Flamboyant political trickster and Barnum-esque huckster Roger Stone was arrested last week as part of the out-of-control Mueller investigation into alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 presidential election. Stone’s arrest suggests the desperation in Mueller’s witch hunt.
Stone himself is an endlessly fascinating individual, and I have a soft-spot for over-the-top confidence men, which is essentially what Stone is (or how he presents himself). In reading some of the news coverage about his arrest, I stumbled upon a 2007 profile of the famed master of the dark arts, “Roger Stone, Political Animal.”
The author is Matt Labash, one of the best long-form writers the now-defunct The Weekly Standard ever employed. I’ve totally written off The Weekly Standard as a pathologically anti-Trump publication, especially with Bill Kristol going off the deep end politically (and maybe psychologically), actively encouraging the FBI’s mendacious, corrupt attempts to overthrow the duly-elected President of the United States.
That said, Labash is an excellent writer. When I taught US Government regularly, I would assign students another Labash piece, a lengthy profile of former Louisiana Governor (and convicted felon) Edwin Edwards, entitled “Conviction Politician.” Labash wrote that profile when Edwards, then 86, was attempting to run for Congress. Edwards would go on to lose that race—the first time he ever lost a run for office—but Labash’s profile made me want to vote for Edwards, and not because it casts the corrupt four-time governor in a positive light. Rather, Labash possesses a knack for drawing out the humor and humanity in deeply flawed, larger-than-life characters (some great Edwards quotes: he said the only way he’d lose an election was if he was “caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy”; when discussing Klansman David Duke, Edwards said the only thing they had in common was they’re “both wizards under the sheets”).
That jeweler’s eye for humanizing moral failure is beautifully apparent in the 2007 Stone profile. Labash is also sympathetic to his subject, without necessarily condoning his trickiness: unlike many reporters, Labash actually likes Roger Stone.
It’s also interesting reading about politics pre-2015-2016, what we might call “B.T.”: “Before Trump.” That’s especially the case when Donald Trump is involved (Stone, a longtime Trump friend and ally, only half-jokingly called Trump the p-word in reference to a botched run for the Reform Party nomination early in this century). It’s hard to conceive now, after four years of Trumpism, of a time when The Donald didn’t dominate our political discussions, when we basically debated the merits between two or more members of both parties’ elites (I don’t completely buy the “Uniparty” theory—there were clearly important philosophical differences between Romney and Obama, for example, in 2012—but I’m willing to concede that elites in both parties are two sides of the same elitist coin in terms of their interests and positions in life).
Reading about Roger Stone in a pre-Trump political age, on the cusp of the Great Recession and before even the meteoric rise of Barack Obama is fun and a bit disconcerting: it’s hard to remember exactly what it was like back then, as we’ve gone through the looking glass into a whole new paradigm. Such is the power of the red-pilling that came in the wake of Trump’s rise.
But this post is (ostensibly) about Stone. I highly recommend you carve out thirty minutes to read the Labash profile in full—after all, it’s Wednesday, and all the real work for the week got done Monday or will get done hastily Friday morning, before you ease your way into the weekend. I had a hard time finding a “representative sample” to highlight from this piece, but I settled (and not entirely to my satisfaction) on this excerpt discussing a young Stone’s possible roll in splitting the Liberal Party of New York’s vote from the Democrats, giving Ronald Reagan the edge—and New York’s electoral votes—in 1980:
Stone, who going back to his class elections in high school has been a proponent of recruiting patsy candidates to split the other guy’s support, remembers suggesting to Cohn that if they could figure out a way to make John Anderson the Liberal party nominee in New York, with Jimmy Carter picking up the Democratic nod, Reagan might win the state in a three-way race. “Roy says, ‘Let me look into it.'” Cohn then told him, “‘You need to go visit this lawyer’–a lawyer who shall remain nameless–‘and see what his number is.’ I said, ‘Roy, I don’t understand.’ Roy says, ‘How much cash he wants, dumbf–.'” Stone balked when he found out the guy wanted $125,000 in cash to grease the skids, and Cohn wanted to know what the problem was. Stone told him he didn’t have $125,000, and Cohn said, “That’s not the problem. How does he want it?”
Cohn sent Stone on an errand a few days later. “There’s a suitcase,” Stone says. “I don’t look in the suitcase . . . I don’t even know what was in the suitcase . . . I take the suitcase to the law office. I drop it off. Two days later, they have a convention. Liberals decide they’re endorsing John Anderson for president. It’s a three-way race now in New York State. Reagan wins with 46 percent of the vote. I paid his law firm. Legal fees. I don’t know what he did for the money, but whatever it was, the Liberal party reached its right conclusion out of a matter of principle.”
I ask him how he feels about this in retrospect. He seems to feel pretty good–now that certain statutes of limitations are up. He cites one of Stone’s Rules, by way of Malcolm X, his “brother under the skin”: “By any means necessary.” “Reagan got the electoral votes in New York State, we saved the country,” Stone says with characteristic understatement. “[More] Carter would’ve been an unmitigated disaster.”
Who knows if that story is true or not—after all, this is Roger Stone—but there’s no doubt the Liberal Party nominated Anderson, and Reagan won a plurality in the Empire State. If it’s true, Stone might have saved the Republic.
Labash’s piece also revealed to the world “Stone’s Rules,” which Stone has compiled into a book. From Labash:
[Stone] often sets his pronouncements off with the utterance “Stone’s Rules,” signifying listeners that one of his shot-glass commandments is coming down, a pithy dictate uttered with the unbending certitude one usually associates with the Book of Deuteronomy. Some original, some borrowed, Stone’s Rules address everything from fashion to food to how to screw people. And one of his favorite Stone’s Rules is “Unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business.” He is honest about his dishonesty. “Politics with me isn’t theater,” he admits. “It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake.”
The performance for the sake of itself is a recurring theme with Stone, who seems to embroil himself in controversy just for the thrill of it. He could have had a lucrative, quiet career in political consulting, but from reading Labash’s piece—and from watching Roger Stone on television and YouTube—that doesn’t seem like a life that would appeal to him.
That, in my mind, is the appeal of Stone—like Milo Yiannopolous, he relishes the dirt and grime of the arena, and he digs into it while dressed impeccably. He’s a despicable, perfidious, disreputable con man—and I love him for it.