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Nonfiction in Brief

February 14, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

I. F. STONE A Portrait by Andrew Patner (Pantheon Books: $15.95) I. F. Stone's irreverence makes Dan Rather look deferential. A young Jewish atheist, he was the church reporter for his small-town New Jersey newspaper. On slow news days, he would make up things for the town mayor to say and do--a type of participant journalism anathema to today's notions of "objective" reporting. An admirer of Marx and Lenin, he ran for the executive committee of the New Jersey Socialist Party before he was old enough to vote. And yet while the verdict went against Rather, there can be little doubt that Stone is a better journalist for his brashness. The same audacity that enabled him to take on the "yellow peril" campaign of the Hearst Newspapers gave him the initiative to dig up Pentagon figures about Vietnam which scandalously contradicted a State Department report. The same independence of mind that enabled him to invite a black judge to lunch at the National Press Club in 1956 (his membership was revoked until 1981 for this, he says), led him to uncover a U.S. government plan to postpone arms negotiations. (After the first underground nuclear test in 1957, the Atomic Energy Commission said explosions couldn't be detected more than 200 miles away, making superpower arms verification impossible; Stone visited the seismology division of the Department of Commerce and found that they had detected the test more than 2,600 miles away.)

Piecing together nine hours of interviews conducted in a Giant supermarket, in the Library of Congress, on walks around Washington and in two restaurants, this book, by Patner's own admission, is not a comprehensive biography. Patner gives Stone center stage, occasionally interjecting perceptive comments though sometimes becoming too reverential, failing to excise Stone's half-finished sentences. Patner doesn't succeed in showing us "the depth of Stone's optimism," for while Stone is sometimes jocular, his study of historical texts for "The Trial of Socrates" (reviewed on Page 2) has led him to doubt human beneficence: "Someone is always killing someone else for what is called the greater glory of God." Still, Stone's life, as ably presented by Patner, is uplifting, for it shows that irreverence can be patriotic, checking government power.

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