The essence of Izzy
America's first honorary blogger, 20 years after his death
The essence of Izzy
Today I'm dodging the tyranny of the news cycle, in order to detour down memory lane.
Twenty years ago today, I.F. Stone died at the age of 81. Even if you've never heard of him, he's worth a few minutes of your attention, if only because he was arguably America's first blogging journalist - and this was long before the Internet came along. From 1952 to 1971, working from his home in Northwest Washington, digging through documents and hectoring people by phone, he was the proprietor of I.F. Stone's Weekly, a subscription-only newsletter that afflicted the comfortable in both political parties, combining strong research with stylistic attitude.
"Izzy" Stone was typically labeled as a radical lefty, and to this day some conservatives claim (without evidence) that he was a paid Soviet spy, but he was stubbornly independent and therefore very tough to pigeonhole; over the span of his long career, he ticked off conservatives, liberals, communists, peaceniks, hawks, Zionist Jews, you name it. Most importantly, he was a sunny guy who loved life.
I spent a day with Stone not long before his death, and wrote a lonnnnggggg newspaper profile. Only one other political journalist ever fascinated me as much; that was the equally engaging, life-loving William F. Buckley, with whom I also spent a day. (When Buckley, intellectual godfather of the conservative movement, died last year, I resurrected my profile of him and posted it here.)
My Stone profile appears below. I'm running it here mostly because I want to convey his irrepressible spirit, the kind of life-moxie that transcends all partisan boundaries. For some inexplicable reason, I cut one quote that was Izzy distilled to his essence. He told me, "The human race is no different from the birds. They twitter, they chatter, they have rivalries, they steal each other's eggs - and they sing. So does the human race. I think we forget that. We do it in our poetry, our music, our lovemaking. The human race, no matter how backward it seems, is full of song."
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, winter '88:
As the last feeble flecks of sunlight fell on his neighborhood, I. F. Stone decided to take a walk. The air was frigid, the optician's office was several miles away and the sidewalks were encased in ice, but Stone wanted to get out and see "the clouds and trees and people's faces."
It was his first outdoor excursion in weeks. He had walked five miles the last time, only to have one of his eyeglass lenses pop out and land in the snow. So there he was - the gadfly emeritus of American journalism, the pariah as hero - down on his hands and knees, groping for the gift of sight.
There he remained until a passer-by found the lens. "It was a wonderful experience," Stone said later, recounting the act of kindness and ignoring his own indignity. Indeed, wonderful is a word often found in the paragraphs that seem to leap, fully explicated, from his hyperactive mind.
So this time, with the loose lens in hand, he headed for the optician. "It's getting colder by the minute," he muttered, poking ice with his cane, wincing behind his sunglasses, gulping nitroglycerin pills in an effort to preempt chest pains. He had a heart attack 20 years ago, when he was still editor and owner of the iconoclastic newsletter, I. F. Stone's Weekly. Today, he has a detached retina in one eye, and cataracts in the other.
"But for a guy 80 years old, I can still see, and I can still walk downtown," he said. "I've got nothing to complain about." Indeed, hundreds jammed his birthday party last month - a far cry from the days when he was an outcast in a city of insiders. Interviewers besiege him with requests, but he grants very few. And this week, his book, The Trial of Socrates, will be published at last, after 15 years of labor, much of the time having been spent teaching himself to read Greek.
A caustic watchdog with the tenacity of a Talmudic scholar, the native Philadelphian has never fit in. He is steeped in philosophy and the classics, but he never graduated from college. He launched his one-man weekly at the peak of the McCarthy era because he couldn't get a newspaper job. He broke stories by burrowing through documents that nobody else bothered to read. He attacked FBI abuses two decades before the mainstream press joined in. He has infuriated even his most loyal fans, but that's no concern of his. Indeed, that seems to be the point.
"One of the great things about being an outsider is, you're not a prisoner," he said. "There's a wonderful passage from Bertrand Russell, when he talks about the loneliness of people who opposed the First World War. It's the idea of standing aside from the passions of the time, and how important it is to do that, and how you shouldn't be embittered by the experience - to accept your isolation as a price for doing what you think is right."
Peter Osnos, an apprentice to Stone 22 years ago and now a Random House editor, said the other day, "Izzy wasn't born an icon. It was lonely work. He used to say, 'I started as an outcast, then I became tolerated, and if I wait long enough, I'll become an institution.' And that's just what happened."
An old book rests on Isidor Feinstein Stone's coffee table. The inscription, written by Stone, reads: "For my dear Esther, on a sunny afternoon." The date was May 3, 1927. The girl was Esther Roisman, a Philadelphia teenager. Next year, she and Stone will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. But it wasn't always easy.
"I know about the life of a reporter's wife," she said with a laugh." I remember shaking out a mop at midnight by myself. I could see how a lot of marriages break up when you never even see the guy." (Her husband's version: "A lot of wives kill their husbands by nagging. She always let me have my freedom.")
By the time they met, the young Isidor Feinstein was obsessively independent - a trait that came naturally to a Jewish bookworm growing up in Haddonfield, N.J., a predominantly Christian town where his Russian-immigrant father ran a dry-goods store. "It was lonesome," he recalled. "I was kind of a freak." While peers played sports, he read poetry in the woods.
In high school, he was suspended for pranks - like the time he brought garlic to class, closed the windows and convinced classmates to help him chew the stuff so the teacher would be felled by the odor upon arrival. His neighbors were wary: One devout Christian offered to loan him a book by Herbert Spencer, a proponent of the theory of evolution, only if his mother would assure her that the boy wasn't "an infidel."
He never worked for his school paper. At one point, a top student politician offered to get him on the staff, in exchange for editorial assistance, but he spurned the deal. At 14, he had already run his own paper, the Progress, a 5-cent monthly filled with poetry and political criticism. He wrote editorials praising Gandhi and the League of Nations. He bought syndicated stories that came in strips of lead that he cut with a saw. He published only three issues, because his father decreed that school came first.
While in high school the Camden Courier Post hired him as a stringer. He became a journalist with left-wing principles, and merged those roles on occasion. ("You can't understand what's going on without a frame of reference," he argues now.) He once covered a pro-Mussolini speech in Camden, then rose to denounce the speaker. He loathed apathy in others; he became a devotee of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who had lamented that men often "do not notice what they do when awake."
He admired newspapers that took a stand for the underdog. He wrote editorials for the New York Post in the 1930s when it supported a boycott of goods imported from Nazi Germany. But the policy crippled the paper financially, because department stores like Macy's, which sold such goods, refused to advertise in the Post.
Stone is still unhappy, however, with one personal compromise that he made in 1937: dropping his family name on the occasion of the birth of his third, and last, child. "We were all afraid of Hitler and what was coming," he says now, "and I thought there should be a non-Jewish name on the birth certificate....But I had given in, made an accommodation."
Based in Washington, beginning in 1941, for The Nation magazine, and for PM, the short-lived New York newspaper, he became the enfant terrible of the press corps, refusing to play the game of stroking the powers-that-be. When Harold Ickes, a member of Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet, secretly leaked Stone a document designed to embarrass a rival, Stone refused to play along. He wrote instead about Ickes' attempt to plant the document on him. Ickes later called Stone "psychopathic."
In 1941, Stone felt "honor bound" to resign from the National Press Club, headquarters for the news establishment, when it refused to serve his lunch guest, the nation's first black federal judge. In retrospect, he feels "that decision added to my isolation. But I decided it was good not to run with the pack. Any pack isn't good for a journalist or anyone else. You've got to think for yourself. Every pack has its own orthodoxy."
Even now, despite his status as aging sage, you'll never see Stone on television news shows, shooting the breeze with colleagues. He made a few feisty appearances on Agronsky and Company seven years ago, but was never invited back. "TV likes its radicals to be freaks who'll stand on their hands," he said. "TV is primarily concerned with merchandising, and if you want to bring in customers, you don't want to upset them."
One time, Stone did receive a rare invitation to a Washington dinner party. Seated next to a woman who worked for the CIA, he listened as she railed against the elected Marxist leader of Chile, Salvador Allende. Finally, when she declared that Allende "had to go," Stone blew up. "Who the hell are you to decide that someone has to go?" he growled at her.
"Well, I wasn't invited back there again," Stone now recalls. "See, if you go to fashionable dinner parties, you've gotta be polite. But sometimes it's important to be impolite. You can't agree out of politeness to lies, scams, injustices, horrors and crap. You do that, you lose your integrity."
It's hard to get Stone to identify the low point of his life, because it's not in his nature to lament. But he says times were tough in 1952, when his employer, the liberal New York Daily Compass, went under. He couldn't find suitable work, he was red-baited in the conservative press and his book criticizing President Harry Truman's Korean War policy was rejected by 28 publishers. "A lot of friends felt sorry for 'poor Izzy,'" he says now. "But I didn't feel sorry for myself. I always felt like I was part of the American tradition."
So he launched his own weekly. ("It was very exhilarating to start out on that wonderful venture.") He had to work out of his home, because sources were afraid to be seen going to his Capitol Hill office. By the time he closed it 19 years later, for health reasons, he had managed to send his kids to college, to deepen his bond with Esther (who had run the business side) and to witness his improbable rise to cult status. The Vietnam War was the catalyst.
Afflicted for years with a hearing problem, Stone mined the printed record for newsy nuggets. He could be very patient. When Defense Secretary Robert McNamara gave secret Senate testimony in 1964 on the Gulf of Tonkin affair (which triggered major U.S. involvement in Vietnam), Stone waited two years for the Pentagon to release it. Then, when McNamara gave new testimony in 1968, Stone compared both versions and found glaring contradictions.
It was unglamorous work. Peter Osnos, who served as Stone 's aide in 1965 and 1966, recalls falling asleep on Stone's sofa with documents on his chest. Stone exposed flaws in the Vietnam policy years before the Pentagon Papers appeared in the press, and this fueled his resurrection.
But he didn't trust the applause; it became another test of independence. He had angered Jewish readers in 1967 by criticizing Israel for its tough stance on the Palestinians, and he had lost hundreds of leftist subscribers in 1956 by attacking the Soviet Union. ("This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men," he wrote at the time.) So it was no big deal, in 1972, to insult adoring college crowds with lines like, "The world does not change in 48 hours. The flight to mysticism on the campus is a very high-class cop-out."
He didn't like it when anti-war youths put down America. He didn't like it when they romanticized revolution. Nor does he think highly of today's young generation. "There's a real decline in this country of civic pride and love of country," he said. "Young people don't know much about the history of their country. It's very inspiring. Very inspiring. Human history is a wilderness of persecution, horror and degradation. The American republic is one of the few bright spots - with all its failings. I know the failings, I 've been writing about them all my life. But it's the first place in modern times where the common man could stand erect."
He has no illusions about the power of the pen. The goals he has long supported - peace in the Mideast, freedom of thought, racial equality and honest government - remain elusive, but Stone takes the long view: "My life is a flea speck in the span of the human race....The struggle for democracy in ancient Athens wasn't all that much different from (today). Twenty-five hundred years isn't much....Man is still a very primitive animal. Every human soul is a battleground between good and evil, love and hate. The oldest enemy of free thought is us. It takes a long time to change a species."
Now that his book on Socrates is finally finished, he can lapse into what passes for a life of leisure, which means reading philosophy and writing more articles. He still calls around town for information, and when people don't recognize the name, he describes himself as "a semi-retired newspaperman." He lost his driver's license several years back because of his eyes, but he and Esther like to go dancing.
"Rock-and-roll is wonderful," he said, "because it's the nearest thing we have to a Dionysian frenzy. You can do whatever you like. It's so free- flowing. There's just something very mysterious about a regular rhythm. The Pythagoreans were aware of this very early. They recognized an innate relationship between music and mathematics...."
"You know," he said, shortly before he reached the optician's office, "I feel so at peace with myself. But then again, I've always been that way, because I've always been true to myself. Some people are just naturally gloomy. Have you met those people? It drives me nuts. There are people for whom life is always a continuous funeral. They're not fun to be with."
Indoors at last, he handed his broken glasses to a clerk, who told him that the lens popped out because cold air had contracted the hinges. Whereupon Stone peppered the clerk with questions about how it happened, about air temperature, about eyeglass options, about the metal in the hinges.
Satisfied, he turned to leave, but paused to stuff a dollar in a jar that advertised a fund to aid the blind. "Maybe while they're at it, they can do something about spiritual blindness," he said. Chilled to the bone, he finally bowed to the elements and caught a cab back home.