The Magazine

Roger Stone, Political Animal

"Above all, attack, attack, attack--never defend."

Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By MATT LABASH
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New York/Miami

Being a skilled confidence man is both a blessing and a curse. If you truly excel at the long con, raising it to a form of art, marks will never know they've been taken. But if you become renowned for such artistry, when it is synonymous with
your very name, people never believe you're off the grift, even when you're playing straight.

Such is the life of Roger Stone, political operative, Nixon-era dirty trickster, professional lord of mischief. It's hard to assume he's not up to something, because he always is. He once said of himself, "If it rains, it was Stone." For that's the view most people take of him. Three years ago, everyone from the DNC's Terry McAuliffe to the leftwing blogosphere blamed him for leaking George W. Bush's forged Air National Guard records, the ones that looked like they would damn Bush, but ultimately blew up Dan Rather's career. It's preposterous, he says, a triple bank shot that no one could ever have conceived of. "I get blamed for things I have nothing to do with," he says, somewhat wounded. But when asked about all the things he doesn't get blamed for that he does have something to do with, he thinks a bit, then shrugs. "It does balance itself out," he says.

Naïfs might say he's a cancer on the body politic, everything that is wrong with today's system. But maybe he is just its purest distillation: Politics is war, and he is one of its fiercest warriors, with the battle scars to prove it.

The first time I laid eyes on Roger Stone he was standing poolside at a press conference on the roof of the Hotel L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills. With a horseshoe pinkie ring refracting rays from the California sun and a gangster chalk-stripe suit that looked like it had been exhumed from the crypt of Frank Costello, Stone was there to help his friend and longtime client Donald Trump explore a Reform party presidential candidacy in 2000.

Actually, it was more complicated than that. After having recruited Pat Buchanan to seek the nod ("You have to beat somebody," Stone says), he pushed Trump into the race. Trump relentlessly attacked Buchanan as having "a love affair with Adolf Hitler," but ended up folding. A weakened Buchanan went on to help the Reform party implode, and Republicans suffered no real third-party threat, as they had in 1992, thus helping Stone accomplish his objective. If, in fact, that was his objective. These things are often hard to keep track of with Roger Stone.

Trump's short-lived campaign provided lots of memorable Stone moments. There was the scene on the roof, where Stone, a dandy by disposition who boasts of having not bought off-the-rack since he was 17--he's now 56--taught reporters how to achieve perfect double-dimples underneath their tie knots, while providing them hand sanitizers should they want to shake hands with the germophobe Trump. Then there were the hardball negotiations he drove backstage at the Tonight Show, where he promised access to the dressing room, but only if we refrained from "making fun of Mr. Trump's hair" in print.

But the moment that has most stuck with me came after reporters had just watched Trump dispense invaluable life tips at a Tony Robbins seminar ("Get even. When somebody screws you, screw 'em back--but a lot harder"). Stone mounted the bus, which in Trumpian fashion was named "A Touch of Class," and announced, "I'm here. Who needs to be spun?"

It was a throwaway line, not even one of the serially quotable Stone's best, but the naked cynicism at the heart of it might be why his fans in the press corps over the years have called him things like "a state of the art sleaze-ball," "an extreme rightwing sleazeball," and the "boastful black prince of Republican sleaze" (the sleaze theme is popular). Color me contrarian, but I will say something I don't believe another Washington reporter has ever admitted publicly: I like Roger Stone.

Over the years, we've had our ups and downs: the occasional threats of litigation over some piece I was writing about one his clients, his playful stabs at blackmail over fabricated infractions (once accusing me of hitting on his wife at a Reform party convention by giving her my cell phone number, at a time when I had neither met her nor acquired a cell phone). He doesn't actually mean any of this, of course--he's just keeping in game-shape.