I.F. STONE 1907‑1989
September 1989
Mark Hertsgaard
Art Director: Kerry Tremain

"Objectivity is fine if it's real. But most of the time objectivity is just the rationale for regurgitating the conventional wisdom of the day."

The first time I laid eyes on I.F. Stone was six years ago at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C., where I worked at the time. I remember that a dozen people were milling around, but Izzy's attention was focused like a laser beam on a newspaper held barely an inch from his face. He moved the paper rapidly from side to side, tenaciously devouring line after line of print. When he reached the end of the story, he lowered the paper and scanned the room, eager to share his findings with anyone ready to listen.

Izzy's great skill was to bore in on the lazy assumptions, subtle inconsistencies, and outright stupidities of public officials that others might miss. "Every government is run by liars," he once said. "That's a prima facie assumption unless proven to the contrary… [But] a government [also] always reveals a good deal, if you take the trouble to really study what it says."

I used a book I was writing about President Reagan and the press as an excuse to get to know Izzy. I became his student and, later, his friend as well. In the course of phone chats and afternoon teas, he talked about how the conventions of the Washington press corps ‑its proximity to power, its glorification of official sources, its presumption of objectivity ‑left it vulnerable to manipulation by any president. "Objectivity is fine if it's real," Izzy told me. "Every society has its dogmas, and a genuinely objective approach can break through them. But most of the time objectivity is just the rationale for regurgitating the conventional wisdom of the day."

Izzy and his wife, Esther, met on a blind date, and through nearly sixty years of marriage they behaved like young lovers. I remember bumping into them at a Christmas party and watching as they danced with delight, Izzy grinning, "We love rock and roll."

"We saw the first copy of our book today," Esther bubbled as the party drew to a close. She was referring to Izzy's Trial of Socrates, which Little, Brown & Co. would publish the following month. Her use of the pronoun "our" was un‑self‑conscious but apt; though Esther seldom received proper credit, she was an indispensable partner. For nineteen years, from 1953 through 1971, when I.F. Stone's Weekly set the standard for tough reportage about politics, Izzy was the researcher, reporter, and editor, but Esther managed the business end of their operation, no small task.

I last saw Izzy on Easter Sunday, three months before his death of heart failure, at eighty‑one, on June 18. He was in high spirits: The Trial of Socrates had become a national best‑seller, six volumes of his Washington reporting were being republished by Little, Brown, and he was busily plotting half a dozen new projects. Best of all, eye surgery had returned to him one of his greatest pleasures, the ability to read. No longer did he have to grasp my elbow as we walked along Connecticut Avenue. He told me on that walk that he had "five or six good years left as a writer" now that he could read regular‑sized type again.

"It's wonderful!" Izzy exclaimed. "I feel like a boy in a candy store with a pocketful of money to spend."