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Navasky on Obama

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. Today we talk to Victor Navasky, a legendary name in liberal, progressive publishing and newspapers. He was the editor and publisher of The Nation Magazine. He’s now the emeritus editor—publisher—emeritus publisher?


JAY: Publisher emeritus. He also is a professor at Columbia School of Journalism and chair of the Columbia Journalism Review. And he’s also the author—his most recent book is Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq, with President Bush on the cover. And, as everyone knows, the war in Iraq is over, and President Bush was the winner. Thanks for joining us.

NAVASKY: Good to be here.

JAY: We’re talking now—we’re not. President Bush is gone. He waved goodbye. He got on the helicopter. He seems to have escaped prosecution, and we will get into that a little bit more in the interview. But you wrote a blog recently on the Nation Web site which talked about the debate that’s going on in the liberal and progressive circles across the country, which more or less is: who is the real Barack Obama? And you used the phrase that you think that Obama is, if I’m quoting you correctly, a liberal wolf in centrist clothing, and that essentially what Obama’s doing is redefining what the center is. So explain what you mean by this.

NAVASKY: Okay. So, first, I had just come back from the inauguration, and people were awash in this sea of happiness. When I say “people,” I mean people in the—I don’t mean liberals particularly—people in the station, people on the line waiting for taxis, people in restaurants, people watching the thing on television. And the first thing that happened, the next morning I turn on the Channel 14 in New York, which is one of the NBC cable channels and MSNBC, and there is Morning Joe. Morning Joe is not a liberal. Joe Scarborough is a former center-right guy, Pat Buchanan, who’s a far-right guy, and another guy who is a centrist, not particularly liberal. And all of them are praising Obama’s speech as a centrist speech, and praising his cabinet because they’re center picks, and praising his reaching out to his opponent McCain in the election, whoever else he reached out to as a centrist. And I sit there and I think, okay, first of all, the question you asked: what is the center anyway? And that depends where the right is and where the left is. I think the country for the last 25 years has been moving way over to the right, and I think it has with Obama’s election started to move back a little bit. So the center is still sort of center-right, but it’s shifting, it’s not stationary, and everything the president of the United States does helps define where it is, because where he is more or less is in the center, and then the government tilts, depending on who’s on which side or what side. But I also look at his positions in the campaign, I look at his voting record—people who chart these things claim he has the most liberal voting record in Congress. I listened to his inaugural speech, which I was not particularly thrilled by.

JAY: Why?

NAVASKY: I mean, it wasn’t lofty and inspiring the way even JFK’s speech was, and JFK was a cold warrior, which I am not and Obama, one hopes, is not. And yet the content of that speech was, to me, not a centrist speech in the American political context the way it is now. Now, one of the center—you know, we have two big issues facing the United States and the world community. One is what’s going to happen internationally. The Iraq War is the hangover from it. But what’s going to happen in Afghanistan? What’s going to happen in the world community and the relationship between militarism and the possibility of peace? And then we have the world economy and how it relates domestically. In terms of the economy, it seems to me that Keynes has been rediscovered. And whether one is for an $800 billion bailout or whatever, this is not a centrist—whatever one means by the center, this is not a centrist proposition.

JAY: Why?

NAVASKY: Because—.

JAY: Isn’t it in the centrism devil in the detail [sic]? Like, there’s stimulus, and then stimulus for who. So—.

NAVASKY: Of course it is. Look, let me say that I don’t believe the $800 billion is enough to get us off the economic center. I think Joe Stiglitz has a way of analyzing where we are. And Bill Greider, who writes in The Nation, has a way of analyzing where we are which suggests that what is required is a lot more money and not just a one-time injection of cash, number one. Number two, what’s required is nationalization of the banks. And number three, what’s required is some kind of a shift in the global economy, and the United States can have a role in playing that. But it’s highly complicated, and I don’t have any illusions that the Obama administration is going to do the necessary things in each of those areas to solve this problem and take care of poor people at home, not to mention around the world, on the one hand. On the other hand, you know, there was a great civil liberties, civil rights lawyer from the South who died recently. And he was in Alabama, and he left it out of protest in the ’60s. And I was interviewing him about during the Kennedy years, and he said to me, “Well, what you’re asking me reminds me of two farmers are walking down the road, and one says to the other, ‘How’s your wife?’ And the other says, ‘Compared to whose?’ Well, compared to George Bush, the guy is not in the center to me. Compared to Bill Clinton, who said the era of big government is over, Obama literally said in his speech it’s not a question of big or small; it’s a question of what’s right or wrong. I took the line, eyesight to me, helping to move the center over is a line that was just a throwaway word in there, when he said that our government’s supposed to be on behalf of Christians, Jews, and then he threw in Islam, which the president’s never said before, and nonbelievers. Well, once he put in “nonbelievers,” to me the center moved a little bit over to the liberal left. That’s all. Nothing big; no big deal. But symbolically that’s what I thought.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk a little bit more about what is possible at this time, because I think the issue of assessing where the center is and where Obama is is partly “Compared to who?” but also an assessment of this moment of time, which is dramatically different than we’ve been in in the past. So I guess the real question is: what’s possible for a new kind of center or center-left? So please join us for the next segment of our interview with Victor Navasky.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Victor Saul Navasky (born July 5, 1932) is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He was editor of The Nation from 1978 until 1995, and its publisher and editorial director 1995 to 2005. In November 2005 he became the publisher emeritus. Before coming to The Nation he was an editor at The New York Times Magazine and wrote a monthly column about the publishing business ("In Cold Print") for the Times Book Review.