The Roger Stone I met for a drink in the bistro across the street from a Barnes & Noble bookstore was not the right-wing merry prankster, the con man, I expected.
Yes, he looked like he’d stepped from the set of Guys and Dolls—with a spread collar, natty tie, pocket square and that navy-blue chalk-striped suit he wears. And, yes, he was on his way to said book shop to tout his latest volume of risible conspiracy theories. It was autumn, 2014.
Story Continued Below
“Cocktails?” he had asked, when I had called to request an interview.
Did he still have a tattoo of Richard Nixon on his back? I asked. The infamous Nixon bong? Absolutely, he told me.
It was Nixon I came to talk about. And, laughs aside, Stone defied my expectations. In analyzing Nixon he was truthful, wry and perceptive—everything his public persona is not. Like Josef Stalin, the Soviet tyrant who could recite Walt Whitman, or Frankenstein’s monster, tamed by the strains of a melancholy violin, Stone displayed a more reflective side when he talked about his old boss, of whom he spoke with genuine reverence.
Nixon, he said, was a kind and good, if flawed, man. A brilliant strategist. A great statesman. Determined and resilient. And a victim of the elitist hypocrites in the press, the Democratic Congress and the special counsel’s office that brought him to ruin in 1974.
There’s a reason Nixon burns so bright in Stone’s mind. Watergate ushered Stone into politics. He cut his teeth on Nixon’s 1972 reelection campaign as a college student, pulling the sort of penny-ante tricks—ratfucking, they called it—that Democrats (and the media) found witty and endearing when sprung upon Nixon.
Stone may have a native inclination for intrigue. Or maybe not. But as we talked it struck me how much Watergate had fed his cynicism. If a politician like Nixon could be destroyed, Stone seemed to believe, then the system was corrupt, a rigged game, just another opportunity to exploit—with dirty tricks, dishonest ads, phony history books, whatever. By the time that Donald Trump came calling, Roger Stone was ready.
Stone was not a key player in Nixon’s administration, as the Nixon Foundation, a private group dedicated to memorializing the late president, reminded us on Friday. In the hours after Stone’s arrest by the FBI—on charges that he has acted to obstruct Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election—the Foundation took to Twitter to disavow their fellow enthusiast:
This morning’s widely-circulated characterization of Roger Stone as a Nixon campaign aide or adviser is a gross misstatement. Mr. Stone was 16 years old during the Nixon presidential campaign of 1968 and 20 years old during the reelection campaign of 1972. 1/2
Mr. Stone, during his time as a student at George Washington University, was a junior scheduler on the Nixon reelection committee. Mr. Stone was not a campaign aide or adviser. Nowhere in the Presidential Daily Diaries from 1972 to 1974 does the name “Roger Stone” appear. 2/2
But there is a reason that, emerging from jail after posting bond on Friday, Stone greeted a crowd of jeerers and cheerers by lifting his arms in the classic Nixonian double-V’s-for-victory gesture. Nixon, more than anyone else, was an idol and an inspiration for young Roger Stone.
Early in the 1972 election cycle, as Nixon maneuvered—legally and not—for a second term, Stone, a “College Republican” from a working family in Lewisboro, N.Y., wiggled his way to a $550-a-month job in the scheduling division at the Committee to Re-elect the President (known then, and forevermore, as CREEP).
Stone’s only known connection to the Watergate break-in occurred two days after Nixon’s burglars were arrested in the process of rifling and bugging Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office building, on June 17, 1972. His boss, Bart Porter, was traveling, and Stone had drawn the duty of feeding Porter’s dogs. While he was at Porter’s home, the telephone rang. On the line was a man who identified himself as James McCord, the CREEP security chief, one of those arrested at the DNC. The man told Stone he was calling from jail and urgently needed to speak with Porter. Stone conveyed the “life or death” message to campaign officials.
But that’s not to say that Stone played no role in the other Watergate-era capers of the president’s men. What we know of his activities comes from congressional investigators (he is cited in the files and final report of the Senate Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities, the “Watergate Committee” chaired by Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina), the records of the Nixon presidential library, and FBI documents from the bureau’s Watergate files (some of which have been posted online by the watchdog group, Property of the People).
While Nixon’s in-house band of tough guys—which he called the Special Investigations Unit but were better known as “the Plumbers”—were bugging the DNC offices in the Watergate, other members of Nixon’s staff, like cats dropping dead mice at the Oval Office door, joined in not-so-obviously-illegal activities also designed to harass the opposition. They tailed Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and assigned a mole to his Secret Service detail. They slipped spies posing as news reporters or volunteers into the campaigns of Sens. Edmund Muskie and George McGovern to copy documents and report on strategy. A group of some two dozen provocateurs under the guidance of an operative named Donald Segretti staged dirty tricks in 11 states. Stone was loosely affiliated with these tricksters.
At the time, both sides knew how to play this game. It had long been a common practice—dating back to the intrigue between Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans and Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists—to spread rumors, leak embarrassing material and place informers in rival political camps. In the years surrounding Watergate, news organizations were caught bugging; the CIA and FBI ran massive surveillance programs, and political reporters delighted in the antics of Dick Tuck, the Democratic Party dirty trickster who had haunted Nixon’s campaigns for years.
Tuck’s most memorable stunt took place in the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign when Nixon, taking fire from the press over a financial transaction involving billionaire Howard Hughes, appeared in a Chinese neighborhood to campaign. Tuck had signs distributed on the podium that asked, in Chinese characters, “What About the Hughes Loan?” Nixon happily posed before them, then erupted when tipped off to Tuck’s trickery.
Many of the stunts pulled by Segretti’s crew were Tuck-like productions. Mice were released at a Muskie press conference, and picketers carrying “Gays for Muskie” signs were hired—in an era when gay rights was likely to turn more voters off, than on. A naked young woman ran by Muskie’s Florida hotel shouting, “Senator Muskie, I love you!” Hundreds of pizzas showed up, unordered, at Democratic campaign headquarters. Limousines carried baffled African diplomats, to arrive unbidden at fundraising dinners. Most of the dirty tricks were legal. Some of them, however, like the forgeries dispatched in the U.S. mail to spread racial and sexual slurs on counterfeit stationery, violated the law.
The report of the Senate Watergate committee, and reports of his 1973 interview with the FBI, describe Stone’s participation in such schemes with CREEP. In the fall of 1971, Nixon aides Porter, Pat Buchanan and Ken Khachigian prepared a pamphlet, ostensibly from a liberal group they christened “Citizens for a Liberal Alternative,” attacking Muskie for infidelity to liberal causes. Porter then assigned Stone to fly to New Hampshire, where he posed as a Democrat to distribute the material at McGovern headquarters and the state’s leading newspaper.
On another occasion, White House aide Charles Colson decided to harass the antiwar candidate, Rep. Pete McCloskey, who was opposing Nixon in the Republican primaries. Stone was dispatched to New Hampshire to infiltrate, and act as a gay donor to McCloskey’s campaign. Stone didn’t want to pose as a homosexual and made a contribution from the “Young Socialist Alliance” instead, then helped peddle the receipt from his donation to the New Hampshire press.
Stone’s most successful role as a Watergate trickster was a part he played running a 1972 CREEP operation called “Sedan Chair II.” He recruited Michael McMinoway, a political saboteur who infiltrated several Democratic campaigns in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and California, spying, sowing discord and gumming up phone banks, literature drops and other campaign operations. McMinoway then found work on McGovern’s security staff where, at the Democratic National Convention, he had access to the campaign headquarters and the hotel suite where McGovern was staying. McMinoway watched the proceedings on the convention floor on television with McGovern and wrote in his diary: “It is amazing how easy it would be to be right in the midst of all the operations and planning and yet be an enemy.”
Congressional investigators, and reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein at the Washington Post, chipped away at the secrecy imposed by Nixon’s aides at the White House and CREEP, but Nixon successfully stonewalled until the spring of 1973 when McCord and other aides crumbled under the threat of lengthy prison sentences, and told their story to federal prosecutors.
Stone left the episode with the firm conviction that his hero had been railroaded. “Far from being a perpetrator, Nixon was a victim … of a conspiracy by the judges, lawyers, press and committee that relentlessly persecuted him,” Stone would write.
Stone survived the FBI and Watergate committee probes—he had broken no laws—and went on to join Paul Manafort and Charles Black as the Republican principals in the lobbying and political consulting firm that began as Black, Manafort and Stone in 1980. They were young Reaganites then and—especially after the slyly brilliant strategist Lee Atwater signed on—the firm was like a rock and roll superstar group: the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young of conservative politics.
There was a touch of Nixonian devilry about Black, Manafort, Stone & Atwater, and about Stone’s subsequent career as a political consultant. Alongside mainstream clients like the Tobacco Institute and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, the firm represented a few unsavory foreign leaders like Zaire’s Mobuto Sese Seko, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Angola’s UNITA rebel movement. Atwater grew famous in 1988 when, as a campaign manager for George H.W. Bush, he oversaw a negative campaign that Atwater himself would later characterize as “naked cruelty” when making a deathbed apology to Democrat Michael Dukakis. Stone was a consultant to the campaign, but in a 2008 profile in the New Yorker, told writer Jeffrey Toobin that he had cautioned Atwater against the use of racially inflammatory tactics.
In the years before Nixon’s death in 1994, the former president mounted a comeback campaign as an author, retired statesman and adviser on foreign affairs. Stone was happy to help. They scheduled dinners for the nation’s leading political reporters at the former president’s home. After meals of exquisite Chinese cuisine, Nixon would give the group a dazzling tour d’horizon of international affairs, and domestic politics.
“Nixon had both a dark side and a light side,” Stone would write in a 2014 biography of the man he described as his “boyhood hero.” Nixon “achieved great things and sometimes used hardball tactics. He was a man of ideas married to an innate political pragmatism coupled with the interests of a survivor. He could be magnanimous as well as venal.”
“I was drawn to Richard Nixon not because of his philosophy: he had none,” Stone wrote.
Stone felt that kind of magnetism again, when he met Donald Trump—a fellow Nixon admirer—in 1979. In fact, Stone once said, in an appearance on C-SPAN in 2017, “It was Nixon who first saw the potential for a Trump presidency.” As Stone tells it, Nixon met Trump in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium in the late 1980s and called Stone the next day.
“Well, I met your man,” Nixon told Stone. “I gotta tell you, he’s got it.” Shortly thereafter, Trump and Nixon bonded on a trip to Texas, said Stone. And Stone first signed on as an adviser to Trump.
The relationship has, at times, been rocky. “Roger is a stone-cold loser,” Trump told Toobin in 2008. “He always tries taking credit for things he never did.” But when Trump ran for president, it was Stone Trump called for advice late at night.
And now here we are: Stone, who emerged from Watergate unscathed, has been implicated in another massive political scandal. The indictment made public on Friday charges that an unidentified senior Trump campaign official assigned Stone the task of gathering information on the hacked Democratic Party emails and, later, that Stone stonewalled attempts by U.S. officials to see if the campaign worked with the Russians to affect the outcome of the 2016 election.
The actual charges were classically Nixonian: witness tampering, obstruction of justice and making false statements to Congress to cover-up details of the Trump campaign’s association with the Russians. It is hard not to think that, given a chance for some latter-day ratfucking, Stone allegedly crossed a line. Based on the current allegations, he appears to have neglected the advice that Nixon gave aides during Watergate: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up, that brings you down.
Stone’s biography of Nixon, Tricky Dick, presents more than a few byzantine conspiracy tales. It has also left more traditionalist Nixon-lovers upset about some salacious anecdotes concerning the late president’s drinking and sex life, which perhaps explains the Nixon Foundation tweets. But as Truman Capote once said: “A boy has to peddle his book.”
It was Stone’s relationship with Nixon—Nixon in exile—that I came to talk about in that bistro back in October, 2014. And as I watched Stone this week, defiant in the face of criminal charges, blitzing cable news channels to defend himself, I couldn’t help but think about our conversation. It was off-the-record, but Stone never veered far from what he has written about his idol.
“I saw Nixon up close. He was brilliant, devious, insightful … sometimes less than truthful,” Stone wrote. “It was his sheer resilience and his will to compete and win that I admired.”
And the tattoo?
“I wear it as a reminder,” Stone wrote: “One must always get up from the mat and fight again.”
- Longtime Trump ally Roger Stone pleads not guilty in Russia probe case
- Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort sentenced to nearly 4 years in prison
- U.S. federal judge gives ex-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort 73 months
- Donald Trump quotes an iconic poem written by Scott Morrison's great-great aunt at a lavish state dinner in the White House's Rose Garden in front of the who's who of Australia and the US
- Donald Trump is branded a 'disgrace' who 'undermines' the Special Relationship between the UK and the US by furious British politicians after he refuses to send diplomat's wife back to face justice after she killed a teen in a road accident
- Harry Dunn's mother slams 'oafish and insulting' Donald Trump after he defends US spy's wife who killed her son in crash because it's difficult 'driving on wrong side of road' - then flashes note revealing she WON'T face justice in Britain
- Trump Taps Betsy DeVos and Ben Carson for Cabinet Positions, Sends Rest of Us to Hell
- What You Need to Know About The Witcher 3's Hearts of Stone Expansion
- Angela Merkel and Donald Trump head for clash at G20 summit
- No Wuckin’ Furries Mate: A Chat with Stone’s Writer, Director, and Programmer