Sidney Hook, the Marxist philosopher-turned-neoconservative who once mistakenly listed I.F. Stone among those who had defended the Moscow purge trials, wrote a book called The Hero in History. In it he distinguished between eventful men (like the Dutch boy who put his finger in the dike), people who happened to be in the right place at the right time–and event-making men, the ones who make things happen.
To me, I.F. Stone, né Isadore Feinstein, known to his friends as Izzy, was an event-making man. He was event-making not because Izzy and his little newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly (later biweekly), were right about McCarthyism, right about the war in Vietnam (he was one of the first to raise questions about the authenticity of the Gulf of Tonkin incident), right about the Democrats’ repeated failure to live up to their own principles, right about what he called, long before the US invasion of Iraq, the “Pax Americana.” Writing in The Nation (which he served as Washington editor in the 1940s), he was prophetic about the Holocaust, which in 1942 he called “a murder of a people” “so appalling…that men would shudder at its horrors for centuries to come.” He was even, by the way, prescient about the meltdown of the Soviet Union. In 1984, seven years before it happened, he told Andrew Patner, the young Chicago journalist who had the wit to debrief Izzy on tape, that “all these dictatorships look so goddamned powerful. [But I think] one day they [will] just collapse. They’re rigid, and rigid structures crack.”
It’s the way he was right, the way he lived his life, the way he did his journalism that magnified his influence, made him something of a role model for the most idealistic of the next generation. This college dropout who couldn’t see without his Coke-bottle glasses, and who couldn’t hear without his hearing aid (which he turned on and off strategically), was something of a pariah among his peers in 1953, the nadir of McCarthyism, when he founded I.F. Stone’s Weekly. His name was on a Senate Internal Security Subcommittee list of the eighty-two “most active and typical sponsors of Communist-front organizations” (which in Izzy’s case meant mainly popular front, antifascist organizations or civil liberties groups upholding the Bill of Rights against those who would undermine it in the name of combating a phantom domestic Red Menace).
When Izzy founded the weekly, with the help of a $3,000 loan from a friend and a 5,300-name subscription list inherited from the defunct PM and its successor progressive papers, also defunct, he was unemployed and some thought unemployable, including by The Nation. (Freda Kirchwey, The Nation‘s editor, who had fired him as Washington editor when he didn’t notify her that he had signed on with PM to become the first journalist to travel with the Jewish underground to the Holy Land, was reluctant to re-employ him.)
But in short order, although he never attended presidential press conferences, cultivated no highly placed inside sources and declined to attend off-the-record briefings, time and again he scooped the most powerful press corps in the world.
His method: To scour and devour public documents, bury himself in The Congressional Record, study obscure Congressional committee hearings, debates and reports, all the time prospecting for news nuggets (which would appear as boxed paragraphs in his paper), contradictions in the official line, examples of bureaucratic and political mendacity, documentation of incursions on civil rights and liberties. He lived in the public domain. It was his habitat of necessity, because use of government sources to document his findings was also a stratagem. Who would have believed this cantankerous-if-whimsical Marxist without all the documentation?
And as he gleefully explained to a group of Swarthmore students in 1954 (I know, because I was one of them), if you didn’t attend background briefings you weren’t bound by the ground rules; you could debrief correspondents who did, check out what they had been told, and as often as not reveal the lies for what they were.
Despite his poor eyesight, Izzy saw what others missed, even though it was often in plain sight. Partly it was a matter of perspective. Izzy was always looking for evidence of the great forces and trends that shaped our history–“the fundamental struggles, the interests, the classes, the items that become facts.” And he was not merely a Marxist; he wanted to synthesize Marx and Jefferson. How many Jeffersonian Marxists, after all, had penetrated the periodical galleries of the House and Senate? Izzy, by the way, had to sue to get his press card.
But Izzy also got and made news by reading the dailies, the wire services and such, and then following up where others had not thought to tread. He once told David Halberstam that the Washington Post was an exciting paper to read “because you never know on what page you would find a page-one story.”
One of his favorite scoops, he told a conference of investigative journalists in Amsterdam, of which more below, had to do with our capacity to monitor underground nuclear tests. It happened in the fall of 1957, when he spotted a “shirt tail” in the New York Times. A shirt tail, Izzy explained to the foreign journalists, is usually some wire-service information run as a little paragraph hanging down (“like a shirt tail”) at the end of the main story.
The main story, about the first underground nuclear tests in Nevada, had quoted experts forecasting that they would not be detectable 200 miles away. The distance was important, because at that time test-ban negotiations between the United States and the USSR were under way, and Dr. Edward Teller, whom Izzy regarded as a Strangelovian mischief maker, was raising questions about whether a test ban could be enforced. If the tests were in the atmosphere or underground, could they really be detected? Teller asked. When he got home, Izzy noticed that the city edition of the Times had a shirt tail from Toronto saying that underground tests had been detected there. He went downtown to get the late city edition and saw more shirt tails from Rome and Tokyo saying the same thing, so he clipped them and squirreled them away in his files. By the time the Atomic Energy Commission put out its report the following spring, saying that the tests hadn’t been detected more than 200 miles away, Eisenhower’s disarmament negotiators had gotten the Soviet Union to agree to monitoring posts every 1,000 kilometers (620 miles). Izzy jumped into his car and drove down to the seismology branch of the Commerce Department’s Coastal and Geodetic Survey, who were happy to see and cooperate with a reporter since, other than during earthquakes, the press ignored their work. There he learned that we had listening posts as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska–2,600 miles from the Nevada test site–that had picked up the tests. Why do you want this information? they asked. He told them. They called the AEC. The AEC called Izzy, and after listening to what he had to say, changed their press release.
Izzy clearly got as much pleasure telling the story of how he got the story as he did getting the story in the first place. And that’s another thing to admire about him. Izzy lived a life against the grain, but he believed in having a good time, leading the good life. When we invited him to speak at Swarthmore in the 1950s, he agreed to come, but requested a club-car ticket. At the time, this seemed like an extravagance and out of keeping with my image of Izzy as radical conscience of his cohort. But as he once put it, “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.”
It wasn’t until the 1980s when The Nation, along with the Dutch weekly Vrej Nederlander, invited Izzy to keynote an international conference of investigative journalists (who better to attract idealistic, progressive, investigative reporters from all over than the by-now-famous one-man band, I.F. Stone?), that I came to fully appreciate the significance of his lifestyle.
When I called to ask Izzy if he would be available, he said not only did it sound like a valuable event but he had a sentimental reason for being interested. He and his wife, Esther, had taken their honeymoon in Amsterdam many years ago.
And when our publisher, Hamilton Fish, made a follow-up call to pin Izzy’s participation down, and Izzy responded, “We’d love to do it,” Hamilton, correctly concerned about matters budgetary, stuck his head into my office and asked, “Who is this ‘we’?”
I explained that Izzy prefers not to travel without Esther, don’t worry about it. Izzy’s presence would guarantee the success and gravitas of our conference.
As it turned out, not only was Izzy ready to join us, but he made it clear that he understood no fee would be involved–a good thing, since, as Ham had unnecessarily pointed out, we had no fee in our tight budget.
In fact, our budget was so tight that we had arranged with a nonscheduled airline for budget round-trip tickets, at $400 per person, and at the other end our friends at Vrej Nederlander had negotiated a group rate at a modest hotel on the outskirts of town (we would commute to the conference center by a chartered bus that had agreed to give us its lowest rate).
A couple of days later Ham stuck his head into my office again to say we might have a problem. Izzy had called and explained that over the years he and Esther “have found that it’s too much of a strain to fly going east, so we take the boat,” and it seemed the boat they always took was the Queen Elizabeth II. Once again I started to tell Ham not to worry when he interrupted to tell me, “Izzy has already told me that. And he put me in touch with a travel agent in Jacksonville, Florida, who he says always takes care of them. In fact, he even knew which cabin they favored.”
So when, the next day, Ham appeared with some new news, I said, “Don’t tell me,” but he did.
Apparently, when Ham called to tell Izzy that the QE II was going to dock in England a few days prior to the conference, he couldn’t have been more pleased. “At our age,” he explained, “we need a couple of days to get our land legs, and we have this little hotel in London which makes a nice base.”
So Ham was not surprised when, a few days later, his phone rang again. “You know, Hamilton,” Izzy confided, “I’m a romantic,” and he proceeded to explain that on their honeymoon they had stayed “at a small pensione on the canal that ran through the center of town, not very expensive, and if you could just locate that…,” and we did.
It was more of a joke than a problem when Izzy called again to tell us that by happy coincidence one of his children, her family and her in-laws were going to be in Europe at the same time and if they could stay in the cottage by the canal…
Also, Izzy had an idea. There was a famous cathedral in Amsterdam that operated as a sort of agora, a public forum. If we could arrange for Izzy to speak (he had done this many years ago and seemed to have something of a following in Amsterdam), he would be pleased to donate his fee to help defray the costs of the conference.
In the end close to a thousand Dutch men and women showed up to hear Izzy speak, and forty activist-journalists from all over Europe came to the conference. From the opening session Izzy peppered journalists with questions, and shared observations and anecdotes from the audience. His own keynote was truly inspirational, and the conference led to follow-up conferences in London and Moscow attended by hundreds of investigative reporters, activists and scholarly resource people. At a farewell session at a local bar we consumed caviar and vodka, and he raised a toast: “Comes the revolution, we will all live like this.”
It was, then, part of Izzy’s charm that he never accepted the idea that in order to be a heretic, a maverick, a solo practitioner, it was necessary to be a martyr or a monk. As Peter Osnos, who had worked briefly for Izzy at the start of his own distinguished journalistic and publishing career, pointed out, it was not only on The Nation‘s ticket that he danced his way across the Atlantic. He and Esther used to go out dancing twice a week. More significantly, his insistence on his perks had less to do with hedonism than a sense of dignity, of self-confidence, of earned entitlement. He wasn’t about to allow a priggish journalistic establishment to marginalize him. He once said, “You may just think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch, but I’m keeping Thomas Jefferson alive.” He embodied the romantic idea of one man pitted against the system.
Who else but a romantic college dropout would have thought to teach himself ancient Greek in his 60s in order to write a history of human freedom, “because Athens was where it all began”? His quirky revisionist history of Socrates became an unlikely bestseller, but his commitment to freedom of thought remained his constant companion. Once when The Nation ran an editorial condemning some act of speech suppression by the Sandinistas, Izzy called to cheer us on, as if to say he had learned the hard way not to treat socialist sins more sympathetically than capitalist ones. He was calling to give us his blessing but also his legitimacy.
One night in the mid-1980s, after dinner in New York, I was walking Izzy back to his hotel, the Tudor, where he liked to stay when in town.
Izzy said he had an idea he thought might be appropriate to his energy level.
He would write a weekly paragraph, maybe 150 words, under the heading “Izzy Says.” He said every week he had at least one thing to say. We contacted the great caricaturist David Levine, who provided the perfect logo: Izzy holding a life-size pen the way a medieval warrior might carry his spear.
And sure enough, the next week Izzy sent in a 150-word item on the Reagan Defense Department. A few hours later, though, he called again. It seemed the story was bigger than he thought. He had gone down to the press building and read the wire reports. He had another 200 words.
Our production person remade the page, and here we were on press day when Izzy called again. “I think we have something of a scoop,” he chirped, and proceeded to dictate his “final” adds.
Over the next few weeks Nation readers were treated to a number of “Izzy Says” items, at least one “Stonegram” and a few “I.F. Stone Reports.” And the young staff, increasingly impatient with Izzy’s cheerful but deadline-oblivious modus operandi, looked skeptical when told how grateful they would be in some distant future for having had the privilege of working with this legendary maverick.
And then one day Izzy called apologetically to say he had better stop. “I’m an old war horse,” he said, “and once I get started I can’t stop. I have to go downtown and read the wires. I have to follow up. Let’s go back to the old system, and I’ll just do occasional pieces as they occur.” And he did.
A few weeks before he died Izzy called–as I expect he called many of his friends–just to say how much “I have appreciated your friendship.”
Even after he died, they still didn’t quite know how to handle him. In a classic example of the sort of on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand journalism against which I.F. Stone fought all his life, the lead paragraph of his obituary in the New York Times neatly balanced his “admirers” against his “critics.”
Although in the course of its nineteen years the weekly’s circulation rose from a few thousand to 70,000 at his death, someone still called it “a fleabite of a journal.”
So what did it matter that Izzy was an event-making man if the event was a fleabite? Andy Kopkind, the gifted radical journalist, who took inspiration from Izzy, had answered the question some years before when he wrote of the weekly that it “organized the consciousness of its readers somewhat in the way a community action group organizes a neighborhood: for awareness, understanding, action.” In other words, it mobilized and nourished a community of resistance.
It also inspired a generation of would-be Izzy Stones. Whether Alexander Cockburn’s CounterPunch or Jim Hightower’s Lowdown or Tris Coffin’s (later Ben Franklin’s) Washington Spectator, or even many of the latter-day so-called bloggers, they all were inspired by Izzy!
And by the time he passed on his newsletter to The New York Review of Books, for which he had written a series of highly influential early anti-Vietnam War pieces, this man of the Old Left had become a moral exemplar for such early New Lefties as Paul Booth, Dick Flacks, Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden. Izzy was “a spiritual eminence on early SDS,” is the way Gitlin put it.
After he died, some latter-day cold warriors tried unsuccessfully and preposterously to frame him–based on some newly released cables from Soviet spymasters to their American confederates–as a Soviet agent. The charges were quickly discredited. But the long-run answer to such nonsense may be found in his Who’s Who entry. Others take the occasion to list their worldly accomplishments. Izzy chose to print his credo: “To write the truth as I see it; to defend the weak against the strong; to fight for justice; and to seek, as best I can, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind, in the hope of someday bringing about one world, in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden instead of killing each other over them.”