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Mr. Independent Press

American Radical gives consummate muckraker I.F. Stone his proper respects

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 7/15/2009

In the 1970s and ’80s I.F. Stone became a famous journalist and a patron saint of investigative reporters. He was a touchstone to students of the craft—such as this writer, who first heard the name circa 1986 from a well-read uncle—and, as one could easily learn even before the advent of Google, a “controversial figure” (to use the polite term) in right-wing precincts.

That Stone would be called a communist, a Soviet spy, and a traitor in the offhand, sneering way familiar to devotees of Ann Coulter and the ironically named Accuracy in Media was a given. Had he not lived well for decades as the sole proprietor of I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a four-page pamphlet that disrespected such Godly pursuits as the war in Vietnam and racial segregation? Did he not speak to—and sometimes speak well of—living Russians? That Stone was paid by the Soviets is by now an article of faith among the Power Line and Free Republic set; indeed, the smear arose again in the May issue of Commentary, which excerpted a book called Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, just as the review copies of D.D. Guttenplan’s Stone biography, American Radical: The Life and Times of I.F. Stone (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), shipped.

Guttenplan’s revelation, for those who knew Stone only as the journalistic “iconoclast” and consummate muckraker described by his eulogists, is that I.F. Stone actually was, to use KGB General Oleg Kalugin’s vague phrase, an “agent of influence.” But he was not a Soviet agent of influence; Stone was a lifelong and unrepentant agent of FDR’s New Deal. Ultimately, this was his ideological crime.

Guttenplan prefaces Stone’s biography with a snapshot in time, the fateful moment on Dec. 12, 1949, when Stone became a non-person in American politics. It was an episode of Meet the Press, then a four-year-old television (formerly radio) show in which the news of the week was discussed by smart people along the full ideological spectrum. The guest, Dr. Morris Fishbein of the American Medical Association, was an ardent foe (as the association remains today) of single-payer health insurance, denouncing it as, among other bad things, “socialistic.” Stone asked Fishbein: “in view of his advocacy of compulsory health insurance, do you regard Mr. Harry Truman as a card-bearing Communist, or just a deluded fellow-traveler?”

Stone would not be seen on television for another 18 years, and he would never again grace the set of Meet the Press.

Like today’s Stephen Colbert, I.F. Stone was a needler of the powerful. But Stone was needling at a time of hysteria, as Guttenplan explains:

He knew, both from his own reporting and from personal experience, that J. Edgar Hoover’s animus against the New Dealers long antedated that FBI’s interest in espionage or subversion. In other words, Stone knew his enemies. He also knew that ridicule, not righteousness, was the deadliest weapon in his own arsenal.

Although Stone’s FBI file was about 6,000 pages—about three times the size of Al Capone’s—Stone was, first and foremost, an independent man of the left. He came from a time and a place when living wages, worker’s rights, and—yes—even universal health care were seen by most people as good things, instead of the dubious pleadings of “special interests.” In prewar America, labor unions were regarded as patriotic.

In 1937, at the behest of Tommy Corcoran, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fixer,” Stone published The Court Disposes, a history of the Supreme Court as an instrument of the nation’s most powerful plutocrats. It cemented Stone’s reputation as a gifted polemicist and ardent New Dealer. In it, the 29-year-old author made the case for Roosevelt’s failed plan to pack the court—even though Stone himself did not favor the idea.

Stone did much of his insider’s work from his perch as the chief editorial writer for the New York Post (at the time a liberal newspaper). He did it, Guttenplan makes clear, out of a sense of national loyalty. Stone, perhaps more than Roosevelt, wanted the United States to fight Nazi Germany. For years he railed against the half-measures and evasions he felt FDR was taking to avoid the war. From the early 1930s until his death in 1989, Stone felt that fascism was the major threat to civilization, and he put all he had into the fight.

This single-minded purpose was illustrated best by some of Stone’s oversights, such as his failure, in February 1942, to protest the internment of 110,000 Japanese-Americans in desolate camps. Guttenplan archly suggests that Stone’s silence on that issue (at the same time he spoke in favor of freeing Earl Browder, then the Communist Party-U.S.A.’s general secretary, from prison) suggests a kind of personal loyalty to some of his well-placed friends: “. . . was it that the internment was partly organized by his friend Abe Fortas and rationalized by their mutual friend Hugo Black?” Fortas, the future Associate Supreme Court Justice, was then at the Department of the Interior serving under another Stone friend, Harold Ickes. Black, of course, was already on the Supreme Court.

Having these kinds of friends and associates in the 1930s and ’40s taught Stone the way power works in Washington. It gave him an edge, a few years later, when he became an outsider. He found out who his friends were (Albert Einstein, for example) and made sport of those who buckled under the pressure of conformity.

In so well situating Stone’s life in the context of his times, Guttenplan reminds readers that, for example, the ACLU laid down for the witch hunts, and that The New York Times, then as now, was accused of being “communist.” The paper responded characteristically, with a mealy-mouthed editorial defense of the Fifth Amendment while it fired those staff members who invoked the Fifth before the congressional committee. Eventually, the Times had enough and took a position against banning speech or political parties. But the newspaper of record did not stand up to defend America’s basic principles when doing so might hurt. The Times’ legacy of timidity still haunts it today.

Stone stood up. He was not always right, but he was always—or nearly always—honest, even when it hurt his pride or hurt him financially. He advocated for a “one-state solution” to Israel with full citizenship for the Palestinians, a position that, despite its prescience, lost him friends and subscribers.

Stone’s defiant stance against the various iterations of McCarthyism and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI (of course he was secretly followed for years; the agents found nothing) have long served as “evidence” of his treason among those who regard magazines such as The Nation and The New Republic (!) as “pro-Soviet.” But Stone’s anti-fascism, his career as a debunker of the pious lie, hater of the hypocrite, and fighter for the underdog, began and remained a distinctly American ideology: one of the two that have competed for America’s soul.

One ideology (now ascendant) equates both virtue and freedom with wealth, and finds the imposition of poverty on the great masses of people not just inevitable but desirable, holding that such poverty—though unfortunate for individuals—is the result chiefly of personal shiftlessness and serves to spur the ambitious toward virtue.

The opposing ideology, which held sway briefly during the last Great Depression, envisions and works for the day when poverty and misery are much diminished, and that which remains is accidental and temporary, rather than the permanent mainspring and end product of the economic system.

Stone was an avatar of the latter, a proud socialist, and is libeled as a Communist only by those too dim to elide the difference between Joseph Stalin and Albert Einstein.

“I still believe the left will hang separately if it cannot hang together,” Stone wrote during the depth of his nonpersonhood, as the great American unions were purging their ranks of Communists and suspects. “I think the Cold War is aimed much more at us here at home than at Russia. I am content to find myself still with the unrespectable, red as well as pink.”

D.D. Guttenplan’s American Radical rescues Stone from respectability.

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