I. F. Stone’s Mighty Pen
I. F. Stone’s Mighty PenReading a new biography of the fiercely independent and incorruptible I. F. “Izzy” Stone, the author recalls how, with a one-man kitchen-table weekly, the late great reporter blazed the way for a generation of bloggers, became a legend Washington journalists still worship, and set a standard few can meet. A VF.com exclusiveThere is the kind of convention coverage you do not read anymore, will not read again, and have to be quite old even to remember. An unobtrusive freelancer, equipped only with hearing aid, notebook, and Coke-bottle glasses, was squinting and cupping his hand at the G.O.P.'s Nixonian cheerfest in Miami Beach in 1968:
By CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS"It was hard to listen to Goldwater and realize that a man could be half Jewish and yet sometimes appear to be twice as dense as the normal gentile. As for Agnew, even at a convention where every speech seemed to outdo the other in wholesome clichés and delicious anticlimaxes, his speech putting Nixon into nomination topped all the rest. If the race that produced Isaiah is down to Goldwater and the race that produced Pericles is down to Agnew, the time has come to give the country back to the WASPs."This could have been H. L. Mencken or Murray Kempton on his best day, but it was written by the great Isador Feinstein, always called "Izzy" but in 1937 amending his byline to I. F. Stone. This unusual American humanist didn't really believe in "race" at all, could easily have quoted at length from both Isaiah and Pericles, sometimes in the original, and, as you readily see, could in a wry way make you laugh. He could also make you weep:
"Since every man is a microcosm, in whose heart may be read all that sends armies marching, I must admit I am no better. Because so many bonds attach me to Israel, I am ready to condone preventive war; I rejoiced when my side won. Though I preach international understanding and support for the UN, I found all the excuses for Israel that warring nationalisms always find to excuse breaches of peace.… And this is how it always is and how it starts, and I offer the mote in my own eye."Here's always something faintly but definitely phony, to my ear, in the praise of one journalist for another. Our craft saturates itself in testimonial dinners, awards, and—when the career is over—lavish obituaries. "Superb professional" … "Wrote like a dream" … "Unforgettable colleague" … "Fearless on dateline and deadline." The speeches or articles are customarily laced with pseudo-modest anecdotes about that time when he/she and I pulled that terrific scoop. What do the readers make of this self-regard? When I. F. Stone was finally offered a dinner in his honor, at the National Press Club in Washington in 1981, he told the organizers that (a) he had resigned from the joint in 1941 in protest of its refusal to allow him to entertain a black guest; (b) he had not at the time been able to collect the mere 25 signatures necessary to support his protest; and (c) he would not attend unless or until the club's committee found that insulted black guest and invited him back. (The man, William H. Hastie, later a judge, turned out to have become the governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands.) With these conditions fulfilled, Stone upped his demands and insisted that a Palestinian Arab, Edward Said, be invited to the top table as well.
These days, practically everybody in the journo racket in Washington, D.C., wishes they had been, or wishes to be, or in extreme cases believes they actually are, I. F. Stone. But it was not always thus. Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recalls inviting Izzy to a dinner party in 1954 and being taken aside in his own kitchen by an outraged guest who worked for the U.S. Information Agency. "How could you invite me to your house with I. F. Stone? I could lose my job!" Stone himself was impervious to all such career anxiety, because by launching a kitchen-table one-man sheet called I. F. Stone's Weekly he had declared independence and blasted the way that is now too easily followed by a throng of self-publishers and blog artists.
Myra MacPherson's lovely biography of the man, All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone, is ideally timed for the moment when reporters in Washington are once again rightly (and too late) flailing themselves, either for being spoon-fed information by the White House and the Defense Department or for swallowing the alternative pabulum put out by the C.I.A. When I moved to Washington, in 1982, to do the job he'd once done for The Nation, Mr. Stone helped give a reception for me—I'm no pack rat or hero-worshipper, but I still keep the spare invitation cards—and gave me some terse advice: Don't go to briefings. Don't have lunch with people in power. Go and read the original transcripts and papers, because the government doesn't always lie to itself. And take a few minutes to read The Washington Post, because "it's a great paper. You never know on what page you will find a page-one story." Despising journalistic sycophancy, he noted of Theodore White's moist "Camelot" prose that "a man who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone."
By these means, Izzy kept himself honest and tried to set an example. And, because he was right about Indochina and the F.B.I. and the civil-rights movement, many people assume that there was a natural match between his integrity and his prescience. But in point of fact and interpretation, he was naïve about the Soviet Union for most of his life (dying just as it was about to do so itself, in 1989), mistaken about the Korean War, simplistic about both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and unable to see the diminishing returns of the New Deal tradition. This does not matter. Izzy could be as interesting when he was "wrong" as when he was "right."
My second-favorite anecdote about him, after the National Press Club story, is this. He had expressed endless contempt for Senator Joseph McCarthy, and for all the wicked rubbish about "loyalty oaths" and the rest of the 1950s inquisition. Some little time after McCarthy was censured by the Senate and fell into disgrace and eclipse and alcoholism and dereliction, Izzy was up on the Hill, demanding a fresh tranche of paper from the Congressional printing office. He was astonished to be approached by the tramp-like figure of the once terrifying McCarthy, who continued to haunt the halls. "He put out his hand and I refused it and turned my back," Stone told me. "I later felt really lousy and I still do. He was powerless and a bum, and even when he'd been powerful he had let me alone."
Izzy's last book was The Trial of Socrates, for the writing of which he taught himself ancient Greek. He was determined to discover how a democracy had sentenced its greatest dissident to death. I won't try to summarize the argument, but I hope you know that Socrates believed that he himself had a daemon or daimonion: an inner critic and voice that warned him when he was being unfair or dishonest or proud. Izzy had his own daemon. Cranky—and even nasty—as he could be, he always tried to make restitution. On the few occasions when he was on the winning side, he distrusted himself. He joined the Socialist Party, as he put it, only "when everyone else was leaving." Having fought for the right of everyone else to have a passport without being asked dumb questions by the State Department, he was furious at himself for signing a denial of Communist Party membership in order to be allowed on a reporting trip overseas in 1956. Finally facing the facts about Stalinism in the same year, he wrote: "I hate the morass into which one wanders when one begins to withhold the truth because the consequences might be bad." Later in that same year, he wrote the mea culpa about Zionism that I excerpted above. His internal moral compass meant much more to him than any allegiance, or any piece of triumphal muckraking.
To say that he occasionally disliked or suspected himself is not at all to accuse him of self-hatred, let alone of that self-hatred that is sometimes suspected in Jews. Name change or no name change, he was invariably and affirmatively a Jew, and in my opinion would have gotten off the Soviet fellow-traveling train many years before he did had not the U.S.S.R. falsely claimed to have outlawed anti-Semitism. But when he wrote his book Underground to Palestine, celebrating the birth of Israel, and was offered a vast publicity budget if he would take out the part where he recommended a bi-national state, he stoutly refused. For these and other reasons, I am utterly sure that the recent allegation from the crackpot, Ann Coulterish right, of his having been on the K.G.B. payroll, is false. Myra MacPherson rips the "evidence" of these people to shreds, but I would simply say that here was a man who was not interested in being bought or sold. (I have to admit, though, that I can't quite see why a man who wouldn't lunch with a Pentagon official would deign to break bread with a Soviet Embassy goon. Probably it was just because he wasn't supposed to.)
MacPherson makes the slightly glib assumption—as do the editors of the excellent companion volume, The Best of I. F. Stone—that, if he were around today, Izzy would be as staunchly anti-war and anti-Bush as she is. Having known him a bit, I am not so absolutely sure. That he would have found the president excruciating is a certainty. But he had a real horror of sadistic dictators, and would not have confused Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein with the Vietcong. He would have been appalled by the disclosure that CNN had soft-pedaled what it knew about Saddam's regime in order to keep its access to the Iraqi Ministry of "Information." Nor would he have regarded the forces of al-Qaeda as misguided spokesmen of liberation theology: he could scent anti-Semitic bigotry from miles away. Most important of all, he was very ready to quarrel with the left about isolationism. Defending the Spanish Republic in 1937, he wrote:
"If it were possible to insulate the United States from the world, to retire into our shell, to plow our fields and write our books and raise our children untouched by quarrels across the sea.… I would be for isolationist neutrality legislation.… But I do not believe insulation and isolation possible.… Must we play nursemaid to the world? I am afraid so."At a time when most of his friends were opposed to any American "entanglement" in the Second World War, he was a strong advocate of aid to Britain, and at a time when the left was generally hostile after the war, he supported Truman's Marshall aid program. To Izzy, the consummate internationalist, the distinction between "over there" and "over here" was mainly imaginary. Finally, I think he would have waited for some more documents to surface, and helped unearth them himself, before making any conclusive judgments about weapons programs or terror connections in Iraq. His analysis of the Roosevelt administration's shameful cover-up of the Pearl Harbor catastrophe remains a masterpiece of lucidity, exposing the government's incompetence and dishonesty so comprehensively as to leave no room for conspiratorial speculation.
However, it is an absolute moral certainty that he would have repudiated any official pretext for bullying or invigilating American citizens in wartime. One of his most excoriating scoops was printed—not without great trepidation on the part of the editor—mid-war in The Nation, in July 1943. It exposed the secret F.B.I. guidelines for spotting subversive tendencies among government workers. The bureau's official list of questions to ask about a suspect ran, in part: "Does he mix with Negroes? Does he seem to have too many Jewish friends? Does his face light up when the Red Army is mentioned? Is he always criticizing Vichy France?… Does he buy out-of-town newspapers? … Do you think he is excessive in opposing fascism or Nazism?" (The Vichy question is, I think, the gem of that little collection.) This seemed like no way to fight a war against Hitler, but for exposing it, and for declining to identify his inside source even to his editor, Stone earned himself constant surveillance from an already hostile F.B.I. until the foul racist and pervert J. Edgar Hoover finally turned into carrion on a full-time basis in 1972.
I possess a fairly full set of I. F. Stone's Weekly, as well as all his books and several anthologies of his essays, and rereading them lately has made me morose as well as exhilarated. Some of the old battles now seem prehistoric: as it happens, Izzy never believed that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were innocent, and as it happens he was as right about that as he was wrong about the Hitler-Stalin pact. I recognized my own middle age in his confession of angst about the writer's life: "The perpetual gap between what one would have liked to get down on paper and what finally did get itself written and printed, the constant feeling of inadequacy." (His italics.) I also moaned with shame at the current state of the profession. Even the slightest piece written by Izzy was composed with a decent respect for the King's English and usually contained at least one apt allusion to the literature and poetry and history that undergirded it: an allusion that he would expect his readers to recognize. Who now dares to do that? Who would now dare to say, as he did as an excited eyewitness, that there was still something "saccharine" about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" oration? The rule of saccharine rhetoric and bland prose is now near absolute, and one could almost envy Izzy the sad deafness and myopia that allowed him to tune out the constant bawling from electronic media. I once had the honor of being the I. F. Stone fellow at Berkeley (where his old typewriter is enclosed in a glass case: probably the most hagiography he could have stood), and I told my students to read him and reread him to get an idea of the relationship between clean and muscular prose and moral and intellectual honesty. Perhaps I could invite you to do the same, if only to get an idea of what we have so casually decided to do without.
Vanity Fair contributing editor Christopher Hitchens's latest book, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, is part of the HarperCollins Eminent Lives series. His collection Love, Poverty, and War: Journeys and Essays was published in 2004 by Nation Books.