Stone Cold Roger Stone
Roger Stone has cut a colorful and controversial swath through certain wide segments of the American political scene since he started out as a teenager working for RN in 1972. He has been the man some loved, the man some loved to hate, and the man some just hated outright (and not unlike his mentor in that regard). His major magazine profiles —from Jacob Weisberg’s “The State of the Art Sleazeball” and Wayne Barrett’s “Sleeping With the GOP ” through Matt Labash’s “Roger Stone, Political Animal”— have shared a most common denominator of fascinated repulsion.
Now we have the latest in that line, Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Dirty Trickster” in this week’s New Yorker. You can count on two things. Because it’s by Toobin it will be interesting and insightful; and, because it involves Roger Stone, it will never be boring. Several thousand words later both expectations have been generously fulfilled. (And yes — the accompanying photograph moves the question “what was he thinking?” to entirely new levels.)
The piece opens at Miami Velvet, a member’s only swinger’s club. It was here, amidst the stripper poles, that began what RS claims is his small but not unimportant part in the downfall of his longtime nemesis, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.
RS, having introduced himself as a dentist, was chatting with a possibly off-duty prostitute (these are exactly the kinds of details with which so many Stone stories begin) who told him that she had almost dated the Empire State’s chief executive. Like a pit bull scenting a pork chop, RS pursued the topic and later learned an irresistible detail: Mr. Spitzer’s preferred romp mode was wearing only his calf-high black socks. Before long, RS’s lawyer had supplied this vital information to the FBI —which was independently investigating some of Mr. Spitzer’s unexplained cash transfers— and the rest is history of a sort.
For nearly forty years, Stone has hovered around Republican and national politics, both near the center and at the periphery. At times, mostly during the Reagan years, he was a political consultant and lobbyist who, in conventional terms, was highly successful, working for such politicians as Bob Dole and Tom Kean. Even then, though, Stone regularly crossed the line between respectability and ignominy, and he has become better known for leading a colorful personal life than for landing big-time clients. Still, it is no coincidence that Stone materialized in the midst of the Spitzer scandal—and that he had memorable cameos in the last two Presidential elections. While the Republican Party usually claims Ronald Reagan as its inspiration, Stone represents the less discussed but still vigorous legacy of Richard Nixon, whose politics reflected a curious admixture of anti-Communism, social moderation, and tactical thuggery. Stone believes that Nixonian hardball, more than sunny Reaganism, is John McCain’s only hope for the Presidency.
Mr. Toobin’s interpretation of the role Richard Nixon played in RS’s life and times is very much in tune with the current conventional wisdom as expressed by Rick Perlstein in Nixonland and George Packer in last week’s New Yorker (about which more anon): that RN was nerd-in-chief whose career is explained as achieving revenge for himself and all the other nerds who could be convinced or tricked into voting for him.
Like Messrs. Perlstein and Packer, Mr. Toobin, hamstrung by his determination to make everything conform to a wrong-headed template, misses the point but still manages to get a lot of things right:
It was Stone’s preoccupation with toughness that led to his enduring affection for Nixon. “The reason I’m a Nixonite is because of his indestructibility and resilience,” Stone said. “He never quit. His whole career was all built around his personal resentment of élitism. It was the poor-me syndrome. John F. Kennedy’s father bought him his House seat, his Senate seat, and the Presidency. No one bought Nixon anything. Nixon resented that. He was very class-conscious. He identified with the people who ate TV dinners, watched Lawrence Welk, and loved their country.” (Rule: “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for my revolver.”)
Although Stone shares many of Nixon’s resentments, his own tastes have always tended to more Rabelaisian pleasures than “champagne music” and Salisbury steak. Not long ago, Stone went to the Ink Monkey tattoo shop in Venice Beach and had a portrait of Nixon’s face applied to his back, right below the neck. “Women love it,” Stone said.
Nixon recognized the effectiveness of anti-élitism—a staple of American campaigns even today—as a core message. “Everybody talks about the Reagan Democrats who helped put the Republican Party over the top, but they were really the Nixon Democrats. The exodus of working-class people from the Democratic Party was started by Nixon. The realignment was delayed by Watergate, but it was really Nixon who figured out how to win,” Stone said. “We had a non-élitist message. We were the party of the workingman! We wanted lower taxes for everyone, across the board. They were the party of the Hollywood élite.” Stone went on, “The point that the Democrats missed was that the people who weren’t rich wanted to be rich. And Jimmy Carter was viewed as an appeaser.” (Rule: “The Democrats are the party of slavery; the Republicans are the party of freedom.”)
Now that’s an important home truth that needs telling these days: it was RN who conceived and executed the first phases of the national realignment of parties that completely changed the coalition that FDR had forged in the early ‘30s — and that is still being played out today in 2008.
Roger’s contradictory qualities were right upfront the first time I met him in the early 1980s. I was a friend and colleague of his wonderful wife Ann (who is no longer his wife but is still wonderful) with whom I had been working in the Viguerie vineyards. The occasion was a birthday party for Roy Cohn at Regine’s disco on Park Avenue in New York. This was, at that time, the epicenter of international highjinks and highlife.
When I was introduced to RS, I thought that here, at least, would an ally in an alien world of caberet society and what everybody was still too impressed to call eurotrash. In an earlier incarnation I had worked for Senator John Heinz, and RS’s snarled greeting was the observation that “John Heinz is just like his ketchup. Thick, rich, and red.” From that unpromising beginning an unlikely friendship of sorts has now spanned a quarter- century.
Roger is, like scotch and camembert, an acquired taste that is not for everyone. He’s a genuine eccentric, a connoisseur but not a snob, a dandy but not a fop, and, truth be told, a lovable rogue — a political type that was more prevalent, more accepted, and more affectionately embraced in earlier times before politics was homogenized by the double whammies of nonstop media coverage and political correctness.
Here’s a chance to see Roger at work — a well-edited selection from his remarks at a Reason magazine gathering last November: