The Secret History of Izzy

The Secret History of Izzy

I.F. Stone was not only a great reporter; he was a radical, an irritant to power.



To the Meet the Press audience on December 12, 1949, there was nothing special about the confrontation between I.F. Stone and Dr. Morris Fishbein. As editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Fishbein was a well-known foe of what the AMA called “socialized medicine” in any form; Stone, a sometime member of the Meet the Press panel since 1946, could be relied on for provocative and persistent questioning. The country’s most influential physician had already denounced national health insurance as “the kind of regimentation that led to totalitarianism in Germany.” When Fishbein also condemned compulsory coverage as “socialistic,” Stone demonstrated why the show’s producers considered him “a good needler”: “Dr. Fishbein, let’s get nice and rough. In view of his advocacy of compulsory health insurance, do you regard Mr. Harry Truman as a card-bearing communist, or just a deluded fellow traveler?”

The arguments over national healthcare may not have advanced much over the next sixty years, but for I.F. Stone that broadcast marked a kind of limit. It would be nearly two decades before Stone, who rose to prominence as a correspondent for this magazine and a columnist for the legendary New York tabloid PM, would next appear on national television. He would never be invited back on Meet the Press. When, three years later, he found himself in effect blacklisted–not even The Nation would give him a job–he started I.F. Stone’s Weekly, the one-man newspaper that is an inspiration and a challenge to the current generation of bloggers.

To think for yourself is the hardest thing for a journalist to do. I.F. Stone managed to do it, day after day and week after week, for fifty years. He may have been shocked into independent thought–in his case by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which marked the end of Stone’s hopes for a Popular Front embracing communists, Trotskyists, liberals and unaffiliated radicals–but however he began, he retained his independence.

Unlike many of those who would later oppose him from the right, Stone never succumbed to the romance of American communism. But he was terrified by fascism, and he welcomed any ally in the fight against Hitler–even, when Stalin changed sides again, the Soviet Union.

He defied conventional wisdom in urging the left to support Dwight Eisenhower’s efforts to extricate the United States from the war in Korea and to avoid entanglement in China and Vietnam, while he despised Richard Nixon, whom he labeled a “slick kind of Arrow-collar-ad” fascist. Yet when President Nixon made his historic opening to China in 1972, Stone–remarking that “there is nothing that a good newspaperman, like any Hegelian or Marxist historian, cannot foresee as inevitable once it has happened”–confessed that he found it “exhilarating to be reminded again how unpredictable human behavior can be.” The “Peking-Washington rapprochement,” he declared, “is the most startling event of its kind since the Nazi-Soviet Pact.”

Along with his independence, Stone’s capacity for surprise was one of his greatest assets. “I have never been able to figure out just what not being surprised is supposed to prove,” he wrote in 1957 after the Soviet launch of the spacecraft Sputnik stunned the world. “A mummy is immune to surprise.” Perhaps it was the memory of his chagrin over the Nazi-Soviet Pact that saved him from the incorrigible smugness endemic among today’s punditocracy. Certainly it is difficult to imagine our own Sunday-morning solons so cheerfully acknowledging the inevitability of error and inconsistency: “If you’re going to be a newspaperman, you are either going to be honest or consistent,” Stone told a young admirer. “If you are really doing your job as an observer…it’s more important to say what you see than to worry about inconsistency. If you are worried about that, then you stop looking. And if you stop looking, you are not a real reporter anymore. I have no inhibitions about changing my mind.”

Stone remained a real reporter all his life. For him that meant a deeply ingrained skepticism about the claims of power–as in his famous quip, repeated through many variations, that “every government is run by liars.” Stone understood that what journalism is really good at is answering empirical questions, and that it demands the skills not of an economist or a philosopher but of a good police reporter. Was there a North Vietnamese attack on the American destroyer Turner Joy in August 1964, or not? Can underground nuclear explosions be detected from more than a hundred miles away? Did the Limited Test Ban Treaty actually reduce the number of tests? These are questions that allow simple, factual answers–though in all three cases his fellow reporters showed little interest in even asking them. As Stone often remarked, one reason that Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were able to follow the Watergate story all the way to the Oval Office was that they were working the police beat, not the White House.

“I tried to get my stuff from the horse’s mouth–or the other end, at any rate,” Stone said near the end of his life. But it would be a mistake to take Stone’s modesty at face value, or to miss the immense intellectual confidence behind his passion for getting the facts straight. “The search for meaning is very satisfying, it’s very pleasant, but it can be very far from the truth,” he warned a pair of student journalists. “You have to have the courage to call attention to what doesn’t fit. Even though readers are going to say, ‘Well two weeks ago you said this.’ So you did. And maybe you were wrong then, or partly wrong, but anyway you’ve just seen something new that doesn’t fit, and it’s your job to report it. Otherwise, you’re just the prisoner of your own preconceptions.” To describe this process of constant adjustment to reality, Stone used a deeply unfashionable word: dialectical.

“A lot of people in this town,” he told writer William Greider in April 1988, “thought of me as Karl Marx’s baby brother.” Stone, like Marx, wrote to change the world. He was also, for all his ink-stained self-deprecation, perfectly at home amid the mainstream of European thought; not for nothing was he invited by Jean-Paul Sartre to write for Les Temps Modernes. But Stone’s deepest roots were in his native ground: the deceptively plain-spoken sophistication of Benjamin Franklin, the distilled outrage of William Lloyd Garrison, Tom Paine’s appeal to revolutionary common sense, the dignity of Frederick Douglass and, above all, Thomas Jefferson’s view of a free press as the keystone of American liberty.

Stone enjoyed the celebrity that came to him at the end of his life. He and his beloved wife, Esther–who met on a blind date on a Philadelphia street corner and who survived the lean years together partly through her genius at running I.F. Stone’s Weekly on a shoestring and a promise–danced the frug at the Peppermint Lounge, hobnobbed with stars at the Cannes Film Festival and saw the onetime political leper celebrated from Paris to San Francisco. “I told my wife years ago,” Stone says in the 1973 film I.F. Stone’s Weekly, “I said, ‘Honey, I’m going to graduate from a pariah to a character, and then if I last long enough I’ll be regarded as a national institution.'” He lasted long enough.

Stone’s continuing status as a hate figure for the American right was attested in August 2007, when President George W. Bush attacked Stone by name in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Recent weeks have similarly seen a desperate, if deluded, attempt to revive the smear that this most independent of American voices was on Moscow’s payroll [see Guttenplan, “Red Harvest,” May 6]. But it is also true that in the decades since his death, I.F. Stone has indeed become a national institution. Mine is the third biography of Izzy since his death in 1989. In 2006 Peter Osnos, who began his journalistic career as Stone’s assistant at the Weekly before becoming a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and later the founder of Public Affairs Press, published a selection of Stone’s journalism. In July 2008 the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard awarded the first annual I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence.

Yet for all Stone’s fame, his life remains a chapter in the hidden history of the twentieth century. Indeed, it would be only a slight exaggeration to say that it is precisely Stone’s status as a kind of journalistic icon that keeps him, like an Egyptian pharaoh, immured in a monument of his own devising. So it is not as clear as it should be that Stone was not merely, or even primarily, a newspaperman. He was also and always a radical, an irritant to those in power–for his uncanny ability to seize on and publicize the most inconvenient truths, and for his vociferous objection to the existing order, his intransigent dissatisfaction with a society that forces its children to go to war in order to pay for college and that allows the earth to be spoiled and the sick to go without medicine so corporations and those who own them can continue to pile up treasure without let or hindrance.

Izzy was a troublemaker all his life. From his youth as a soapbox orator for the Socialist Party, to his middle-aged mockery of Harry Truman, John Foster Dulles and J. Edgar Hoover, to his dying words in support of the student demonstrators who risked death at Tiananmen Square, he relished a good fight. The list of his causes is a fair index of the rise and fall of American radicalism: equality for African-Americans; government assistance for the poor; economic justice for farm laborers and factory workers; a left united in opposition to fascism (whether the jackbooted European variety or the “chrome-plated American fascism” Stone saw behind the repression of the 1950s); support for colonial independence and opposition to an American empire; industrial democracy and workers’ rights; universal healthcare; the abolition of nuclear weapons; justice for Palestinians as well as Israelis; a negotiated end to the cold war; and, most of all, the right to dissent.

As Stone aged, his manners softened. In the tempest of the 1950s, harassed by the State Department, followed by the FBI, blacklisted by the mainstream media and ridiculed by many liberals, Stone refused to trim his sails. But when the storm passed and Stone encountered his former antagonists in more peaceable climes, he was nearly always willing to forgive, if not forget. His geniality and his increasing focus, in his final years, on injustices in the so-called socialist world make it easy to overlook the man who’d proposed a government takeover of the automobile industry to equip the Air Force during the Second World War and who, long before the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, regularly chided African-Americans not for their restiveness but for their patience. The I.F. Stone who wrote scathing critiques of Soviet psychiatry in The New York Review of Books gradually eclipsed, if not effaced, the man who denounced American interference in Cuba as criminal and who described the war in Vietnam–“this distant slaughter of a small nation”–not as a heroic crusade, or even a quixotic gesture, but as “genocide.”

Perhaps especially today, when a snide tone or a hectoring manner seems to serve as an emblem of commitment, any reader who happens upon Stone’s calm, forensic yet devastating critiques of American politics and institutions is likely to be shocked by the depth of his radicalism. Stone was no catastrophist; he didn’t yearn for things to get worse in order to get better. He was always happy to support reform whenever reform was possible–and genuine. He cherished the Constitution, felt proprietary pride toward the Bill of Rights and took for granted the necessity for liberals and radicals to work together on common goals as simple Popular Front common sense. Even in the depths of the McCarthy era Stone never lost faith in the long-term prospects for democracy, telling himself, “Well, I may be just a Red Jew son-of-a-bitch to them, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive.”

This radical I.F. Stone has at least as much to tell us as Stone, the patron saint of investigative reporting. If journalism was his medium, his message was unfailingly political. Indeed, it was his immersion in the political battles of his day–his experience of the Depression, CIO-organizing campaigns in the steel and auto industries, the brutal violence of Kentucky coal fields, the promise of the New Deal and the cruel foreclosures of the cold war–that shaped his historical sensibility and lifted his best journalism above the ephemeral score-keeping and score-settling of his long-forgotten rivals.

Shorn of the political engagements, Stone’s career is reduced to a kind of performance, like that of a veteran ballplayer or a distinguished actor. And shorn of his history, he becomes merely a figurehead for a set of attitudes or political positions, a way to prop up our prejudices by showing how much his views on any subject resemble our own. So perhaps it is time to stop asking “What would Izzy say?” and consider instead why he still matters.

Stone’s ability to continue writing and to remain both radical and independent was a major achievement. In dark times, his life and writings can again serve to remind us that radicalism is as American as the Boston Tea Party, and that we who stood on the side of Daniel Shays, or the abolitionists, or Eugene Debs, or the Wobblies, or Franklin Roosevelt, or the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or Rosa Parks, or Women Strike for Peace, or any of a dozen other causes have at least as much right to call ourselves patriots as those who opposed them. As his critic, competitor and longtime friend Murray Kempton said, “Among its many other uses, Stone’s work is a handbook on how to survive as a guerrilla.”

And when the tide turns, Stone’s career reminds us to seize the day and to focus less on the minor differences of doctrine that may divide us and more on what we can accomplish together. I.F. Stone never forgot the healing impact of the New Deal’s flawed and faltering efforts toward economic justice. He never forgot that as well as planting trees, saving banks, taming rivers, bringing electricity to the rural South, paving thousands of miles of roads and building hundreds of public structures from amphitheaters to zoos, Roosevelt’s bold, persistent experimentation repaired the spirit, building the nation that would go on to defeat fascism. Nor did Stone forget the coalition that pressed the president, and the country, to keep moving left.

When shipyard workers in Gdansk rose up in 1980, Stone was thrilled; he’d been a supporter of the strike at the Cegielski locomotive works in Poznan, in 1956. But he must have been especially pleased by the name the Poles gave to their movement: Solidarity. I.F. Stone knew a lot about solidarity. He’d seen the American left tear itself apart when solidarity gave way to suspicion and recrimination; but he never forgot what solidarity had achieved, either on the line at the Fisher Body plant in Flint, Michigan, or at lunch counters across the South or in demanding an end to the war in Vietnam. It was his memory, and his confidence, as much as his analysis of events, that made a deaf, reedy-voiced, myopic old man such a powerful figure. He was a very great reporter, and like all great reporters a great noticer. Which is our good fortune, because taken together his writings amount to as vivid a record of his times and ours as we are likely to get.

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