American Iconoclast

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3m 4sec

The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist
I. F. ­Stone.

By Myra MacPherson. Scribner. 564 pp. $­35

After half a century in journalism, I. F. (Izzy) Stone—­one-­man band, self-described Jeffersonian Marxist, investigative reader, patriotic subverter of the official line, merciless monitor of the mainstream media, early Holocaust exposer—had graduated from pariah to prophet: When he sold his 19-year-old political newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly, to The New York Review of Books in 1971, its circulation was 70,000, astonishing for a publication of its kind.

Blind without his ­Coke-­bottle glasses and deaf without his hearing aid until an operation late in life, I. F. (born Isador Feinstein) Stone (1907–89) knew how to read and listen between the lines. He was ahead of the herd on pointing out the contradictions posed by McCarthyism to a democratic society. Even as J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI spent thousands of man-­hours tracking and reading him, he counter-investigated, exposing the follies, illegalities, and excesses of the FBI director and his Bureau. Vociferously opposed to totalitarians (although he was a little late in discovering that Stalin was one), this man, who blasted the Soviet Union for rejecting the Marshall Plan and eventually became a severe critic of Soviet repression, was falsely accused by his critics of following the party line, or worse.

Izzy denounced the Kennedy administration’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs, which he regarded as illegal and unwise, and its conduct during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which he saw as reckless. After JFK’s assassination, he warned his readers, “Think it over carefully before canonizing Kennedy as an apostle of peace.” In contrast to his journalistic brethren who accepted the Johnson administration’s invocation of the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin episode as an excuse for American engagement in Vietnam, Izzy highlighted the antiwar remarks of senators Wayne Morse and Ernst Gruening in the bold­faced boxes featured in his newsletter.

All of this and much more may be found in Myra MacPherson’s All Governments Lie! The book acknowledges Izzy the iconoclast’s minor shortcomings and vanities even as it celebrates and captures his prescience, his independence, his moral perspective (“He had no master but his conscience”), his humor, and his gift for the apt phrase. (The Washington Post, he said, was exciting to read “because you never know on which page you will find a front­page story.”)

Like Plutarch, who illuminated his subjects by devoting chapters to parallel lives (Alcibiades and Coriolanus, Demosthenes and Cicero, etc.), MacPherson punctuates her affectionate portrait of Izzy, the quintessential outsider, denied admission to the Overseas Writers group, by periodically contrasting him with fellow journalist Walter Lippmann, who dined regularly at the White House. But MacPherson, a former reporter for The Washington Post, tells Stone’s story primarily through his journalism (for PM, The Nation, The New York Post, his newsletter, and The New York Review of Books), supplemented by revealing personal anecdotes and the requisite historical context.

Her impressive book, 16 years in the making, draws on but goes far beyond the two previous Stone volumes: Andrew Patner’s invaluable collection of interviews recorded in 1984, and Robert C. Cottrell’s updated doctoral thesis, published in 1992 as Izzy. She generously credits D. D. Guttenplan, whose own unpublished biography of Izzy is much anticipated, with putting the lie to the allegations of those who tried, a few years ago, to argue that he was some sort of Soviet agent. Izzy once famously said, “I have so much fun I ought to be arrested.” All Governments Lie! makes everlastingly clear that the last thing I. F. Stone would ever be arrested for is serving as anybody’s agent but his own.

—Victor Navasky

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