Making Political Trouble
Roger Stone shows how it's done--again.
Jan 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 19 • By MATT LABASH
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."