It was wonderfully fitting that on Wednesday, a few hours after Eliot Spitzer’s gubernatorial career disintegrated, a group of admirers gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth one of the greatest muckrakers of the past century.
I.F. Stone, the iconoclastic scribbler whose writings were torment to generations of politicians, was familiar with Spitzer’s type. Back in 1944, Stone made short work of another hard-charging former prosecutor turned governor of the state when he went up to Albany to take a look at Thomas E. Dewey, then about to become the Republican presidential nominee. “His sensational splurge as prosecutor in New York,” Stone wrote, “was a quick stepping-stone to the Governorship, not the beginning of a job that he felt had to be completed in the interest of civic duty or clean government.”
To make sure readers got the point, he also called Dewey a “cold fish.” The essay is contained in a brilliant collection of journalistic prose called The Best of I.F. Stone, soon to be issued in paperback by PublicAffairs. The book has an introduction by publisher Peter Osnos, who once toiled as an assistant to Stone in a crowded third-floor office on Nebraska Avenue in Washington, D.C. There, between 1953 and 1971, Stone self-published a slim, four-page newsweekly called, appropriately, I.F. Stone’s Weekly.
While all but forgotten today, Stone was an inspiration to radicals in the 1960s, and to such current muckrakers as Seymour Hersh. There was also some suggestion at the event, held at New York University’s Department of Journalism, that Stone just might have been the first blogger, even though he died in 1989, long before thousands of erstwhile cyber-detectives took to their keyboards.
There are clear similarities in method and approach.
By poring over the Congressional Record and scrutinizing government documents that the rest of the press largely passed over, Stone regularly scooped the major dailies and newsmagazines. One of his biggest was his discovery of fakery in the 1964 reports of the attacks by North Vietnamese gunboats on U.S. naval ships in the Gulf of Tonkin, the incident that President Lyndon Johnson used to justify military escalation in Vietnam and the first bombing runs over Hanoi.
“He was so right about the Gulf of Tonkin,” acknowledged Robert Kaiser, an editor at the Washington Post then and now, and a friend of Stone’s. “Izzy was the only one to point out,” said Kaiser, that the allegedly fierce naval battle failed to result in “any reported debris in the water.”
Stone’s achievements are all the more remarkable in that he not only wrote every word of his publication, he also sorted it for mailing, and toted the copies to the post office himself. “He wasn’t just a journalist, he was a shopkeeper,” said Osnos in admiration.
At its height, the Weekly had 70,000 subscribers, each paying $5 a year. At one point, Marilyn Monroe bought subscriptions for every member of Congress, Osnos said.
Stone had other handicaps as well: He was severely deaf most of his life, a disability that helped make him a rigorous reader. He was also under almost constant surveillance by the FBI whose agents regularly confronted his associates. Among their questions, said Myra McPherson, author of “All Governments Lie: The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I.F. Stone”, was whether Stone had “ever been heard to hymn the Russian national anthem.”
Despite those obstacles, said D.D. Guttenplan, a former Voice editor and the author of the forthcoming American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone, Stone not only kept his little publication going through the worst years of the Red Scare, when it was literally dangerous to be seen in his company, but also managed to put his three children through college.
One of those children, Stone’s son Jeremy, went on to serve as president of the Federation of American Scientists. Jeremy Stone attended the event at NYU and glowed as Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, announced that the organization has established a new award in Stone’s name. The I.F. Stone Award will be presented annually to recognize the “independence, integrity, courage, and indefatigability that characterized Stone’s Weekly,” said Giles.
After he stopped publishing his newsweekly in the 1970s, Stone went on, then in his seventies, to teach himself Greek as a precursor to writing a book about one of his heroes, Socrates. The Death of Socrates, one of a dozen books Stone wrote, became a national bestseller, said Osnos. During his research, Stone told friends that he had written a speech that, had Socrates given it at the time, “would have gotten him acquitted.”