April 18, 1988 12:00 PM

A few Sundays ago, I.F. Stone climbed out of bed and went down to the porch of his rambling brick house in the nation’s capital to get the morning paper. He was delighted to find his new book, The Trial of Socrates, featured on the front page of the Washington Post’s Book Review section. Conservative classics scholar Allan Bloom, best known for his gloomy critique of U.S. education, The Closing of the American Mind, was the reviewer. “I got all nervous,” says the 80-year-old Stone with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, this guy’s an expert. He’s going to blow me right out of the water.’ ”

Stone, the diminutive giant of investigative reporting, fortified himself with breakfast, then sat down to read Bloom’s piece. The reviewer disparaged the book, calling it “often tiresome.” Stone’s reaction? “You know, I had a good laugh,” he says. “I read his book, and this guy Bloom has all the self-indulgent narcissism of a college professor talking to kids who don’t know enough to challenge him. He doesn’t even cite sources.” Stone chuckles, his eyes dancing behind the thick lenses necessitated by a cataract and a detached retina. “This was a conservative’s big chance to show me up, and he didn’t take it!”

The response is vintage Stone. A guerrilla in the intellectual wars of politics, he has now tossed a bomb at one of philosophy’s secular saints. Stone argues that Socrates, who for 2,400 years has been revered as a martyr for the principle of free speech, was in fact an elitist snob whose contempt for his fellow Athenian citizens practically forced them to convict him and sentence him to death for political subversion. “Few realize that he was a rebel against an open society and the admirer of a closed [society],” Stone writes.

Some scholars summarily dismiss Stone’s argument. “Stone…has nothing but contempt for [Socrates’] ideas,” wrote Julia Annas in the New York Times. Sidney Hook, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called Stone “a cultural philistine.”

“I’m not debunking Socrates,” Stone replies, “but being a historian is very much like being a reporter. I tried to dig the truth out of ancient documents the way I used to dig them out of the State Department and the Pentagon. Anyway, these academics are mad because I taught myself Greek over the last 15 years and didn’t pay them a cent of tuition.”

While some scholars are perturbed that a mere reporter might presume to investigate Socrates, the book has led the broader public to rediscover one of the clarion voices of American journalism. Unlike Stone’s previous 11 books, Socrates is a best-seller, and many reviewers have lavishly praised it. “It is a labor of love…journalistically sound and endlessly entertaining,” wrote Andrew Klavan in New York’s Village Voice. Stone is the subject of a new biography, I.F. Stone, by Andrew Patner, and his collected writings are to be reissued this year.

The same passion for civil liberties that motivated Stone’s half-century of muckraking journalism prompted him to embark on a study of freedom of thought at 64. In the course of his research, “I fell in love with Athens, the first great citadel of free speech,” he says. So nearly every day for 10 years, Stone hiked the 2½ miles from his house to the library at American University to teach himself Greek grammar and literature. “Many days I was in despair,” he says. “It took me nine months to read the Iliad. I took 257 pages of notes. I put in so much work on it that I felt I deserved a joint byline with Homer.” His readings about Athens’ condemnation of Socrates deeply troubled him—he once even burst into tears at a table in the library. “I wanted to understand how this terrible thing could have happened.”

Isidor Feinstein Stone has been called variously “a modern Tom Paine,” “the conscience of America” and “a voice crying in the wilderness,” as well as some less printable epithets. Among the crusades he conducted in his four-page newspaper, I.F. Stone’s Weekly (later Bi-Weekly) from 1953 to 1971 was his lonely, courageous battle against Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the ’50s and his early opposition to the Vietnam War in the ’60s. In tribute, however, even Stone’s critics read him regularly—White House aides included it in President Nixon’s press digest.

At the Weekly, Stone perfected the role of journalist as outsider, shunning briefings and off-the-record interviews. (“You cannot get intimate with officials and maintain your independence,” he has said.) He would instead sit down each morning in his study and pore over 10 daily papers, the Congressional Record and periodicals such as the Supreme Court Reporter, Air Force and Space Digest, Jane’s Fighting Ships and Facts on File, searching for the tidbit or discrepancy that hinted at a larger story. “I loved reading the Washington Post because I never knew on what page I would find a page-one story,” he says with a laugh. In 1966, for instance, Stone used information gleaned from Motor Truck Facts to expose the Pentagon’s exaggeration of troop movements from North to South Vietnam.

The eldest of four children of Bernard and Katherine Feinstein, Russian Jewish immigrants who ran a dry-goods store (he took the pen name Stone in 1937), young Izzy grew up in Haddonfield, N.J., where he and a high school friend published a monthly paper, the Progress, which they sold for 5 cents. At the University of Pennsylvania, Stone majored in philosophy but quit in 1927, during his junior year, to work mornings for the Courier and afternoons for the Philadelphia Inquirer. In Philadelphia that year he met Esther Roisman. “It was a blind date on a borrowed dollar,” he says. “We were married two years later.” Recalls Esther: “I was actually first attracted to his dimples.”

In the 1930s Stone worked for several New York City papers. He relied more on reading than listening, partially in response to a hearing impairment. “Around 1938 I realized I couldn’t hear what was being said at press conferences,” he recalls, “so I’d go around the next day and study the transcript. Sometimes I’d catch things the guys had missed the day before when writing for deadlines.”

In 1946 he was the first reporter to accompany illegal Jewish refugees through the British blockade to Palestine. His book Underground to Palestine chronicled the journey, and he was awarded a medal by the Zionist military organization the Haganah.

Stone was working for New York’s Daily Compass when it folded in 1952. He moved to Washington and launched I.F. Stone’s Weekly with his $3,500 severance pay and a $3,000 loan; 5,300 subscribers signed on at $5 each. Paying himself $125 a week, he acted as writer, editor and proofreader. Esther was the circulation and business manager. When circulation reached 73,000 in 1970, Stone commented wryly that if it grew much bigger, he would be forced to commit bigamy. Somehow, the Stones found time to raise three children: Celia Gilbert, a poet; Jeremy, director of the Federation of Nuclear Scientists disarmament group; and Peter, a professor of law at UCLA.

Though Stone’s politics have always been left wing, he has never been predictable. After a 1964 visit to the Soviet Union, he wrote a blistering critique of the Communist government in his Weekly, concluding, “This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.” Four hundred cancellations followed. He infuriated more readers when he defended the Warren Commission Report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. “I don’t believe in conspiracy theories on the right or on the left,” he explained.

But Stone made the most enemies—including Golda Meir, who had been a friend—after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when he criticized Israel’s occupation of the territories and its treatment of Arabs. “I can’t understand why one is allowed to be sympathetic toward one’s own fellow refugees but not to other people’s refugees,” he says of the Palestinians. “There’s a saying in Yiddish, ‘If you don’t have compassion, how can you call yourself a Jew?’ ”

I.F Stone’s Bi-Weekly made its last appearance in 1971. Stone, then 64, had suffered two heart attacks, and his doctors advised him to slow down.

Now Izzy Stone sits onstage in San Francisco’s sold-out Herbst Theater, finishing up a talk scheduled to promote The Trial of Socrates. He has ranged over topics from Socrates to military spending to Jesse Jackson, whom he admires. (“If there were a God,” he says, “he’d bleach Jesse white in time for the Democratic convention.”) It is late and he is tiring. His promoters bring an 80th-birthday cake onstage, and as the audience stands and applauds, Stone pauses. “I’ll make a confession,” he says. “This is the first speech I’ve made since I turned 80. You know, Michelangelo died in his 80s, and he said something very wonderful. Michelangelo said, ‘And I had just begun to learn the alphabet of my profession.’ ”

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