"You may just think I am a red Jew son-of-a-bitch," radical journalist. I. F. Stone said to his tormentors during the worst years of the McCarthy Era, "but I'm keeping Thomas Jefferson alive, and you bastards are killing (him)."
Robert C. Cottrell, a professor of history at the Chico campus of California State University, comes to the same conclusion after surveying Stone's life and work in "Izzy," the first definitive biography of a near-mythic character in American journalism.
"Izzy Stone was possibly the last of the great American radicals," offers Cottrell. "(He) demonstrated that a true believer in both Jeffersonian and Marxist ideals could come to question how his country and other favored lands violated what he thought to be sacred principles."
Stone is best remembered for his feisty investigative newsletter, "I. F. Stone's Weekly," and his tireless crusade against the war in Vietnam--he acted as a crucial link between the Old Left and the New Left, and there's something poignant in the reverence that he inspired in a generation that declared itself unwilling to trust anyone over 30. By the end of his long life, Stone had achieved a degree of respectability that overshadowed his own radical origins. Today, as Cottrell acknowledges, Stone is nothing less than a journalistic icon.
"More and more, he came to be seen as an oracle of sorts," writes Cottrell, an appreciative but also an able and evenhanded biographer, "a scribe who felt obliged to cry out in Jeremiah-like fashion regarding the sins and failings of his own nation."
But, in a real sense, "Izzy" is less a biography of the man than an intellectual and political chronicle of progressive politics and activist journalism in 20th-Century America. Indeed, the figure of I. F. Stone is rather like the needle on a political seismograph that charts every tremor and temblor from the First World War through the collapse of Communism.
"This was an individual, after all," Cottrell sums up in a single breathless sentence, "who had inherited a pro-Wilsonian bent from his father, discarded it for La Follette progressivism . . , moved from a fascination with Kropotkin-styled anarchocommunism . . . to the democratic socialist camp of Norman Thomas, temporarily abandoned that for a flirtation with depression-era communism, shifted to a pro-New Deal and Popular Front stance, supported Henry Wallace . . , critically backed the New Left and held the radical banner aloft into the age of the Great Communicator."
Cottrell pays rather little attention to the intimate aspects of Stone's life. His birth in 1907 is announced on Page 18 of the book, and by Page 23 he is already the 14-year-old self-publisher of a neighborhood newspaper called "The Progress."
Here and there, we are given glimpses of Izzy's family life that convinced us that he was every bit as grumpy, headstrong and self-absorbed as his reputation advertised: "A dog of a dog of a dog," as Stone once said of himself.
But Cottrell is much more interested in Stone's political growth and development and his unique style of investigative journalism. For example, he emphasizes that Stone was never actually a member of the Communist Party--a controversy that almost seems quaint nowadays--and he shows exactly how Stone's politics shaped the investigative reporting for which he was so famous.
Stone, whose FBI file eventually bulked up to about 2,600 pages, was hounded out of Establishment journalism during the McCarthy Era, but he managed to invent himself as an independent publisher when he launched "I. F. Stone's Weekly." Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Eleanor Roosevelt were among the charter subscribers.
And because his sources dried up under the heat of the Red scare, Stone mastered the technique of digging out "jewels" from the obscure government records that most reporters ignored.
Stone comes across in Cottrell's book as a celebrity journalist who never sold out, a "character" who never became a caricature of himself and an ideological stalwart whose politics may have changed but whose commitment to journalism in the service of social justice never wavered.
What I will remember best about Cottrell's book is a telling scene at the very end of Stone's life, when the stirring of the democracy movement in Beijing was in the headlines but when Stone was confined to a hospital bed. As he was wheeled out of a surgery that ultimately failed to save his life, his very first words were: "What is happening in China?"