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"All Governments Lie": The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone

by Myra MacPherson


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Boasting equal parts scholarship and style, "All Governments Lie" is a highly readable, groundbreaking, and timely look at I. F. Stone — one of America's most independent and revered journalists, whose work carries the same immediacy it did almost a half century ago, highlighting the ever-present need for dissenting voices.

In the world of Washington political journalism, notorious for trading independence for access, I. F. "Izzy" Stone was so unique as to be a genuine wonder. Always skeptical — "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out," he memorably quipped — Stone was ahead of the pack on the most pivotal twentieth-century trends: the rise of Hitler and Fascism, disastrous Cold War foreign policies, covert actions of the FBI and CIA, the greatness of the Civil Rights movement, the horror of Vietnam, the strengths and weaknesses of the antiwar movement, the disgrace of Iran-contra, and the class greed of Reaganomics. His constant barrage against J. Edgar Hoover earned him close monitoring by the FBI from the Great Depression through the Vietnam War, and even an investigation for espionage during the fifties.

After making his mark on feisty New York dailies and in The Nation — scoring such scoops as the discovery of American cartels doing business with Nazi Germany — Stone became unemployable during the dark days of McCarthyism. Out of desperation he started his four-page I. F. Stone's Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971. The first journalist to label the Gulf of Tonkin affair a sham excuse to escalate the Vietnam War, Stone garnered worldwide fans, was read in the corridors of power, and became wealthy. Later, the "world's oldest living freshman" learned Greek to write his bestseller The Trial of Socrates.

Here, for the first time, acclaimed journalist and author Myra MacPherson brings the legendary Stone into sharp focus. Rooted in fifteen years of research, this monumental biography includes information from newly declassified international documents and Stone's unpublished five-thousand-page FBI file, as well as personal interviews with Stone and his wife, Esther; with famed modern thinkers; and with the best of today's journalists. It illuminates the vast sweep of turbulent twentieth-century history as well as Stone's complex and colorful life. The result is more than a masterful portrait of a remarkable character; it's a far-reaching assessment of journalism and its role in our culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781416556794
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 04/08/2008
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 592
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Myra MacPherson is the author of three previous books, including the Vietnam War classic Long Time Passing. She was a highly regarded journalist at the Washington Post for many years, and has also written for the New York Times and numerous magazines, including Vanity Fair. She lives in Palm Desert, California, and Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

"All Governments Lie"

The Life and Times of Rebel Journalist I. F. Stone
By Myra MacPherson


Copyright © 2006 Myra MacPherson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-684-80713-0



You've really got to wear a chastity belt in Washington to preserve your journalistic virginity. Once the secretary of state invites you to lunch and asks your opinion, you're sunk. - I. F. Stone on government manipulation of the media

In writing this book it has not been easy keeping up with the fast-breaking news about a man who has been dead for seventeen years. Lest you think I jest, reflect on this.

In 2004, Philip Roth gave I. F. Stone a walk-on part in his masterful work of fact and fiction The Plot Against America. In Roth's mesmerizing "it can happen here" tale of fascism triumphant, Charles A. Lindbergh, in real life the international aviation ace and Hitler admirer, has defeated FDR. On page 316 of the novel, I. F. Stone is carted off with FDR New Dealers Bernard Baruch, Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, and other real famous men by President Lindbergh's gestapo-style FBI as pogroms begin in America. Roth's novel vividly relates the fear among American Jews in 1942 when fascism was a real threat. Back then, journalist I. F. Stone was among the alarmed who excoriated isolationist Lindbergh'scoziness with the Third Reich.

Uncanny echoes of Stone are heard in concert halls, on radio, or on CDs of the Kronos Quartet as his distinctive voice dips in and out of the music. With a continued war in Iraq, the Kronos Quartet and composer Scott Johnson found new poignancy and symbolism in Stone's antiwar lectures for peace taped decades ago and incorporated into "How It Happens," Johnson's 1993 work for amplified string quartet. Stone's twenty-two-year-old words punctuate a world that remains as frightening as when he spoke them - a combustible Middle East, North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats, and a messy, unnecessary war in Iraq - "How much bloodshed, cruelty, suffering? How many survivors to wonder? Was it a Canadian goose, or a real ICBM heading one way or the other, that set off the great conflagration? Think what would have happened if -" Stone's voice is deliberately and dramatically ended in midsentence.

What appears to be a fleeting apparition of owl-eyed Izzy rushes by in the background of real footage of a McCarthy hearing in George Clooney's award-winning 2005 movie on Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck.

The twentieth century's premier independent journalist, known to everyone from the corner grocer to Einstein as Izzy, is honored on campuses that award I. F. Stone chairs, fellowships, and scholarships. Institutions rank his tiny one-man Weekly in the Greatest Hits of twentieth-century journalism. In one major study, Stone's Weekly placed number 16 in the top 100, behind coverage of Hiroshima, Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, My Lai, and the work of early-century muckrakers. As an individual voice, he placed ahead of Harrison Salisbury, Dorothy Thompson, Neil Sheehan, William Shirer, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Murray Kempton, and other worthies. Some who once ruled Georgetown and political society, such as columnist Joe Alsop and the acerbic H. L. Mencken, did not make the cut. Walter Lippmann placed 64. Such are the vicissitudes of life for journalists who once stood so high. "This kind of list is needed in journalism," said Mitchell Stephens, of NYU. "Nobody thinks of journalism in terms of decades or centuries." It is important to examine why some endure.

And Stone endures. He is quoted in the New Yorker and the New York Times, remembered as an inspiration by Bill Moyers and Seymour Hersh - arguably the best investigative reporter today - and anyone else who despairs of modern journalism, especially the unquestioning acceptance of governmental spin. He is a lone "courageous" voice remembered by Michael Cross-Barnet in a 2005 recollection of his own father's ruined career during the Red Scare: "The New York Times Shafted My Father." Defending the Times editor Melvin Barnet, Stone had asked back then, "How can the Times editorially support the Fifth Amendment and discharge those who invoke it?" Bloggers bill themselves as the next Izzy. Then the right-wing chorus falsely called Stone a Red spy. The list goes on.

Stone went from a young iconoclast in the 1930s to an icon during the Vietnam War. In the fifties, he spoke to mere handfuls who dared surface to protest Cold War loyalty oaths and witch hunts. A decade later, he spoke to half a million who massed for anti-Vietnam War rallies. He became world famous.

Today, Izzy's remarkable immediacy leaps off the pages. Not only is he a sheer joy to read, his views take on vital importance, as if he had written them just this morning, illuminating the tumultuous first five years of the twenty-first century.

"There was increased reliance at home and abroad on suppression by force and an increasingly arrogant determination to 'go it alone' in the world." This was not written when George W. Bush ignored the United Nations, colleagues, international treaties, and advice of allies and started a war but by Stone during Cold War escalation.

"All governments are run by liars ..." This was not about the weapons of mass destruction or subsequent other Iraq War lies but those told during the Vietnam War.

"It is not a private quarrel between the Israelis and Arabs. It's a world concern - and of great concern to America, as a great power, to have stability and peace. And there is no way to have peace without some modicum of justice. The Arabs can not be held in second-class citizenship and bondage. If something isn't done pretty soon the lines may harden, each side will destroy its own moderates - and then they will move on to destroy each other." That was not about today's discord or the wall built by the Israelis to keep out the Palestinians in 2004, but Stone's sorrowful warning years ago.

"Almost every generation in American history has had to face what appeared to be a menace of so frightening an order as to justify the limitation of basic liberties - the Francophiles in the days of the Alien and Sedition laws, the Abolitionists, the Anarchists, the Socialists in the days of Debs; Fascists, anti-Semites and Communists in our own time." Some saw "compelling arguments for suppression." Stone argued against this, claiming that a country founded on basic freedoms had "managed to get through before." This was not about the excesses of the Patriot Act but about investigative assaults and secret surveillance of citizens in 1949. Then as now, fear galvanized citizens into silent support. The terrorists of 9/11 and continuing worldwide terrorism made it easy to sell the Patriot Act - and to resell it to a cowardly Congress as 2005 drew to a close. The very name echoes those deployed the Cold War Red Scare, when congressional inquisitors decided who was "un-American" and President Truman instituted the "Loyalty Oath." Stone would have led the pack in uncovering - once again - illegal domestic spying in the twenty-first century and ripped into the Patriot Act for its trampling on the Bill of Rights, which included forcing clerks and librarians to turn over lists of what citizens read, and detaining a thousand "suspects" with no evidence. Jailed without charge, forbidden to see lawyers or family, the vast majority were innocent of federal crimes of terrorism. Bush's team had grossly inflated the number of terrorist actions. Justice Department stonewalling thwarted media access, yet available reports were overlooked. Such documents would have had hound dog Stone salivating at the joy of the hunt.

"There still seem to be many worthy gentlemen ... who wish to anchor the world in a sea of narrow minds (including their own) and hold it there, lest it move forward ... They are utterly out of place in this age of rationalism." This was not about the current forces of Creationism but the first go around, with the famous 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial and written by a fourteen-year-old Izzy.

This book combines biography, a historical treatise on the press, and Stone's running commentary on twentieth-century America. All are necessary to draw some present-day lessons from the life and times of I. F. Stone. At pivotal points in their careers I have twinned outsider I. F. Stone with insider Walter Lippmann because they are dynamic examples of opposing approaches to journalism. Presidents and kings were so much a part of Lippmann's life that when he visited Paris, his forwarding address was in care of Charles de Gaulle. He wrote speeches for presidents and never saw the dichotomy, lecturing younger colleagues like James (Scotty) Reston to remain detached. "Walter was more engaged with more presidents from Wilson to Lyndon Johnson than anybody in the press! He was always in the White House," Reston once exclaimed to me. Meanwhile, Stone was blackballed by the National Press Club after his premature gesture of civility in a Jim Crow era, inviting a black to lunch there.

A vital companion theme is the repression of dissent that Stone and others faced in the twentieth century and which continues to this day. Stone never confused dissent with disloyalty, as mainstream media and the government so often do. Stone fervently loved this country, viewing dissenting voices as crucial for keeping it true to its ideals.

Since Stone wrote and thought everything out loud in the public arena, there are no private papers or memos and only sparse correspondence - the stuff of conventional biographies. Because of this, one extraordinary lie has been promulgated by the far right bent on besmirching Stone's legacy. They repeat the falsehood that Stone's family burned his papers, hinting at some dark conspiracy. They deduced this from Nation writer D. D. Guttenplan's innocent observations that Stone had left no papers. After more than a decade of examining Stone, I can sadly attest to Guttenplan's accuracy and applaud his continual debunking of Izzy-the-spy lies that the neocons spread. However, I hope to provide new insights from numerous unpublished reminiscences of family and friends, unpublished interviews with Stone, his massive and unpublished FBI file, recently declassified Russian, Chinese, and North Korean documents, and his own riveting words that flowed by the millions during nearly seventy years of writing and speaking. Stone's style combined a comic's gift for one-liners, an eye for the "significant trifle," and trenchant analysis of world affairs.

Major reasons underscore the importance of revisiting Izzy. His life was fascinating, his observations of a half century ago ring with amazing significance today, his work and methods should be taught in all journalism classes. As this book will show, he is a sheer delight to read, evocative, provocative, and witty. He needs to be known by journalism students and a young audience. Finally, he needs to be defended from posthumous lies perpetuated by today's right-wing media.

His work helps evaluate the best and the worst in today's journalism. Although Stone inspired many, he was too much of an original to be fully emulated. His vibrancy and zest for life, his enthusiasms for everything from disco dancing to Demosthenes, his curiosity and hound-dog tenacity, would have made I. F. Stone unique in any arena. But he was especially so in Washington. Most of the time, he simply didn't give a damn if he was an outcast. He slaved to make history and current events "fun" - a favorite word. He struggled always to write his "soufflés," articles and books as airy as confections despite the substance larded into each sentence.

Best of all, commented journalist and novelist Nicholas Von Hoffman, "There are so few troublemakers and he was a wonderful troublemaker. He had such wonderful guts. He defied the social fears which make cowards of most of us. He was his own person in the ice age of big, controlling institutions and organizations. He could stand alone and stand apart and therefore stand for what he believed in." Stone was nothing like today's prepackaged bloviators pickled in self-importance who offend and lampoon easy targets that feed their flocks' prejudices. An equal-opportunity deflator, when Stone perceived injustice, inequity, or lies billed as truth, he sometimes turned intimate fans into intimate foes. Izzy collected countless critics left, right, and center, alienating just about everyone at one time or another. He loathed pontificating, thumb-sucking pundits and carefully crafted a breezy, provocative style. Never far from his autodidactic grounding in the classics and philosophy, Stone possessed a memory of confounding accuracy; a scholar's grasp of the past that he applied to current events with dazzling relevance; a trial lawyer's proclivity for the tough question. Coupled with these attributes, Stone's skepticism regarding the professed nobility of government intentions served him well.

In the same year that Stone died, 1989, Nightline's anchor, Ted Koppel, said of the establishment media, "We are a discouragingly timid lot ... people whose job it is to manipulate the media know that ... many of us are truly only comfortable when we travel in a herd." Even Stone's great outspoken colleague Murray Kempton once told me, "I have a tremendous need to pass a test of fraternity when I'm on a story. I'm much more of a herd man than Izzy ever was." Stone was comfortable traveling alone.

Government leaks tossed out at private dinner parties were as suspicious as hand grenades to him. And a reporter had to "bone up" in advance and ask good questions to get both news and respect from officials. "You can't just sit on their lap and ask them to feed you secrets - then they'll just give you a lot of crap." The First Amendment was Stone's bible and Jefferson his God. Stone never stopped preaching against secrecy in government. "Inevitably such organizations [the FBI, CIA, NSA] become means of inhibiting the exercise of freedom of liberties and intimidate people." Few but Stone had the nerve to ridicule FBI director J. Edgar Hoover at the height of his power, calling him a "glorified Dick Tracy" and "the sacred cow," knowing full well that Hoover would retaliate. From the thirties to his death in 1972, Hoover endlessly hounded Stone, amassing thousands of pages, staking out such subversive activities as buying cigars, picking out groceries, writing letters to his hearing-aid company. The FBI bugged his phone and pawed through his garbage. Comrades in the hunt were the CIA, State Department, Army, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Post Office, and U.S. Passport Office.

"Secrecy is hardly new," said commentator Bill Moyers, who worked for one of the legendary White House liars, Lyndon Johnson. Speaking of today's President Bush, Moyers added, "But never has there been an administration like the one in power today - so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and, in defiance of the Constitution, from their representatives in Congress."

For the first five nightmare years of Bush's reign, a compliant White House press corps, known to some in the trade as "access whores"; a conglomerate Murdochian right-wing drift; "liars for hire" paid by the administration to tout its programs; deferential acceptance of administration fibs - all are disgraceful capitulations to power. It is frustrating to observe such follies where mainstream media shies from accurately informing the public, burying major stories in an avalanche of celebrity trash. During the Iraq invasion, jingoism replaced journalism. With Pan-Cake makeup and microphones at the ready, an enthralled crew of the embedded embraced battle (many of whom had forgotten their own devotion to ducking the Vietnam War). Early reports were tailor-made for Army recruitment posters, with the exception of some hard-hitting reporters such as Mike Cerre for ABC-TV.

Instead of reporting scandals, establishment newspapers created them. Fiction appeared in articles in the New York Times, the self-proclaimed newspaper of record. Both the Times and the Washington Post were forced to issue postmortem mea culpas for their unquestioning hype of Bush's WMD false raison d'âtre for war. Their admission that they'd buried stories expressing doubts - written by a fine Post reporter, Walter Pincus, who was inspired by Stone - demonstrated the folly when administrative sources are sacrosanct. Which illustrates Stone's dry comment "Establishment reporters undoubtedly know a lot of things I don't. But a lot of what they know isn't true."


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