Victor Navasky, longtime editor and now publisher of the Nation,can fool you. He looks, with his glasses, his faint stoop, his beard and his mildly benign expression, something like an Ed Koren cartoon character—one of those woolly vegan idealists—but in fact he is distinctly tough-minded and pragmatic.

He has led the magazine for nearly 30 years and in the process transformed it from a journal that lost money in all but three years of its 140-year history (he likes to ask quizzically: "But which three?") into one with hugely increased circulation that occasionally veers into brief profit.

This is all chronicled in great but never tedious detail in his third book, A Matter of Opinion,just out from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, in which the most surprising element is the quirky humor with which it is told. Navasky naturally makes all the right points about the importance, especially in these polarized days, of the journal of opinion, and he's endlessly fascinating about the many maneuvers with wealthy and sometimes eccentric backers, from Arthur Carter to Paul Newman. He is also constantly amused by the struggle to balance the magazine's essentially anticapitalist stance with its dependence on the goodwill of some of the capitalists themselves. "There's the business side and the editorial side, and I've been privileged to have glimpses of both sides," he says dryly, having actually attended Harvard Business School at one point as a sort of apostate. "There's this notion of the editor as a solemn pontificator, but I tend to have a humorous take on things," adds the man who cut his comic teeth on the satirical journal Monoclein the '60s. "Back then I was expected to be funnier than I was. Now I'm supposed to be more serious than I am. The voice of the book is me, it's the way I think." The bookalso has many great stories. Once, at the Times,he offered to take Truman Capote to lunch after Caopote had spent a night in jail pursuing an article for the Times on the Charles Manson trial. Capote was in no mood for the Times's brand of largesse. "If the Timesis buying, we'll end up at Nedick's. Meet me at Lafayette"—an expensive four-star restaurant favored by Capote but savaged a day earlier in the Times by Gael Greene. Capote swept into the restaurant, was served a martini as his cape was taken, and loudly pronounced, "I don't know what that bitch was talking about, the service here is fine."

A Matter of Opinion began, in fact, as a sort of meditation on the role of the journal of opinion, written in the third person, and only gradually morphed into the much more human, intimate and autobiographical one it has become. The length of its gestation is indicated by the proposal first being sent out by agent Lynn Nesbit from ICM, before she partnered with Mort Janklow (and was ultimately taken over by Amanda Urban). Navasky's editor, Elisabeth Sifton, remained constant and patient, however, taking the book with her as she moved over the years from house to house, and "pushed me to chronological coherence" despite the constant interruptions in the book's progress. It's only Navasky's third book in his 50 years as a working journalist (the others are the 1971 Kennedy Justice, about Robert Kennedy as U.S. attorney general, and Naming Names(1980), his National Book Award—winning account of the Hollywood blacklist).

But his involvement with the book publishing business has been extensive, ranging from his tenure as an observant chronicler of it for the New York Times Book Review, when it was edited 30 years ago by John Leonard, to much more recent coverage of its growing conglomeratization—which attained its peak in a special 1989 Nationissue in which media analyst Ben Bagdikian charted the extensive interrelationships between the major publishers and other media. "Bigness isn't necessarily badness, but when you have so many companies all part of the same group, you tend to have a sameness of approach, a caution, an unwillingness to step out of line."

Navasky's TBR column, which was called "In Cold Print," looked at the book business from the writer's point of view and therefore, obviously, raised a number of publisher hackles. But Navasky still sees such commentary as necessary: "I think they should still do that from time to time." He is puzzled that, by tradition, book publishers do not fact-check to ensure that their authors are telling the truth. "Don't they have an obligation to the truth of what they publish?" They could afford to do so, he added, protestations to the contrary. "Everything we publish at the Nation is checked as carefully as at the New Yorker, and you could certainly say that we can't afford it." The lawyering that is done on potentially controversial books he finds simply "a bafflement."

It was the Nation that first brought to American attention (in 1989) the investigation published in Switzerland by a German journalist into the past Nazi links of the giant Bertelsmann empire that now includes Random House. No one in Germany had dared cover the story because of the company's domination there of the press and publishing environment, said Navasky, and no one, until a Nationwriter happened upon the story, had picked it up outside Europe either. "That's an example of the kind of thing we can do, if we don't have to worry about advertisers and offending people." The magazine also stuck its neck out with an advance excerpt it published in 1979 from President Gerald Ford's memoir, A Time to Heal, breaking an embargo by then Harper & Row, which had sold serial rights; the magazine lost that case, after an extensive court battle, but Navasky is convinced it had a correct interpretation of the meaning of the First Amendment regarding the newsworthy thoughts of a public servant.

The current political climate has been good to a magazine that, despite right-wing belief to the contrary, is by no means a party organ of the left. "I see the role of the Nation as helping shape the terms of the national debate, not in favor of any existing party." And in fact there are a number of issues—the role of unions, the status of women—on which it has notably changed its mind over history. "And there are more differences between some of our people than between the Dems and the Republicans," he adds, citing internal squabbles involving Israel, sexism, the observations of such regulars as Gore Vidal and Alexander Cockburn, the Alger Hiss case, the Clintons and many others. Sometimes, he says, the foundations that the magazine approaches for funds often ask what difference the Nation makes.

"That's the wrong question," Navasky says. "Sure, you can point to moments when you made a difference, but the most important thing we do is clarify the issues, nourish writers and ideas that are out of the mainstream."