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The Crotchety Wisdom of I.F. Stone

The eighty-year-old muckraker supreme finds a subject worthy of his maverick ways and a target even more ancient than he is

Socrates

'The Death of Socrates'

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The Trial of Socrates occurred in 399 B.C., and I.F. Stone is still angry. Socrates, condemned to death by the citizens of Athens for having corrupted the city’s youth with impious ideas, passively accepted his fate, the famous cup of hemlock. But nearly 2500 years later, I.F. Stone is still contesting the verdict.

Stone contends that by convicting Socrates, the Athenians betrayed their highest democratic ideal: free speech. This, Stone believes, was a sure sign that their society was dying. “The trial of Socrates was a prosecution of ideas,” he says. “He was the first martyr of free speech.”

But I.F. Stone has little use for Socrates, either. The philosopher, he says, was arrogant, contemptuous of Athenian democracy, an enemy of freedom for the masses — and that makes him Stone’s enemy, too. “Socrates is such a secular saint,” Stone says. “Sure, he was telling us to be virtuous. The truth is, if you read Plato’s Dialogues with a clear eye, Socrates didn’t contribute anything to virtue. He just got people confused about what the hell it was.”

After years of study, Stone concluded that Socrates could have won acquittal (and perhaps lost his place in history as an honored martyr) if only he had argued his case using the Athenian principles of free speech. “If Socrates,” Stone says, “had said, ‘Look, you guys, I don’t believe in free speech, but you do. You’re on trial, not myself. If you convict me, you condemn yourself.’ If he had said all that, I think he would have won.” Instead, Socrates deliberately antagonized the 500-man Athenian jury by mocking them.

This is hot stuff — listening to a famous old investigative reporter fighting with history, working himself up over a subversion of freedom that took place all those years ago. To I.F. Stone, it still matters. And it apparently matters to many others as well, for Stone’s new book, The Trial of Socrates (published by Little, Brown), is hot, too. It has drawn a stack of good reviews and has also been attacked by some conservative classics professors who deride Stone’s scholarship. Stone can console himself with the news that the book has made his home-town best-seller list.

I.F. Stone, one should point out, is eighty years old. Before there was ever a Woodward and Bernstein, Stone was the most radical, independent and effective investigative reporter working in Washington. For nearly twenty years he published a provocative one-man exposé, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, that burrowed into the corruption, the duplicity and the nonsense of government with a zealous precision that has never been matched. His stories scrutinized everything from the workings of the Atomic Energy Commission to the deceitful origins of the Vietnam War; a sampling of Stone’s brilliance and courage will be available next fall with the publication of the first installments of a projected six-volume collection of his work called A Non-conformist History of Our Times (also published by Little, Brown). A short yet wonderful biography of the man — I.F. Stone: A Portrait, by Andrew Patner — was recently published by Pantheon.

After he closed down the Weekly in 1971 because of heart problems, Isidor Feinstein Stone — or Izzy, as he is called — did not actually quit working. He took up the study of the history of freedom, which led him backward through the ages to an early pivotal moment, the death of Socrates. He decided to learn classical Greek, an unusual act of intellectual bravery for an old man. Stone had studied the language for one semester in school — more than fifty years before.

“A couple of things about this book are a public service,” Stone says with impish modesty. “For one thing, the population is getting older, and I’m showing that in your seventies, you can do something hard intellectually — namely, learn Greek. Second, people like [Secretary of Education] William Bennett are telling schools to revive the classics. I don’t agree with him on most things, but Bennett is right about that. There are too many junk courses in the schools. By God, I’m putting Socrates back on the front pages!”

Whether or not Socrates would have appreciated this, I.F. Stone clearly loves it. Listening to him hold forth for several hours recently in the upstairs study of his home in northwest Washington was a pure delight. He talked passionately about the real character of Socrates and, with equal intensity, about demagoguery in the 1988 campaign. They are the same subject to him — the condition of democracy in society. His conversation skips back and forth through history, from Woodrow Wilson to Richard Nixon, from the crash of 1929 to Japanese imports. Part preacher, part teacher, part muckraker, Stone is driven still by the curiosity, outrage and sense of principle that made him a great reporter.

Surrounded by books, Stone looks a little like one of those old geezers you see in the public reading room at the library — a small, birdlike man whose intense eyes are magnified by thick, owlish glasses. His voice crackles with energy and dangling profanities. The world’s absurdities — ancient and modern — make him mad. But he loves the world just as passionately.

During five decades in the news business, I.F. Stone was labeled many times — radical, leftist, gadfly. “A lot of people in this town,” he says, “thought of me as Karl Marx’s baby brother.” Stone describes himself as “a pious Jewish atheist.” What he is, for sure, is a prickly humanist — still tart and tough-minded and astonishingly independent at eighty.

Sometimes I.F. Stone’s views can sound strange, coming as they do from a supposed left-wing humanist. “Look, the common people are pretty dumb,” he says. “We mustn’t worship the common man. But look at how dumb the wise, the educated, the privileged, have been. Look at the noxious nonsense, bullshit, handed out by them as golden gospel! You know, Socrates completely misses the wisdom of the poor and humble, a wisdom that’s very different from that of the learned. It’s distilled from suffering and compassion.”

This is I.F. Stone’s favorite subject — the possibilities of democracy. “People are not equal,” he says, his monologue gathering steam. “That’s nonsense, but it’s a very creative myth. If you treat people as equal, they become more equal. In Rome the people were treated as rabble and they became a rabble. They gave the common people all these circuses and gladiatorial games and made a worthless proletariat out of them.”

I.F. Stone’s historical ideal is the 200 years of democracy and freedom in ancient Athens — and also the 200 years of democracy and freedom in the United States of America. “America’s a great country,” Stone says. “And I don’t like this business of people going around talking as though the U.S. is a monster, that if you destroyed it, the rest of the world could get up off its feet. The damned third world is a stinking mess. The third world is a cliché for a lot of the kids, but it’s no goddamn good, with a couple of exceptions. The first thing the new rulers do is put the intellectuals in jail and rob the people. It’s happened all over Africa.

“In many ways, America is a model of what the whole world must become. When you see what a quarrelsome world it is, then you look at America and see all these people who didn’t get along in Europe — Serbs and Croats, Irish Catholics and Protestants, French and Germans, Jews and Italians — have learned to live with each other here. We all eat each other’s foods and share our cultures and intermarry and it becomes one world. We haven’t brought in the blacks and the browns yet. But we will, we will.”

The old radical, who devoted a lifetime to critiquing the American establishment from a left-wing perspective, begins to sound like a mellowing patriot of the conservative persuasion. What’s going on here?

“I don’t like to be called mellow,” Stone grumbles. “But I think the job of a critic is to counteract, to give the other side of the story. I’m trying to correct a terrible know-nothingism on the left. I don’t mind know nothingism on the right. But I go out to journalism schools and I find kids who don’t even read the newspapers. I don’t know how they’re going to be journalists. They call themselves radicals.”

As I.F. Stone surveys recent history, he sees things coming together: technology is unifying the world, he points out, and as underdeveloped nations get a hold of a little prosperity, their peasants begin to clamor for democracy. The process is hard on industrial nations like the United States because it creates low-wage competition for American workers. But the process itself, Stone believes, is good.

“People of the left talk about the multinational corporations as if they were some horrible thing, but they’re part of this natural movement toward one world,” he says. “The world is planetary now and there’s a new consciousness.”

If I.F. Stone’s take on the future sounds too up-beat, listen instead to his talk about the present: the presidential campaign of 1988. “Look, all of the Democrats are better than any of the Republicans,” he begins. “The Republicans are really a mess.”

Stone on George Bush: “Being vice-president is a good way to lose your balls. That’s what happened to Hubert Humphrey. I can’t help having a little residual affection for Bush, because he’s the guy who said the words ‘voodoo economics,’ and by God, he was right. Of course, he’s kept his mouth shut ever since.”

On Robert Dole: “A big, bold, raucous voice and always sitting on the fence with a spike up his ass. I’ve never seen him really stick his neck out.”

On Pat Robertson: “My God, he’s a replay of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry — one of these oleaginous, fake preachers. It’s very revealing that he felt hurt when they disclosed Jimmy Swaggart with the prostitutes.”

But Stone is disgusted with the Democrats, too.

Stone on Albert Gore Jr.: “I’m just scared he’s going to get us into a war. He sounds like John F. Kennedy, all that talk about going anywhere to defend freedom. That’s what landed us in war in Vietnam.”

On Richard Gephardt: “I remember what the Smoot-Hawley Tariff did to us, and Gephardt’s demagoguery scares me. Gephardt is stirring up vulgar prejudice with his xenophobic bashing of foreigners.”

On Jesse Jackson: “Even Jackson, in many ways the brightest candidate, talks about slave labor in South Korea and Taiwan. What kind of crap is that? One minute he wants us to help out Africa and Asia with development funds, and when they do develop and try to set up a market, he calls it slave labor. What kind of overstated bullshit is that?”

On Mario Cuomo: “I don’t know enough about him. He seems awfully mushy, good on mushy platitudes.”

Stone expects to vote for whoever wins the Democratic nomination. But he is not at all certain that a Democratic victory would be beneficial to the party. “If the Democrats win, it’s going to ruin them,” he says. “We’re on the verge of tremendous problems. Everybody’s going to say, ‘Look, for eight years we made a lot of money, paid no taxes, and everything was hunky-dory.’ They’ll blame the Democrats for everything that Reagan piled up on us — the most profligate, reckless, nonconservative administration we’ve ever had. If there’s a God, he’ll arrange for Republicans to win so they’ll have to face up to their own misdeeds.”

Stone is also troubled by the Democratic party’s history of war making. “Democrats are very war prone,” he says. “Look at postwar history — the Democrats got us into trouble and the Republicans got us out. Eisenhower got us out of Korea. Nixon opened the door to China. Reagan is moving toward détente with the Soviets, getting rid of some nuclear weapons.”

Democrats, he observes, have always been vulnerable to accusations of “softness,” and therefore they have rushed into foreign conflicts where hawkish conservatives would have been warier. “When our poor marines were blown up in Lebanon and 260 lost their lives, Reagan did the sensible thing and got out,” Stone says. “He should be criticized for getting in, but he deserves credit for getting out. If a Democrat had been president, the Republicans would have been screaming, ‘Betrayal,’ ‘Treason,’ ‘Soft on terrorism.'”

Stone worries about another Vietnam occurring, and he thinks he knows where it could happen: the Philippines. “We’ve got our neck out there,” he says. “There are a lot of Americans there who will be targets for attack, and it will be hard not to go in and defend them. Corazon Aquino, with all due respect to a wonderful woman, has not been able to do anything fundamental, to go beyond democracy to land reform. People are treated as dogs, the way the peasants were treated in ancient times. So there’s going to be an explosion there, and I’m afraid that we will be sucked in, and it could last a long time. There are a lot of islands and a lot of people.

“Eisenhower had one great virtue as president,” Stone continues. “He wasn’t bright, and he wasn’t very active, but he had one great virtue. He knew the guys in the Pentagon. He knew he was no genius, and he knew damned well that they weren’t, either. And he had one more general’s star than they did. If you’re a captain, like Harry Truman, or a lieutenant commander, like John Kennedy, when all that brass comes in from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, it’s very hard to say to those people, ‘You’re full of crap.'”

Stone has a surprising favorite for president: Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia. Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is the Democratic party’s ranking hawk.

“It sounds like a terrible thing for me to say, but I wouldn’t be unhappy to see the convention go for Sam Nunn,” Stone says. “I think Nunn has played a very capable game on the anti-ballistic-missile treaty and Star Wars. Something good is in the air. We’re starting to move away from nuclear weapons. To do it, we need a coalition of genuine conservatives with the liberal left. We need to separate the genuine conservatives from the kooks — the crypto-fascists, racists and nuts whom, in our euphemistic lingo, we call conservatives.

“There is a coalition under way now between what you might call the left wing of the Republican party and all the rest of us. I’d rather have a decent conservative like Nunn leading the coalition than a fake liberal like Les Aspin [the Democrat from Wisconsin who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee]. And Sam Nunn can win the election.”

Izzy Stone endorses Sam Nunn for president? This may shock some of the ancient radical’s admirers (and perhaps Senator Nunn as well). But it is perfectly in character. The true reporter is always an iconoclast.

“Look,” says I.F. Stone, “one of the things you’ve got to recognize, as a reporter, is that things do change. If all you do is write about your own preconceptions, you can sit on your ass in the library.”

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