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Working with I.F. Stone
100th Birthday

A Celebration of the Life of I.F. Stone
November 16, 2008
Story Chapel, Mount Auburn Cemetery

Remarks by Christopher Lydon


Good evening.  I'm Christopher Lydon, serial practitioner of journalism in print and television, radio, blogging and the web.

Celia and Chesa, could I just say, I think I know what Izzy would say about Barack Obama.  He would do what he did in 1961, on the inauguration of JFK, when he wrote, "For the first time since Franklin Roosevelt, we have a first rater in the White House."  And then he would, of course, go back to work on a lot of those issues you spoke about, Kate.

As I think about it and try to condense my feelings about Izzy, coming on I.F. Stone as I did in the fall of 1963, a year out of college, was more than anything else like falling in love.  And it still feels that way, I must say.

Shelton Cohen started it as the out-of-town newsstand in Howard Square which was the Internet of its time.  He put down a copy of the Weekly and said, Chris, a lot of the really smart people around here read this.

And so I did, from that issue on till the very last one.  And I happened, as it happened, to write the story in the New York Times in the mid-/late '70s when Izzy decided enough was enough and he'd proven his point.

Some day I will recover a letter that I wrote to Izzy probably the end of '64 or early '65, in which I just poured out my heart, sort of like a letter that a kid writes to a girl in the fourth grade with Xs and Os all over it.

But I just admired him so much and I wanted to meet him, and I thought it would be good for journalism, good for the country, good for me, good for him, to let me watch him do what he did.  I thought it was vaguely like Bach, you know, cranking out those cantatas one a week, every one a work of genius.

So I kept rushing back to the Globe mail box to find out what he said.  And, you know, a week went by.  I couldn't believe it.  Two weeks went by.  Three weeks.

Finally I called him and he said, Listen, kid.  I'm much too busy putting out this Weekly to answer my mail, but if you'll come down to Washington, you know, we'll go to lunch.  And we did at that Hickock's Market Restaurant.  And it was the beginning of -- not an intimate, but a wonderful friendship over many years.

Not long afterward I brought my soon-to-be wife, Cindy Arpellian, to tea at Izzy's house with Esther.  And Cindy brought irises, purple irises, and white flowers of some sort.  And Esther, bless her heart, never forgot.  She was so tender about Cindy and so was Izzy.

In a way it was Peter Osnos' great opportunity, though, because I wanted to work for Izzy, and he said eventually, you know, I wrote some pieces for him.  He said, I like your work and I like you, but what if it didn't work out?  How can I possibly fire a guy who that lovely girl is counting on for support?

So I eventually went to work in the New York Times Washington Bureau and we stayed friends.

So many little stories to dwell on and we don't have time to do it.  I just want to recall, though, a couple of things.

We had a wonderful lunch one day and I put it together with Bernard Knox, the magnificent Greek scholar whom I'd met at Yale, marvelous guy, and we went to lunch with Russ Baker, as it happened, from the Times Bureau.

Izzy was in his Socrates period at that point.  And he was learning the language, reading it, unbelievable enthusiasm.  He politicized everything.  He recreated the whole scene.

And he hated Plato.  He thought Plato was a genius, obviously, but arrogant and a bully.  He went on and on about Plato.  And I said finally, Izzy, you've got your Lyndon Johnson substitute.  Everything he had said about Lyndon, he said about Plato.

There was another time, and Tony Lewis will remember this, when Menachem Begin first became prime minister in Israel and came to see Jimmy Carter.  I talked to Izzy on the phone.  And he said, This is a real trial of the American Jewish community.

And he said, I'm not sure they're up to it.  He said, American ethnics are terrible about this kind of thing.  You know, the Irish in America support, you know, they send guns to the IRA.

Ethnics in general befriend the most violent elements back home.  The Italians were lousy on Mussolini, the Germans in this country didn't wake up about Hitler, and even Mencken until it was too late, and he said it's going to be tough.

Izzy had signed a letter, as you may know, with Albert Einstein, among others, denouncing Begin.  This is much earlier, but as a terrorist.

In any event, in a conversation with Tony on the 10:00 news on Channel 2 that night or two nights later, I paraphrased this as my own reflection on what was happening between Begin and Carter.

It became known as the night that Chris Lydon compared Menachem Begin to Hitler, which, of course, I hadn't done.  But Alan Dershowitz called me immediately and said on hearsay that he was going to file a challenge to the GBH license at the FCC the next day.

And I called Izzy and I said, What do we do, what do we do?  And I told him exactly what happened.  He said, You don't do anything.  You just, you know, let them get used to it or lump it, or deal with it or whatever.  But the idea was just, you know, hold it and move on.

So many little stories I won't go into.  But I just wanted to leave an impression of what I think is the big story for me of Izzy.  And that is simply that he, you know, when all is said and done, and I keep rereading him all the time, there's an art about it.

Izzy was, like very, very few journalists, a great artist.  He made art out of political commentary, which is almost impossible.

You could say Orwell did it in our time or you could say Duke Ellington did something like it in making -- sort of rewriting the canon of classical music out of the materials in the certain sense in the disguise of dance band music and songs and the blues.

Izzy also reminds me of something Emerson said in the Divinity school address.  He said, "We mark with light in the memory... with souls that made our souls wiser; that spoke what we thought; that told us what we knew; that gave us leave to be what we inly were."

Oliver Wendell Holmes also reminds me, he spoke of Emerson the way I feel about Izzy.  On the brink of his 90th birthday in the 1930s, Holmes said, "The firebrand of my youth that burns to me as brightly as ever is Emerson," and I feel much the same way about Izzy.

It astonishes me actually in the context of the recent books and reviews about Izzy that he is still seen by most people, a great many people, as a leftist, as an ideologue, and some had the nerve to say a Stalinist.

You read Izzy and it's exactly the opposite.  He was all poetry and humor.  He was full of music.  He was full of Henry James and Andre Gide.  He was full of wine and good food.

I think of that scene in Dickens' Christmas Carol where Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig are dancing up a storm in the office where the boy worked, and I always think of Izzy and Esther sort of enacting that kind of celebration of their lives and their opportunities.

In the realm of heroes, he reminds me of what John Updike wrote about Ted Williams.  And Izzy has become that kind of Williamesque hero for me.

Updike wrote -- and I'm substituting the roles here but Updike wrote, "No other player" -- I say political writer -- "visible to my generation concentrated within himself so much of the sport" -- or in this case journalism's poignance -- "no one so assiduously refined his natural skills so constantly brought to the plate" -- or in Izzy's case the Weekly -- "that intensity of competence that crowds the throat with joy."

Last word.  I think I feel about Izzy very much the way Izzy felt about Albert Einstein.  He said, We and our children, our three children, had the great pleasure on several occasions of having tea with Mr. Einstein at home.

It was like going to tea with God.  Not the terrible old God of the Bible but the little child's father in Heaven -- very kind, very wise, and yet himself very much a child, too.

He said, In our -- if -- if our dim understanding of Einstein's work has any validity, we thought of it as a lifelong search for a new and greater unity in physical phenomena and the reestablishment of the possibility of law in the universe, a world made up only of statistical probabilities offended his profoundest instincts.

He was like Bach or Beethoven, striving for new harmonies but with the tools of mathematics and physics.  There were times when one felt his infinite zest in the search that was his life.

And so I felt about Izzy Stone.  Thank you.


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