A fierce journalist gets biography he deserves
AS a young editor, I had the privilege of working with three authentic heroes of American journalism: One was Phil Kerby, a champion of civil liberties who won a Pulitzer Prize for his editorials against government secrecy and judicial censorship; another was Carey McWilliams, the radical journalist and historian who edited the Nation for so many years; the third was I.F. Stone. Of the three, his contribution was the widest and most consequential.
McWilliams and Kerby still await the biographies they deserve, but Myra MacPherson’s “All Governments Lie! The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone” is a work equal to its subject -- carefully and thoroughly reported, keenly thought out, by turns judicious and appropriately sympathetic. A diligent reader’s confidence in MacPherson’s judgments and appreciation for the context she provides can only be amplified by the beautifully selected and introduced collection, “The Best of I.F. Stone,” by PublicAffairs. “Izzy,” as he was known to all who dealt with him, believed that everything worth knowing -- at least in the journalistic sense -- could be scoured from the public record and firsthand observation, and reading these two volumes in tandem is a fine test of that proposition.
One of the admirable things about McPherson’s biography is the way in which it does equal justice to Stone’s life and his work, setting both in a narrative context that will make them intelligible to a generation for whom the 20th century’s intellectually and physically murderous strife is receding into murky and attenuated memory. Stone was born Isador Feinstein in 1907, the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. (The name change occurred in 1938 and was an attempt to keep his anti-fascist writing from being dismissed as ethnic pleading. It’s worth recalling that, for years afterward, New York Times writers with obviously Jewish first names would be asked to use initials in their bylines.) Stone majored in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania but dropped out to work as a reporter and editorial writer. As a journalist in New York and Washington, he ardently supported Roosevelt’s New Deal and the anti-fascist Popular Front, had a distinguished run with the left-wing newspaper PM until it folded, then founded his legendary independent newsletter, I.F. Stone’s Weekly. That publication was many things, but these books remind us that one of the most important of those was its passionate support for civil rights, though the Weekly’s influence -- and circulation -- was greatest during the Vietnam War, which Stone correctly opposed from the start. Ill health forced Stone to shut down the Weekly in 1971 after 19 years, but he continued to write with his habitual clarity and force for the New York Review of Books until his death in 1989.
In person, Kerby, McWilliams and Stone were civil and kindly, but given to sharp bursts of fierceness whenever issues of principle were touched. Although each had participated to one degree or another in the century’s great social struggles -- over economic justice and the dignity of labor, over and against fascism and communism, over civil rights and the Cold War -- all three men had been marked in a deep and particular way by the peculiarly American battle over anti-communism. It was, from the start, a moral hall of mirrors, a labyrinth of multiple betrayals, deceits and self-deceptions. Stone navigated it better than some, and far more haltingly than many. One of the awful mistakes that spread through the 20th century was the notion that you had to choose sides, to back the lesser evil, no matter how great it was. Still, when Stone ultimately broke with the entire notion of Soviet communism, he did so decisively and for the best of reasons -- he had gone there, seen it for himself and, years of idealism notwithstanding, concluded it was vile and unworkable. (J. Edgar Hoover, who had been trailing Stone for years, ordered his agents to secretly buy up 1,000 copies of Stone’s 1956 denunciation of Soviet communism and to distribute it throughout the FBI.)
One of MacPherson’s singular contributions in her book is to reconnect Stone to the indigenous American tradition of radical journalism that begins with muckrakers. As a boy, he distributed copies of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” to relatives, and throughout his life, Stone was amused by the fact that Sinclair’s expose of the Chicago packinghouses was supposed to ignite sympathy for oppressed workers but resulted in passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Stone liked to quote Sinclair’s rueful observation that “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.”
Stone was similarly misunderstood from time to time. His break with the Soviet Union cost the Weekly 400 paying subscribers he could ill afford to lose at that point in life. Still, no difference with his readers ever was more personally painful than those that arose over Israel and the Palestinians. To my eye, Stone’s finest work was the first-person reporting he did from postwar Europe traveling undercover with Jewish refugees bound for Palestine. He was a passionate supporter of Israel’s establishment, and the engagement and fervor of that writing make it a monument in the history of American journalism. Later, that same deeply felt idealism for the Jewish state would lead him to judge its treatment of the Palestinians too harshly. In the wake of the 1967 war, for example, he took issue with Abba Eban’s description of the Six-Day War as “the finest day in Israel’s modern history.” Stone insisted that “the finest day will be the day it achieves reconciliation with the Arabs.”
Some years later, Eban wrote that “Stone seems to believe that the Arabs could have been brought to accept Zionism by Jewish benevolence and self-abnegation, rather than by coming to terms with Jewish strength and stability.... That Israeli reluctance to accept the PLO state as a neighbor has anything to do with the PLO’s policy of killing Israelis ... is a thought that goes unrepresented in Stone’s book.”
In one of his last lectures, Stone argued, “There’s a risk in peace, there’s a risk in war, there is no way to live without risk. I believe the risks of peace and conciliation are superior to risks of war and hatred.”
Both men had a point, though Eban’s, while less prophetic, is the stronger -- since the risks were his and his children’s.
In one of the many interviews that enrich MacPherson’s biography, Victor Navasky gets Stone’s significance about as right as anyone ever will: “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 became facts.’ ”