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For 120 years The Nation has enlivened political debate. Started by abolitionists, `leftist' weekly still relishes gadfly role

Victor Navasky, editor of The Nation, seems almost amused as he puts down the telephone for a moment and asks a staffer whether the magazine's Washington correspondent, Christopher Hitchens, is an American citizen. ``It's none of Elliott Abrams's business anyway,'' he says as he returns to his phone conversation with a friend. Mr. Abrams, assistant secretary of state for interamerican affairs, had declined to appear on a television interview show, because Mr. Hitchens -- who is British -- was one of the guests. The producers refused to find a different journalist.

``He said Chris was out of the American mainstream,'' Mr. Navasky sighs after he hangs up the phone.

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``When Abrams says we are outside the mainstream, he's right,'' Navasky adds, not needing to explain that his magazine is one of the staunchest left-leaning publications in the United States today. ``But history shows that we are sometimes ahead on issues.''

This incident is typical of the gadfly role that The Nation, an opinion magazine celebrating its 120th anniversary, loves to find itself in. And though beloved by many of the ``old'' left, scorned by conservatives, and seen as ideologic by that part of the liberal movement which has turned to neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism, The Nation continues to come up with significant coverage that merits attention beyond the ``converted'' that read the magazine regularly.

Through persistent use of the Freedom of Information Act, The Nation has uncovered stories on J. Edgar Hoover's reign at the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

This fall a series on the campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty laid out charges of conflict of interests and commercialization in the fund-raising. Some say the articles started the chain of events that led to the firing of Lee Iacocca as chairman of the commission overseeing the restoration.

Looking at everything from authors to the downing of the Korean Flight 007 to culture, The Nation is often enthusiastically acclaimed or bedgrudingly respected.

At a party-cum-political rally Tuesday night, a wide range of liberals came to pay tribute to the magazine, started by abolitionists in New York. Joan Baez sang old protest songs. George McGovern spoke, introduced by Studs Terkel. Bella Abzug followed Jesse Jackson.

Throughout American political history, opinion magazines have played an important role in shaping the debate and sensibilities of politicians and intellectuals. Though never widely read by the general population, observers point out, publications such as The New Republic and The Nation played a substantial role in developing leftist and liberal assumptions during the era that liberalism dominated American politics -- from the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt until very recently. Conservatives have their own magazines, such as William F. Buckley's National Review and The Public Opinion, edited by Irving Kristol.

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But despite the conservative tenor of these times, The Nation is doing quite well, thank you. Circulation has jumped from 20,000 in 1978 to around 70,000 today. They hope to reach 100,000 in three years.

``Do we preach only to the converted?'' Navasky asks rhetorically. He demurs and points to several recent articles where he says The Nation was ``one of the engines that fueled interest in debate.''

``One priority is to arm our colleagues with facts, and make them better prepared to argue,'' says Hamilton Fish III, publisher. ``But we also very seriously aspire to affect mainstream media coverage, and that is happening with much greater frequency.''

William Rusher, publisher of The National Review, says The Nation is less successful than most publications in being in touch with American opinion. But he says there is a simple reason it is faring well today.

``Adversity is the mother's milk of journals of opinion,'' he says, noting that The National Review's highest circulation came during the late '60s after the defeat of Barry Goldwater and during the resignation of Spiro Agnew. ``I don't think their constituency is enlarging; it is shrinking as a matter of fact.''

For years The Nation was mentioned in the same breath as The New Republic, an opinion magazine that though still seen as liberal of social issues, is very supportive of Reagan administration foreign policy and hard line on national defense. Mr. Fish is proud that while other publications have ``made accommodation'' to the conservative political climate, his magazine has continued to hold the line on issues that are considered pass'e by a large segment of the population. It is supports a nuclear freeze, opposes US policy in Central America.

Indeed, The Nation still continues to write about issues that the general public has little interest in, such as the espionage cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs.

``It's sort of a joke in some circles,'' admits Navasky. But, he adds, these cases are important as symbols of how hard it is to know what is true and false during times of overheated politics.

This insistence to speak out of the mainstream is a virtue, says Richard Pollak, adjunct professor at New York University and former literary editor of The Nation. ``I don't think every syllable is gospel. . . . But The Nation is absolutely critical to political debate. Topics get raised there that either don't get raised elsewhere, or don't get raised in the same way.''

Fish says the US is thirsty for diversity of information in an age when the media is often owned by conglomerates and too often sounds alike. ``There is a need for weekly contemplative, reflective, and serious writing.''

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