - after he didn't appear.

And while he was there, two FBI men appeared, and their purpose was to see whether he was engaging in watersports and doing other things that would prove that he was - could appear. And they - and indeed, he was swimming, and he was - eventually, he did a little bit of summer stock. And they went back, and he was re-subpoenaed. And his doctor gave another certificate saying, hey, just a minute. There's a difference between frolicking in the water and playing chess and appearing in summer stock on the one hand and appearing before a committee of the Congress where the stakes are your ability to earn a livelihood if you don't cooperate or the necessity of betraying your friend because the litmus test, at that point, of your ability to work in Hollywood, if you were accused of having been a communist, was your willingness to go before one of these committees.

And first of all, if you had been to say you were and that you're sorry - and then, they would ask you who else, and you would have to name who else. And if you didn't, you were declared in contempt of Congress. Or you could refuse to do that and take the Fifth Amendment, in which case you would be blacklisted and couldn't work again. Or you could take the First Amendment, in which case you would be cited for contempt of Congress and, like the Hollywood Ten, perhaps be sent to prison. So it was an awful dilemma.

And they re-subpoenaed J. Edward Bromberg. He went back and this time did testify, took the Fifth Amendment. A few months later he went to England, and he died and - of his heart disease. And I went that winter to the memorial service for him. And I was very moved by what had happened. But I - one of the speakers was Clifford Odets, the great playwright of the Group Theatre, who wrote "Waiting For Lefty" and "Awake And Sing!" and other plays of the '30s. And there was all kinds of muttering and crying, and I understood part of what was going - and yet there was an undercurrent that I didn't understand.

I mean, I understood why there should be such great sorrow and that Bromberg was perceived as some kind of political martyr. And yet I really didn't know what was - what - there was something else happening there. And it wasn't until years later that I discovered that Clifford Odets, who gave the eulogy at J. Edward Bromberg's funeral service, also named J. Edward Bromberg before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. So there was that set of unanswered questions that I was interested in.

I had done a lot of reading about the - I'd always been interested in the McCarthy period, I should say. And I went to Swarthmore College as an undergraduate and got out in 1954, which was the year of the Army-McCarthy hearings. And instead of studying for my honors exams, I remember sitting and watching, riveted to my television set, and taping the actual summary speeches of the Army-McCarthy hearings.

I had read a lot about what happened in Hollywood and the blacklist. And there was one thing I couldn't understand, which was how so many decent, honorable, smart, talented people who also had a strong streak of idealism, which had gotten them involved with the Communist Party in the first place - I understood they later - a lot of them got disillusioned and - but nevertheless, they cared enough to join something, whatever their misunderstandings of it were - how those people could end up what, on the surface, looked like an act that - doing something that was unconscionable and indecent, which was to betray their friends, to save their own careers at the price of their friends.

And the odd thing was that in all of the literature about that period, there's a big gap. There were books, very good books, about the blacklist. There were memoirs by various people who came through it. But no one had ever gone to the informers, the people and entities, and ask, why did you do it? And how do you feel about it now? So I was interested in doing that.

GROSS: I should think that most of the people who did name names did it mostly out of fear of, like, losing their job, not being able to support their family. Were those mostly the reasons?

NAVASKY: Well, it's hard to know. I mean, I - of those I spoke to, there were four different kind of themes that emerged in the conversations. And one of the themes was, yes, I was a victim of the terror. A second theme was - also shared in this thing of, I don't want my family to suffer. It was that I had a set of higher obligations than the obligation not to betray a friend. Either my obligation was not to let down my family - I was the sole source of support for my family.

Or in some cases - in the case of Budd Schulberg, he said, you know, it's - you think you're a civil libertarian for fighting the blacklist. I was fighting something worse. I was fighting Joseph Stalin's death list. And I discovered that all these people that I had revered as a young communist and - he had gone to the Soviet Union to a meeting of the Writers' League over there, or a meeting of an International Writers' Congress - had become nonpersons, and they had been sent to the salt mines of Siberia. And I would prefer not to have got called up before the Un-American Activities Committee. But in terms of who is the greater evil, Stalin was a greater evil than McCarthy.

Well, my answer to that - to Budd Schulberg is, well, Budd, yeah, but you can denounce Stalin without doing it - without strengthening the forces of domestic reaction, which goes back to the Sontag debate a little bit, that you - someone in your position could write books about it. You can make speeches about it. You can give money to organizations that are fighting and exposing the nature of Stalinism. You do not have to betray your friends in order to make that point. And you do not - you know, it's a different - they're different issues, it seemed to me. So that was a second kind of thing. One, I was a victim of the terror of the times and, second, that I was operating in accordance with some higher principle.

Third thing people said was, you know, they deserved it. Maybe I shouldn't have done it, but I'll tell you something, they were so much worse than what I did. What they did to me, when I was in the party, was so much worse than what I did to them by naming them before this committee that it's not a serious question you're asking me.

And Kazan, the director who directed Arthur Miller in "Death Of A Salesman" - his plays "Death Of A Salesman" and "All My Sons" and who directed, interestingly, "On The Waterfront," which is this movie where, as you remember, Marlon Brando comes to maturity when he realizes his obligation to fink on his fellow hoodlums on the waterfront, which is written by Budd Schulberg, who named names and starred Lee J. Cobb, who named names - he says as one of his - although he says he doesn't want to talk about it. He then always talks about it a little bit.

And one of the reasons he gives for doing what he did - or one of the things he says, whether he calls it a reason or not, is that they betrayed him when he was in the party, and they betrayed the ideals that they were supposed to stand for. And he gives as an example that in the Group Theatre itself, which the party had a caucus, and that they would take - the Theatre would vote on who should control the selection of plays, and all the Communists would vote as a bloc. And they would vote in the interests of the Communist Party, rather than the interests of the Group Theatre. And that that kind of thing - and eventually they kicked him out of the party. And so he felt personally embittered and wounded, and he gives that rather than he wasn't trying to save his career. He could have worked on Broadway and he understood that and all that. It's his reason for doing it. And again, I mean, it seems to me revenge is a - well, it's a dubious social motive. You can't tell someone they're not entitled to their revenge. And yet you do not have to do it through the agency of a committee like the Un-American Activities Committee, which wrecked so many lives. So that was a third reason that they got their justice there.

And then finally, they would say something which wasn't really a reason as to why they did it, but almost without exception, everybody I spoke to threw in. And by the way, you know, they already had the names, so I wasn't hurting anybody. Well, on the one hand, that - if that's - it turned out to be true. And then they understood because the committee and the hearings began in '47, in 1955, they called as a witness a man who testified that he had been simultaneously the membership chairman of the Communist Party in the Los Angeles area and a police spy for the Los Angeles Police Department. At the end of every year, he would turn over a thousand names to the LAPD, which would share them with the FBI, which would chair them with the Un-American Activities Committee. So they did have all the names.

But the fact was that until your name was mentioned out loud, you didn't lose your job. And by naming the names out loud and going through that ritual, I call it, in naming names - a degradation ceremony, but by doing that, what you ended up doing was reinforcing their right to ask and making it that much more difficult for the next person to refuse and conceding that it was OK for our state, which is supposed to be a democratic state, to have as its test of virtue your willingness to betray your friends. And that test is one which totalitarian societies are - is characteristic of totalitarian societies. Indeed, in the Soviet Union, we learned that the first two questions they asked in the purge was, who recruited you and whom did you recruit? And - but we're not supposed to do that. And so that was the fourth kind of theme.

So I didn't find any of the justifications given adequate to the circumstance. And one of the problems in writing about this is that people say, oh, so what you're saying is that these are bad people and they're evil and all that. Then I quickly say, well, look. I'm not saying - I'm saying something different. I tried to ask, what is the right thing to do under the circumstances? Now there are some very good people who did the wrong thing, and there were some awful people who did the right thing. And I think that's a meaningful distinction, but it gets lost.

BIANCULLI: Victor Navasky speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1982 interview with Victor Navasky, editor and eventual publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation. He died last week at age 90. He was also the author of "Naming Names," the classic account of the House Un-American Activities Committee accusing Hollywood figures of being Communists in the 1950s. When we left off, Navasky was talking about the people who were brought before the committee. He said in his book he tried to ask what was the right thing to do under the circumstances. He said, there were some very good people who did the wrong thing and some awful people who did the right thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: What does it mean?

NAVASKY: Well, I'll tell you a way that it came out years later. Dalton Trumbo made a speech when he received the Laurel Award, which is the highest award that writers in Hollywood can bestow on their peers. And this is after - and he said on that occasion in 1960, in the late 1960s. Blacklist presumably died by 1960. He said, those of you who are too young to remember the blacklist should study it because there's a lot to learn. But when you do so, don't look for heroes and villains, because none of us was without sin. There are only victims.

And he - it was received at the time as a very healing and generous statement. But when I went out there to do research on - first for an article and then my book - and talk to Albert Maltz, who was another one of the Hollywood Ten, he greeted me with a statement denouncing Dalton Trumbo, saying, you know, to say that there were only victims, that we're equally victims of the people who named us, is to take away the meaning of our lives. What did we go to prison for? It's like saying the guard and the prisoner at the concentration camp are both equally victims.

And I took Maltz's statement to Trumbo for comment. And Trumbo said, you know, Lillian Hellman says that forgiveness isn't my job. That's for the man upstairs. He said, well, I feel the same way about vengeance, that it's an unhealthy thing and it corrodes, he said. And I can't say that a man who named names because the committee was going to reveal his homosexuality at a time when that was the greatest social stigma one could have, that I could tell him to do otherwise. I can't say that the woman who named names because she was the sole support of an infant and whose husband was in prison and who had herself been abandoned as a child, I can't say that that woman should have risked abandoning her child by taking the course of action that we took, which was to go to prison. So what it means is that you have to look at each circumstance in and of itself and that you have to be a little humble in the face of, what would you do if called up there?

GROSS: I guess life is a lot more complicated than it's - you'd like to think some time when you just try to neatly sort things out and come up with theories to explain things that happened.

NAVASKY: Yeah. But - and then - but having - once you get finished going through all this and showing these shades of gray and pink and orange and all that, I think it - or I felt that was important for me anyway to not shy away from the business of saying what I thought was the right and the wrong thing to do. Because the most important thing may be that there were people who knew how to behave when it counted. And, you know, Hellman is a very controversial woman - and on the left, as well as in the larger community.

And I guess feel - I agree with Murray Kempton (ph) about it, who wrote that, you know, she knew what to do when it counted. That was her summit. You know, she got up there, and she said, I will - I would be happy to tell you about myself, but I will not bring trouble to innocent people. I cannot cut my conscience to fit the fashions of the day or howerver she put it - more eloquently than that. But - and she did do what was right when it counted at personal sacrifice and risk. And in that - those actions may be important not just as learning experiences if you study them, but because they make it difficult for it to happen again in quite the same way, because these people function as exemplars, as moral exemplars.

BIANCULLI: Victor Navasky speaking to Terry Gross in 1982. The author of "Naming Names" was editor and eventual publisher of the liberal magazine The Nation. He died last week at age 90. Coming up, I review "Cunk On Earth," a new Netflix comedy mockumentary series from Charlie Brooker, the co-creator of "Black Mirror." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.