The Magazine

Traveling Fellow

If I.F. Stone wasn't a spy, he was the next best thing.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By JUDY BACHRACH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Best of I.F. Stone

Edited by Karl Weber

PublicAffairs, 350 pp., $23.95

All Governments Lie

The Life and Times of

Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone

by Myra MacPherson

Scribner, 592 pp., $35

Simultaneously, and with considerable fanfare, two books relating to the influential left-wing journalist I.F. "Izzy" Stone have recently appeared. Stone, who was until 1971 the sole and much-beloved proprietor of his small eponymous weekly, was by reputation a magnificent figure: Independent, irascible, fierce, a model for generations of journalists--and best of all, sometimes right.

The onetime Stone protégé Peter Osnos, founder of the publishing company that has just brought out 65 of Stone's essays, honors that reputation in two ways: first by pointing out in his introduction to The Best of I.F. Stone how much Stone admired him, Peter Osnos ("You sure are a pistol, Pete. I never should have let you go"). And then by recalling a 1989 postmortem cartoon by Pat Oliphant depicting Stone, notebook in hand, standing before a weary St. Peter, who complains to an unseen Deity: "He doesn't want to come in--he'd rather hang around out here and keep things honest."

Similarly, Myra MacPherson, in her Stone hagiography--essentially a companion volume; Osnos himself calls it "first-rate"--is equally vehement regarding Stone's gift for inspiration, perhaps with reason. Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller and Jules Feiffer, she points out, were all readers of Stone. In the '50s, Stone attacked Joseph McCarthy; in the '60s, he was embraced by college activists with whom he shared an active loathing of the Vietnam war: "Self-deception has been the characteristic of our leadership in this war from its beginning," he wrote.

It is easy to remember Izzy for these things alone. "The 20th century's premier independent journalist," MacPherson calls him. "His work helps evaluate the best and the worst in today's journalism. Although Stone inspired many, he was too much of an original to be fully emulated."

If MacPherson is adamant on the subject of Stone's honesty and inimitability, it is partly because of recent journalistic infractions, which the author enumerates bitterly and without many servile concessions to grammar or polish: "A compliant White House press corps, known to some in the trade as 'access whores,'" she writes; "'liars for hire' paid by the administration to tout its programs, deferential acceptance of administration fibs--all are disgraceful capitulations to power. . . . A miracle would be the day that the media did not show up for hollow photo-ops such as 'Mission Accomplished.'"

But let's set aside questions of style, clearly neither the book's strong suit nor its focus. As it happens, MacPherson has a point. Those writers who suspend critical judgment in return for access or (even worse) secret sums dispensed by governments are a disgrace to the profession, and there have been too many in recent times to dismiss them as aberrations. Unfortunately in this regard, too, Izzy was a pioneer, as I discovered.

For years, there had been rumors floating about Stone, suspicions that he might have had quiet dealings with emissaries from the Soviet Union--stories unmentioned by Osnos, and which MacPherson in her biography on every possible occasion calls "lies." The promulgators of these lies are, to her mind, alternately members of "the rabid right" or "neocons." And, of course, many of Stone's detractors do, in fact, belong to one or the other of these groups. "After Stone was safely dead," the author adds, these parties "displayed their estimable courage by slandering Stone as a Soviet spy."

But the use of the word "spy" is a red herring (in the same way it would be incorrect to say Stone was a Mafia don or a cat burglar. These were not his failings.). Nonetheless it is instructive, and perhaps revealing, to read Stone's 1953 description of America's reaction to Stalin's death, which he considered insufficiently elaborate and lacking in pomp: "The stress put by the White House on the fact that its condolences were merely 'official' was small-minded and unworthy of a great power," he wrote. "Magnanimous salute was called for on such an occasion." Why? Because "every great leader is the reflection of the people he leads and Stalin in this sense was Russia."

It is not the right alone that marvels these days at Izzy's call for magnanim ity on such an occasion. World War II had been won with Russia's help--eight years earlier. Who needed to honor the bastard now that he was dead?