Profile: Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
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Thu Jun 7 00:20:42 MDT 2001
Profile: Katrina vanden Heuvel, The Nation
By JACK FREEMAN
(Jack Freeman wrote this article for Conference News Daily)
NEW YORK, June 6 (UPI) -- Katrina vanden Heuvel turns heads politically,
physically, figuratively and literally.
She's the editor of one of America's venerable publications, The Nation,
the smartly produced 136-year-old weekly magazine of the Left that is always
provocative and amusing, and often irritating to the country's plutocracy.
Her stewardship makes her one of the most significant journalistic figures
in the nation, one whose politics may be controversial but whose canny
editing elicits encomiums. Then there's her extraordinary gene pool.
Her father, William vanden Heuvel, worked for President John F. Kennedy
and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and served as the U.S. Ambassador to
the United Nations in Geneva. Her mother, Jean Stein, is a well-known author
and editor of Grand Street, the literary quarterly.
She also turns heads because she's married to Stephen Cohen, the
celebrated New York University professor-specialist in Russian affairs,
who's often seen with her at gatherings at the Council on Foreign Relations
and other meeting places of the city's most distinguished figures. They make
a handsome couple, and their charm and wit have been characterized as
And let it be said that Katrina vanden Heuvel turns heads because she
possesses a widely recognizable face. That's because she appears frequently
on CNN, CNBC and PBS to comment on current-affairs.
She's expected to be snappy, savvy and insightful, and she delivers
without fail. That makes her a TV producer's delight. It also contributes to
her growing celebrity status.
On Election Night 2000, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked vanden Heuvel
to appear on his show. It may be arguable whether vanden Heuvel drove up
ABC's ratings, but her spirited appearance certainly generated buzz, even
among viewers weary of political punditry.
It isn't uncommon for her to be recognized by passers-by on the streets of
New York. Not long ago, one veteran journalist saw her on Manhattan's Park
Avenue outside the Council on Foreign Relations, of which vanden Heuvel is a
member. He went up to her as she chatted with her husband, Professor Cohen,
and told her warmly how much he enjoyed her appearances on PBS's Charlie
Her angular face, deep eyes and wide forehead ensure that what you get on
the screen is what you encounter in real life.
The woman who meets with a reporter for an interview does not attempt to
impress, no exuding of celebrity pheromones here. There are no references to
her public appearances, no hints of her privileged lineage, no name-dropping
("As I was telling Barbara ..."), just a gracious welcome and then ... on to
the business at hand.
She's an editor right out of central casting: deadlines to meet; articles
to assign; major writers such as William Greider to contact (he's The
Nation's national correspondent, a man vanden Heuvel calls "one of the great
political reporters of our country").
Her office on Manhattan's Irving Place has the requisite computer, the
stacks of papers and the rows of books. There's also the patina of
So what's it like to edit one of America's most important political
"Aaaah," comes the answer. Then: ""A weekly is a brutal beast. There is a
deadline every hour. I am involved in almost every facet of the magazine,
from drafting editorials to deciding the weekly lineup and vetting
manuscripts, deciding on covers and cover lines. I identify new writers and
cultivate regulars and valued ones. I handle more than 100 e-mails a day. I
keep an eye out for what is happening in the week's news, reading four
papers by 8 a.m. and then looking at some international papers and Web sites
later in morning. I am always looking ahead to larger themes and issues."
Vanden Heuvel has edited The Nation since 1995. She started as an intern
with the magazine and has been connected with it for 20 years. It bills
itself as "the independent magazine of politics and culture." Founded in
1865 by E. L. Godkin, an Anglo-Irish abolitionist, it has provided a forum
for hundreds of the most famous names in American letters and politics and
has helped set the Progressive agenda for the last 136 years, more than half
the lifetime of the United States.
Gore Vidal, a frequent contributor, says of The Nation: "The Nation has
acted as ... a journalistic alert-system, warning of dangers too often
invisible to even the most alert coastal dweller."
Vanden Heuvel the journalist will never claim to be as eloquent as Vidal
the novelist, but her views are no less vocal.
"We live at a time," she said, "when what used to be called liberal is now
called radical; what used to be called radical is now called insane, what
used to be called reactionary is now called moderate -- or compassionate --
and what used to be called insane is now called solid conservative
One of The Nation's missions, she says, is to put ideas and issues on the
national agenda -- ones that are too often ignored or derided in the
"In the last years, we have called for the abolition of nuclear weapons,"
vanden Heuvel said, "and investigated what it means that America has the
widest gap between rich and poor in any industrialized country, and
editorialized for universal health care."
And what specific role does she see for the magazine right now? What
issues are troubling her? Vanden Heuvel answered without hesitation:
This "conglomeratized world," with few people willing (as The Nation is,
clearly) "to challenge corporate power." There is, she said, a "kind of
suffocating consensus," brought about in part by the corporate ownership of
the news media. "We live at a time when the line between entertainment and
news has been forever blurred," vanden Heuvel said.
"There is woefully little attention paid to public policy and too much to
celebrities and petty scandals. The need is acute for independent
perspectives, constructive ideas and radical rethinking of the assumptions
underlying mainstream politics."
That, she added, is why there is more of a role for The Nation today. "As
the mainstream media grow more homogenized and timid, The Nation is the only
weekly magazine in America that reports and interprets the news and culture
from a progressive perspective," vanden Heuvel said.
"The irony is that we now have a media landscape and an administration [in
Washington] that are bad for the country but good for The Nation. I take no
pleasure in saying that, but a magazine like The Nation does better
commercially when the government is in the hands of the other side."
Which is to say, with a Republican in the White House, the magazine's
economic prospects may have brightened. Translation: George W. Bush's
ascension to the presidency has meant a bit of an increase in The Nation's
subscription base from 95,000 in 2000 to 99,000 now. (The magazine's total
print run is 110,000, according to Teresa Stack, The Nation's president; the
annual budget is $7 million.)
Vanden Heuvel's ability to get big names into her magazine has been
remarkable. Salman Rushdie, Susan Faludi, Arthur Miller, Cornel West, Gore
Vidal (a contributing editor), E. L. Doctorow (a longtime contributor) and
Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison (a member of The Nation's editorial board), are
some of her authors. So is the novelist John Le Carré.
Why Le Carré?
"I saw that he had published a scathing indictment of the big
pharmaceutical companies in a British magazine," vanden Heuvel said. "So I
tracked down his British agent and for two months, I called every other day
and asked if we could publish a substantially adapted version of the piece.
In the end, she agreed and Le Carré gave us a considerably revised piece,
which we were thrilled to publish."
Le Carré's essay -- and his latest novel, "The Gardener" -- deal with
economic and power issues. These are issues are clearly enthrall vanden
Heuvel. In this context, what she finds truly heartening is the resurgence
of student activism in the country, of young people interested in "economic
and power issues ... an engagement with corporate power and economic
justice. There used to be more disengagement, some even called it navel
gazing, but no more."
Editors of major publications can do more than just hold such strong
views. They can assign investigative pieces, vanden Heuvel says, "central to
the magazine's mandate."
"I am at work right now on three or four projects, ranging from an
investigation of the transnational vitamin cartel to a long report on
international tobacco smuggling," she said. "And it is always exhilarating
to match a great novelist like E. L. Doctorow with a subject for which he
feels a passion -- most recently, the corrosion of our democracy by money. I
am now after Toni Morrison to write about George W. Bush and his
"I also feel that in the country there is a general disgust with corporate
power and its overbearing influence on public policy," vanden Heuvel said,
articulating a theme that her right-wing critics sometimes attribute to the
"This is mixed with a fragile desire for a new and more humane
internationalism and a growing-though unfocused-anger at government's
failure to act on the country's large problems."
That gives The Nation an opportunity to expose and propose and address
these discontents. After all, she added, "there are millions of progressives
in this country -- the problem is they've never met each other -- and our
media basically ignore them."
The Nation, vanden Heuvel believes, can become even more of a forum, a
meeting place for many progressives at this time of Republican rollback on
specific issues such as social investment, the environment, and development
What explains all this volcanic opinion?
"I grew up in a politically minded New York family," vanden Heuvel said.
"My father worked for Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy. As someone who is both
pragmatic and visionary, he was -- and remains -- an enormous influence on
my political thinking.
"Another influence was my godfather, Roger Baldwin, the founder of the
ACLU, who gave me a sense of how to effect political change outside the
electoral political process -- through the media and nonprofit world.
"My mother was the radical spirit-- who made me see the link between
culture and politics. Maybe it was something in the water, or the dinner
table talks, or being exposed to writers and politicians, but I got roots
and wings and good values from my parents. So, I'm guided by some basic
values -- a belief in social justice and fairness and the promise of
Then there's Russia, about which she has written, seminared and spoken
about extensively for two decades.
Vanden Heuvel, an authority on Russian politics and society, first went to
the erstwhile Soviet Union in 1978. She went for her honeymoon to Russia
with Stephen Cohen. Their 10-year-old daughter, Nicola Cohen (a.k.a Nika)
will make her 27th trip to Russia this summer.
"My interest evolved from my fascination with the history of the McCarthy
period and a desire to see the country that had enthralled and appalled so
many Americans," vanden Heuvel said.
After she'd met Cohen, he asked vanden Heuvel if she would smuggle
dissident journals out of Moscow. He thought that she had a diplomatic
passport --because her father was then the U.S. Ambassador to the United
Nations in Geneva. She didn't enjoy diplomatic immunity, however. (It was on
her way to see her father in Geneva in 1978 that vanden Heuvel's plane was
hijacked by a man -- a former low ranking Nazi -- who demanded the release
of Sirhan Sirhan and Rudolf Hess. The hijacker was later arrested in a chess
club in Manhattan. "And I am cured of my fear of hijackings," vanden Heuvel
says. "In fact, I fly with no fear. When I go, it will not be on a plane!")
Vanden Heuvel has visited Russia a lot over these past 20 years or so. She
was there several times a year from 1985-1988; she lived there for four
months a year from 1989-1992. Neither she nor her husband could get a visa
between 1981 and 1984 --largely due to the Soviet authorities' unhappiness
with Professor Cohen's work on Bukharin, who remained a suppressed
historical figure and because of his involvement with some of the dissident
"That attached itself to me," says vanden Heuvel.
She was in the Soviet Union during the heady years of perestroika and
glasnost, certainly an extraordinary time for anyone interested in political
change and radical reform.
Vanden Heuvel -- who speaks Russian -- worked as a reporter at Moscow
News, one of the leading glasnost-era newspapers, and wrote dispatches from
the front lines of perestroika. She covered the first Congress of Peoples'
Deputies election in 1989 and followed Boris Yeltsin on his barnstorming
tour of Moscow. She reported on -- and supported -- the emerging women's
movement, and she succeeded in getting one of Russia's leading publishing
houses to issue a series of Western feminist classics in Russian. These
included Simone de Beauvoir's "The Second Sex" and Betty Friedan's "The
Feminine Mystique." Also published in Russian as part of the series was the
classic women's health manual, "Our Bodies, Our Selves."
She co-founded a feminist quarterly, "You and We." Published initially in
the U.S., it was considered the underground publication of the Russian
women's movement. She remains a contributor to it, even though it is now
published in Moscow.
"It remains an important part of a stronger movement," vanden Heuvel said.
She also has edited and co-authored books. "Voices of Glasnost," which she
wrote with her husband, is a personal and political exploration of
Gorbachev's extraordinary reforms. Vanden Heuvel has co-edited two
anthologies of articles from The Nation with Victor Navasky, the former New
York Times gadfly who is widely credited with having rescued The Nation from
economic despair. Navasky, the magazine's editorial director and publisher,
mentored vanden Heuvel.
Navasky, of course, is a giant figure in journalism and letters because of
his own prose. He's a brilliant editor himself -- which must surely put some
intellectual pressure on vanden Heuvel. They enjoy a professional
relationship that is often cited as a model for publishers and editors.
If Navasky took important steps -- such as wooing investors-to ensure The
Nation's survival, vanden Heuvel could be said to be crafting the direction
of the magazine, which employs 35 editorial and business people at its
office at 33 Irving Place in Manhattan. Although the bottom line, according
to vanden Heuvel has been consistently in the red "136 years out of 136
years," the financial situation at The Nation has improved somewhat in the
last couple of years.
Editing a political journal means not simply wielding the metaphorical
blue pencil. It means, perhaps most of all, smart, timely thinking on
cutting-edge issues. One of the most significant -- and divisive -- of such
issues is globalization.
"In my view," vanden Heuvel said, "one of the central questions for the
21st century is not whether globalization will continue, but globalization
by whom, for whom and under whose control."
That is a question The Nation will continue grappling with in the coming
years. Too often, vanden Heuvel said, the mainstream press mocks the
demonstrators who were in Seattle (where there were large-scale protests at
a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in November 1999) or,
more recently, in Quebec (at a summit of Western Hemisphere leaders),
protesting corporate globalization.
"We've tried to be a forum for key thinkers who understand the choice is
not between global engagement defined by multinationals and right wing
nationalism," vanden Heuvel said.
She continues: "We are a magazine for those who seek intelligent criticism
of prevailing attitudes, and dogmas. And we are a seedbed for ideas which
eventually make it into larger society. In that sense, we traffic in ideas
not hype. We take seriously the power of ideas, of conviction, of
conscience. Our readers expect that we will fight for causes lost and found,
and to do so in good spirits and passion."
Tough words from a tough editor. But there's more: "Readers expect The
Nation to investigate, expose, criticize, but also to propose our vision of
a society that is both plausible and visionary."
Vanden Heuvel says her political and philosophical sensibilities -- not to
mention editorial determination -- were influenced by reading the dissenting
and muckraking journalists such as I. F. Stone, Thorsten Veblen, Lincoln
Steffens, and Ida Tarbell.
At Princeton University, she majored in -- what else -- political science,
graduating summa cum laude. Even then, The Nation was required reading for
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