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I.F. Stone: a Portrait.

I.F. Stone, A Portrait. Andrew Patner. Pantheon, $15.95. This book starts out as a big disappointment because it looks like it's going to be a biography of I.F. Stone. The title isn't enough to warn you that about all you've got here are some tape-recorded conversations with Izzy. "People will call damn near anything a book," grumps I, making ready to slash this Patner pup to ribbons. But as one reads along, the charm of Stone's conversation steals into the heart. I need to confess up front that I.F. Stone is one of my greatest heroes. So if you want objectivity, call the Associated Press.

While many journalists and leftists profess to admire Stone, very few of us are willing to heed his injunctions about remaining an outsider. Stone on the Washington press corps: "You can sit on your rear end in the Press Club and write from press releases. You can be a pet and a sucker for the Establishment....But you cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence. No matter whether they are good guys or bad guys." Many of us agree in principle but still yearn for recognition and acceptance. Stone was never in much danger of sitting around the Press Club. They threw him out in 1941 for bringing a black judge to lunch there. "They took me back in 1981, 40 years after they let me out," Stone says. "The town was filled with such cowards then."

In a lifetime of asking questions, easily the one Stone has asked most is, "Have you read...?" Stone reads widely in French, Hebrew, German, Greek, Latin, Yiddish, and, apparently, some Japanese. At random from the Patner book, "Have you read...Ernst Cassirer's The Apology of Socrates (It is beautiful! He's a great artist.); Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge (He's one of the greatest moral figures of the age.); Elf Jahren in Sovietische Gefangniss (A terrific book, it's an expose--boy!)."

To Stone the tragedy is not just that young people are bone-ignorant and dangerous but that they're going to miss out on all this fabulous stuff. Stone's reading has made him a better, not to mention more readable, journalist. As the country became embroiled in Vietnam--an involvement that stemmed in large part from the ignorance of the American government--Stone was able to read French sources on Indochina. He used Jean Lacouture, Bernard Fall, and others as background for his own reporting years before campus "teach-ins" made the names familiar here. He once described a dream book on the State Department as "a combination of Pearson and Allen of the old `Washington Merry-Go-Round' for the inside dope; Marx for class forces; Weber for institutional forces; Henry James for social nuances and subtleties."

Politically, Stone is an independent, pragmatic leftist. In the 1930s he was part of Popular Front politics and is still proud of it. He dislikes ideologues and is above all a reporter who argues from evidence, not from theory. His work on the Rosenberg case has been cited by, among others, Ronald Radosh, a darling of the Right. Stone has never minded pissing off the Left.

The man's joys are not all intellectual--he loves ballroom dancing, ships, the ocean, sunrise, sunset, and Lord knows what all else. He loved being a movie star when Jerry Bruck's 1974 documentary, I.F. Stone's Weekly, was the hit of Cannes. On finally quitting the Weekly to write longer pieces and books, Stone said, "I feel as though I've been practicing my scales all these years and now I'm going to get to play my music!"

The beauty of what Stone did by himself all those years was that he was free. As he wrote when he finally closed the Weekly, "To give a little comfort to the oppressed, to write the truth exactly as I saw it, to make no compromises other than those imposed by my own inadequacies, to be free to follow no master other than my own idealized image of what a true newspaperman should be, and still be able to make a living for my family--what more could a man ask?"
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Author:Ivins, Molly
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1988
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