Making Political Trouble
Roger Stone shows how it's done--again.
Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By MATT LABASH
Many of my conservative acquaintances weren't quite as forgiving, however. Clinton, these days, is a stuck record, speaking so often of "change" that she sounds like the medicine-show huckster in Tom Waits's "Step Right Up" (change your shorts / change your life / change into a nine-year-old Hindu boy / get rid of your wife). But I didn't notice any change at all in my email inbox in the aftermath of her surprise victory. In fact, it more than ever resembled a nostalgia trip back to 1998, the high-water mark of Clinton hatred.
Messages poured in expressing revulsion and woe, and described resulting adverse physical symptoms, including but not limited to: nausea, dizziness, insomnia, twitching, numbness, abdominal pain, myalgia, cutaneous lesions, and retching. One friend invited me to visit him in Bermuda, where he'll be relocating. The only silver lining that came my way was an email from the professional dirty trickster and high priest of political hijinks, Roger Stone. It was titled "the good news" and said, simply, "Out of NH C.U.N.T. lives . Gearing up!"
He wasn't referring to Hillary's chances in South Carolina. Rather, by using the most offensive word in the English language, the word people employ when the f-bomb has lost all potency (and the word I will henceforth replace with "special flower" so as not to give greater offense), he was referring to the acronym of his spanking-new anti-Hillary 527 group, Citizens United Not Timid (www.citizensunitednottimid.org).
After having just exhaustively profiled Stone in our November 5 issue ("Roger Stone, Political Animal: 'Above all, attack, attack, attack--never defend'") and detailed his misadventures--from working for Nixon's dirty-tricks squad to imploding the Reform party by pushing Donald Trump's candidacy to delivering suitcases full of cash at the direction of Roy Cohn to buy New York for Ronald Reagan--I didn't expect to visit Stone again so soon. But it seemed time. Perhaps feeling all Christmas-y and overtaken with goodwill toward men, Stone had conceived of the special-flower idea in December, then had shelved it after Iowa, when like everyone else he assumed Clinton was toast. But with Clinton's resurrection, he feels he has no choice but to unsheath his sword--not that he ever requires much encouragement.
In public, Stone is often expensively haberdashed to within an inch of his life. But on this day, he greets me at the door of his Miami Modern home in a casual Saturday-morning rig: camouflage cargo shorts and a Nixon/Agnew T-shirt. We are followed to his backyard by a herd of barking Yorkies and a three-legged Wheaten Terrier named Oscar that he and Mrs. Stone (as he calls his wife, Nydia) rescued when they found him bloodied and abandoned beside a highway.
We take a seat at a glass poolside table in his lush backyard, filled with bougainvillea, cacti, and tomato plants. The dogs beg for finger food, and when it's not forthcoming, one of them happily munches on some of Mrs. Stone's impatiens. "Don't eat those," Stone shouts. "Welcome to the Stone dogpile." While his property has twice been whacked by hurricanes ("Everything you see that's green was mud"), today it's dominated by the peaceful metronomic swells of Biscayne Bay lapping against the yard's seawall, as we await the arrival of his Citzens United Not Timid crew for its inaugural meeting.
Stone is not going to be out front on this one--"You can't be the candidate and the campaign manager." So he anxiously awaits the arrival of his organization's titular figurehead, Jeff "Noodles" Jones, who is a local bartender/DJ (and who is called "Noodles" because of his resemblance to Robert De Niro's character in Once Upon a Time in America), along with his "handler," Scotty. "Why does Noodles require a handler?" I ask. "What time is it, eleven?" asks Stone. "He was supposed to be here an hour ago, if that tells you anything. Noodles would never get here on his own steam."
Even among fellow mercenaries, good help can be hard to find. A few nights prior, Stone had been interviewing a sinister Italian gentleman for the front man gig. It was a two-question interview. Stone kicked things off with, "Let me ask you, Angelo: I say 'Hillary Clinton.' Tell me the first word that comes to your mind, even if it's risqué." "[Special flower]," Angelo immediately replied. To which Stone followed with, "Would you be willing to tell other people you think that?" Angelo assented: "Abso-f'in'-lutely."
With the interview concluded, Angelo excused himself to the restroom, at which time one of Stone's friends asked, "Do you know who that is?" "No," Stone said, "Who is he? Nice guy." His friend explained, "He's one of the soldiers of the Lucchese family, has a record as long as your arm. I don't think he's the guy you want." Advantage: Noodles.
Stone says Angelo's is a sentiment you regularly hear, particularly from males, if you casually focus-group Hillary Clinton in bars--where this and "all good ideas" are hatched. The operation's genesis occurred when Stone was standing around with friends at a bar, Clinton appeared on television, and someone said "What a [special flower]." Everyone immediately concurred.
The crew slowly materializes. Stone's lawyer and webmaster are available by phone. Miss Money-penny, Stone's Australian-born assistant nicknamed after M's secretary in the James Bond films, arrives to sort out the tax filings and artwork. A piercing horn sounds from across the bay, as a solar-paneled tugboat flying a peace flag and blasting Grateful Dead music anchors within 100 yards of Stone's house. The captain, in a white skipper's hat, disembarks, paddling his kayak the rest of the way ashore. It's August West, Stone's frequent co-conspirator, pseudonymously named after a character in the Grateful Dead song "Wharf Rat."
While casually attired in Key-West-wear (a dancing-bears Grateful Dead T-shirt and swimsuit), West has picked up some of Stone's attention to sartorial detail. He switches his skipper's hat for a straw number modeled after the one worn by Darren McGavin in the '70s show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. "Wear a captain's hat on land," West says, "and you look like a dork." Having started as Stone's driver back during Stone's days as a D.C. political consultant, West has gone on to do crisis communications work for everyone from the contras, to the party linked to the Salvadoran death squads ("not my proudest moment," he admits), to the Afghan freedom fighters ("getting Ladies' Home Journal editors to ride camels through the Khyber Pass," he says, his dignity restored).
He, like Stone, has engineered a slew of 527s, the organizations named after the tax code section of the same number. In these puritanical McCain-Feingold-stricken times, such groups (from MoveOn.org to the anti-John Kerry Swiftboaters for Truth) have rapidly come to resemble the Wild-West outlaws of political speech. They are allowed to solicit unlimited contributions and practice all manner of often thinly veiled "issue education," so long as they don't explicitly advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate.
"It's the last vestige of political free speech rights in this country," Stone says, bitterly and defiantly. "Money is speech," the First-Amendment absolutist rails. "It's incongruous to say a multimillionaire can spend as much on his own campaign as he wants, but you can only give $2,300. His free speech rights are different from yours, thus violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. It's absurd."
Despite the constant meddling of campaign-finance-reform busybodies, there is a certain liberation that comes with staying out of political campaigns proper and running your own 527. "A 527 doesn't have a wife," Stone explains. "It doesn't have a brother-in-law who knows a lot about politics, or a union president who calls and doesn't like the color of the suit, or bimbo eruptions. It's the perfect candidate, because it has no personal characteristics."
Both Stone and West are mostly mum, at least on the record, about the 527s they've run, saying they handle everything from agricultural interests, to "marking up" industry opponents (driving their negatives), to keeping slots out of racetracks, to getting slots into racetracks (the 527 racket is not the province of moral absolutists). When I ask why all the secrecy, and why I have to refer to West by an alias out of the Grateful Dead's songbook, West responds, "Each one has a small reason why we can't talk. There's not a thematic reason."
"There's people who would sue us if they knew who we were," says Stone. "Or shoot us," adds West. I laugh, but West is dead serious. "That just happened to Oleg," he says, referring to one of their operatives on the ground in a recent Ukrainian parliamentary campaign. "Our guy in Ukraine took five to the chest," says Stone, of a colleague who two months ago bought it in a hail of gunfire outside the family home in Borispol. "It's unfortunate it happened right after he tried to cut us out and snag the contract for himself," Stone says, with some karmic satisfaction.
"We were doing some very aggressive email marketing," West says. Sometimes in 527-world, words can wound, literally. "So as a rule, I don't put my name on anything unless I'm a front guy," explains West, in which case, he charges 40 percent over regular fees. When asked why he's willing to sign his name to the Citizens United Not Timid caper, Stone, who most often operates in the shadows and is not typically driven by civic conscience, says, "The entire future of the United States is at stake. There comes a time when you've got to stand up."
I ask Stone to tell me more about Noodles before his arrival. He'd like to help me out, but can't: "I've only known the guy for 15 minutes." Noodles and Scotty finally show. Scotty is a wall of savagely tanned muscle. Noodles has elected to go gangster-casual, sporting his Philadelphia Flyers hat, a white T-shirt, and a liberal smattering of tattoos--everything from the dogtags of his siblings who have served in Iraq to his birth date, which one imagines comes in handy if he ever forgets it when, say, filling out tax forms to front Citizens United Not Timid.
Not wishing Stone to fall into another Lucchese-family trap, I ask Noodles if he has a criminal record. "No," he says. Not even any outstanding speeding tickets? "No, I'm pretty good," he reiterates. I ask if he's ready for the glare of the white-hot media spotlight. "Sure, if you wanna give it to me, I'll take it," he says, nonchalantly. On the side, I tell Stone that for a spokesman, Noodles is a man of few words. "Precisely," says Stone. "That's the idea. People won't be calling Noodles. People will email Noodles. Noodles is what's known as a nonexecutive chair. Everything you want to say is on the website. You don't need to say anything else."
Stone calls the meeting to order, as he taps the ash of a thick cigar into a Club Habana ashtray. "Dominican," he says, by way of identification. West, a Deadhead to the last, smokes something that's not a cigar and that smells sweeter. "Hawaiian," he tells me. Stone opens with an old groaner about why the woman he calls "Miss Queeny of Bossy-land" can't wear miniskirts. Scotty and Noodles like it. Miss Moneypenny, not as enthusiastic, tells him he'd benefit from a rimshot. "After half his life," adds West.
Stone wants everyone to understand the mission of the organization, simply and elegantly captured in its artwork, which Stone shows us. It features a red inverted triangle at the bottom of which, is a blue triangle with a white star in the middle. At first glance, it kind of looks like the Puerto Rican flag, or Captain America's martini glass. Stone designed it himself, and on second glance, it's meant to whisper, not scream, "special flower."
The text underneath it reads "Citizens United Not Timid, a 527 Organization To Educate The American Public About What Hillary Clinton Really Is." The artwork and text are, it turns out, the entirety of the "education." Stone says the website will feature an attractive model in the organization's T-shirt, which can be yours for a "donation" of $25 or more. And it will also feature a rolling tally of people who agree with the statement that's not quite stated, something like "the population billboard in Times Square that's constantly increasing because some baby is born in Botswana."
In addition to this website being blast-emailed to hundreds of thousands of addresses that Stone and West have accumulated over the years (working off over 170 different email lists of everyone from opinion-makers to political activists to industry associations), Stone is counting on T-shirt sales to further serve as "billboard education." He figures the whole thing will end up taking on a viral nature, thanks to the yuks factor.
"The more people go to the site, the more people buy the T-shirts," Stone explains to the troops. "The more people buy the T-shirts, the more people wear the T-shirts. The more people wear the T-shirts, the more people are educated. Consequently, our mission has been achieved." Though neither the word itself nor even the acronym is ever mentioned, "it's one-word education. That's our mission. No issues. No policy groups. No position papers. This is a simple committee with an unfortunate acronym. Addendums, deletions? Everybody's down?"
I ask Stone if he's a little worried about people confusing his "organization" with Citizens United, the Floyd-Brown founded anti-Clinton group. "We have no connection. Those guys are irresponsible," he says with a smile.
After Noodles signs off on an IRS application for an employer identification number and a declaration for electronic filing of notice of Section 527 status (the only paperwork required besides periodic informational filings down the road), he and Scotty leave, perhaps to get more tattoos. Starting your own 527 is ridiculously easy, Stone's lawyer, Rolly, tells me. "The application to create a 501c(3) is about 60 pages, requires about 20 hours or more of lawyering time, and takes six to nine months to get reviewed or approved. A 527 we'll set up in 20 minutes." As an expert in 527 law, Rolly offers the considered professional opinion that, while Stone cannot use his 527 to advocate the defeat of Clinton, he can use it to tell the truth about her. Speaking as a lawyer, he adds, "I will go to my grave saying it's true that Hillary Clinton is a [special flower]."
While Stone and co. seem quite pleased with their plan, I'm a little puzzled. "That's it?" I ask Stone. "It's a simple joke," he says. "It's not War and Peace." There was, however, he wishes me to know, considerable deliberation that went into this. In barroom focus groups, when he asked people to describe Clinton in one word, "bitch" came up a lot more often, with both men and women, than did "special flower."
"The truth is, we sat around for hours trying to come up with words for B.I.T.C.H. and just couldn't do it," admits Stone. "Try it," West encourages, "Start with 'b'--it has to be a noun." I'm stumped. "Bureau, actually," says Stone. "That's as far as we got. Now take it away, Matt."
It'd be easy to assume from the nature of this campaign that Stone and West are nothing more than mouth-breathing rightwing Neanderthals. But that wouldn't be quite right. West, in fact, hates George W. Bush and is utterly disgusted with the way Republicans have conducted themselves the last several years. A lifelong Republican, he wants to clean his own house, and says to do that, "you have to flush twice," meaning get rid of both Bush and the Republicans. While he's still undecided (he likes McCain), he says he'd be open to voting and even working for Barack Obama.
Stone, for his part, aside from the gimmickry and T-shirt sales, is trying to tap into deep-seated sentiments about Clinton that pundits and rival candidates can't articulate. Hatred of her is often not coldly logical, but visceral, and whether or not it is acknowledged, it exists in large volume. Despite her reinventions, she is, Stone says, "what Citizens United Not Timid stands for. You can be whittled, sanded, varnished. But you can't transcend your own essence. At the end of the day, she is who she always was."
It's Stone's position that wingnuts have spent a decade and a half demonizing Clinton's ideology, which is a waste of time, since she doesn't have much of one. As a committed phony (the reason Stone so dislikes her), Clinton is all about winning. And Stone warns that "Republicans who say, 'We can't wait to run against Hillary, we'll kick her ass,' are just wrong. We're gonna be in a 51/49 election with her no matter who our nominee is. [The Clintons] are wily people, who'll say and do anything. It's not a rollover."
Simultaneously, he wants to remind Democrats, currently chin-tugging over niceties like electability and who makes the better change-agent, that if Hillary is the nominee, a hard 527 rain is going to fall. There is only one candidate in this election who can universally mobilize conservatives, and as evident from the variety of primary victors, none of them is a Republican. It's Hillary Clinton. If you thought the late '90s were ugly, just wait.
Is his Citizens United Not Timid campaign tasteless, outrageous, and completely over the line? Absolutely, he admits, and he's counting on people thinking so. "If you're not controversial, you'll never break through the din of all the commentary," he says. If people don't like his anti-Hillary 527, they can start their own. In fact, West says people already have: "Right now, there are guys like us preparing to do the same thing all over the country."
And if Hillary gets the nomination, it might be awhile before all the 527 warriors man their battle stations, and it ought to be quite a show after the political conventions, when both parties have to rely on public financing, and outside forces start pouring it on. "After that," Stone warns, "a thousand special flowers will bloom."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.