In 1958 IF Stone wrote 'For almost two decades we have lived in a stale atmosphere of Fifth Amendment radicalism; no one is a Communist, few admit themselves Socialists, nobody owns up to reading Marx, and practically everybody on the Left claims only to be a Liberal, nothing more; the word 'radical' is avoided as a bad word.' Reading that passage, it struck me as some measure of how far backwards we have gone in the past fifty years, that today virtually no one claims even to be just a Liberal, devalued as that word has become. The real beauty of DD Guttenplan's monumental biography of the man best-remembered for IF Stone's Weekly is the way it tells a story whose themes seem to reverberate constantly with echoes of today.
American Radical is really the tale of two rises to journalistic success, accomplished in two very different atmospheres. Thus it is almost two different books. As someone who grew up during the era of (if not 'with') IF Stone's weekly (my parents being mainstream Democrats who got their news from Time, Life, and the right-wing New Haven papers, 'balanced' by the Sunday New York Times), to me the tale of Stone's early rise was the more surprising. I had never realised just how successful Stone had been in the mainstream—to the point of wielding (or thinking he wielded) a little bit of influence in FDR's Washington. It was still possible to do that from the Left in those days, and Stone's rise is the more remarkable because he managed to do it while avoiding the in-fighting and back-stabbing which seem to always categorise left-wing politics, and which seems to grow more vicious the more politically irrelevant the groups or issues involved. Stone somehow managed to avoid being caught up between factions, while writing for both mainstream papers and leftish magazines. In the case of the latter, almost as interesting as Stone's story might be that of J. David Stern, the crusading Philadelphia newspaper owner, who wound up buying the New York Post, and turning it into a left-wing daily of some courage. Of course the peak of mainstream leftwing news in America might well be PM, and as it died so too died the progressive dream. It's chilling to read that in August 1943 PM was already charting the murder of 1.7 million Jews in Europe, while officially Allied governments were refusing to take steps to try to save those who remained.
In the case of the factionalism of the left, it might be easy for Guttenplan's detailing of the many-faceted progress of progressives through the Thirties to lose readers along the way, but I found it fascinating, if in a sometimes anoraky way. The minutiae of esoteric debate and distinction may itself be part of the reason the left found, and still finds itself, so vulnerable to the right in the bigger picture. The right has always been quicker to understand that it's about power, not principle. But it's fascinating to learn that a group of Republican backers offered Earl Browder, head of the US Communist party, $250,000, to either nominate or endorse FDR in 1936. That gives somewhat more credence to General Smedley Butler's 1934 testimony that he'd been offered, by a similar group of shadowy financiers, command of a fascist army to overthrow FDR. Often Guttenplan throws off fascinating stories in footnotes, as when he details Philip Johnson's career as a 'fascist intellectual'. The Johnson & Johnson heir was a huge supporter of Father Coughlin's hate-mongering, and started his own band of 'grey shirts' – yet rose to architectural prominence in post-war New York with no one commenting on the wistful totalitarian nature of his design. I was intrigued to discover Corliss Lamont, the Marxist scion of an investment banking family, whose great-nephew Ned tried to rid the world of Joe Lieberman a few years back.
The better-known story of Stone's blacklisting stands in sharp and touching contrast to this early story of success, and the fact that he built his second career on a self-published weekly newsletter has huge relevance in today's world of internet 'journalism'. It's facile to say that Stone would be blogging today—his work was better suited to the weekly, which allowed him to collate research—but he was in a sense a small-scale aggregator, like a number of present-day sites at the sub-Huff level, which mix good journalism with aggregation (eg: Truthdig. Tom Paine). Perhaps the heirs to IF Stone's Weekly are Tom Englehardt's Tom Dispatch or Robert Parry's Consortium News. But it reminds us of exactly what a journalist is. Stone was so successful as a newsletter maverick precisely because he had been successful in the mainstream (and, to a lesser extent, on the left-wing). He had contacts, and more important he both knew how power worked, in Washington and in city halls, and how to find information in the public domain. He had built his sources through hard work, through go-getting of the sort that used to be a journalist's stock in trade. This is the most interesting part of his progression from Isidor Feinstein to IF Stone. He wasn't a Studs Terkel or Jimmy Breslin, haunting the working-class bars, but he knew how to work rooms in high places, how to argue policies and principles, and he kept it in service of his ideals—he wasn't likely to be Judith Millered, even in the service of policies or ideologies he agreed with.
Guttenplan is very good on such dilemmas—in the protean world of the Depression Thirties, no less than the McCarthyite Fifties, people often tailored their opinions to suit their ideologies. They always have and still do, of course. But more than most, Stone needed to see for himself, and it shows. He was an early and unofficial visitor to Israel, as detailed in his classic book Underground To Palestine, and an equally early proponent of treating the Arab population fairly. He warned of the 'moral imbecility that marks all ethnocentric movements'. When he added a new introduction to the book in the Seventies, the early neo-Con Martin Peretz denounced him as a PLO stooge. Even in his years of success, nothing had changed.
What's sometimes missing is a sense of the contradictions inside Stone. Devoted husband, he seems to have been both a devoted and difficult father. He had some talented people as assistants on the Weekly, but tended to drive them hard and treat them harshly. There's little information and less speculation about his relationships, except when they turn into politicised feuds. The radical lawyer Leonard Boudin was his in-law and friend, his daughter Kathy was a key figure in the Weather Underground—I wonder what Izzy's reaction was to having an outlaw of the left in the family. I've always wondered why Stone was so adamant about supporting the Warren Commission's whitewash of the JFK assassination: he was perfectly willing to believe in a conspiracy (even involving J.Edgar Hoover and his FBI) in the killing of Martin Luther King. But these are my curiosities.
If the book seems to pick up pace and slide through the years of Stone's return to the mainstream (although interestingly, the world of his sort of political reporting was already being marginalised by television) it may be because we know those political debates too well: Vietnam, the Middle East, the late Cold War, the civil rights movement. It may also be that Stone as a success, as an icon, is less interesting to a biographer than Stone as a fallen angel, or a maverick outsider. If anything, however, his decision to study Greek and write The Trial Of Socrates deserves even more attention; a remarkable late change of pace. Years ago I went back and read up on Stone, often missing much because the context wasn't fully there. But the over-arching theme was: that governments could not be trusted to act in the best interests of the majority of their citizens; that official versions were suspect for that reason, and for other, more practical versions, and that the pursuit of profit and power was no respecter of human life or morality. In that sort of context, an analysis of Socrates seems perfectly fitting.
In our own trying times, this book stands as both a blessing and a warning. Guttenplan (whose own claim to fame is now may be as the father of a remarkably Brainiac University Challenge champion) is aware of this, and makes such connections subtly, but unmissably. The greatest danger to the left in the United States has always been the fear that FDR warned us about, the fear that it is somehow 'un-American'. One warning stood out to me. 'Never turn your back on a liberal in a tight corner'. In this tale of one man's stand against the right-wing's force-marching Americans into tight corners, it seems salutary to remember now.
American Radical: The Life And Times of IF Stone
by DD Guttenplan
Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2009, ISBN 9780374183936
also published in the UK by Quartet/Charles Glass Books, £25