Politics & Government

In the bizarro world of Roger Stone, being bad is good. At least until Friday’s arrest

Roger Stone arrested by FBI

Roger Stone, President Trump's long-time associate, was arrested by the FBI on January 25, 2019 on charges stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation. Stone has denied wrongdoing but was expecting he'd be charged.
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Roger Stone, President Trump's long-time associate, was arrested by the FBI on January 25, 2019 on charges stemming from the special counsel’s Russia investigation. Stone has denied wrongdoing but was expecting he'd be charged.

“It’s always better to be talked about than not talked about,” Roger Stone, longtime confidant of President Donald Trump, once told the Miami Herald in an interview. “And the biggest sin in politics is to be boring.”

Stone has committed plenty of sins, but not that one. By his own admission — “boast” is probably a better word — he has been playing dirty political tricks for fun and money since rigging his first-grade classroom’s straw ballot on the 1960 election.

Friday in the pre-dawn hours, Stone’s Fort Lauderdale home was raided by FBI agents in full tactical gear. He was arrested on a seven-count indictment for witness tampering, obstruction and lying to the House intelligence committee about stolen Democratic Party emails posted by the document-leaking organization WikiLeaks in the final weeks of the campaign, the latest size 13 shoe to drop in the Robert Mueller investigation.

Stone is expected to appear in federal court in Fort Lauderdale later Friday, and if the past is any indication, at least some small part of him will be preening at all the attention.

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From some minor peccadillos on the fringes of the Watergate scandal to directing the infamous and somewhat bizarre “Brooks Brothers riot” — a mob of elegantly clad Republican swells storming a Miami-Dade election office during the hanging-chad vote count in 2000 — Stone has directed any number of illicit electoral activities that (at least until now) had skirted the ragged edge of legality but never quite crossed it.

Even as it became clear over the past 18 months that the special counsel’s office was circling in on him, Stone never deleted from his website the brags that he was “the dapper don of dirty deeds” and “the undisputed master of the black arts of electioneering.”

In his 2014 interview, he proudly discussed two of his books, which take a decidedly unconventional view of two of two of the most notorious chapters of 20th century American history — the Kennedy assassination and Watergate.

In Stone’s view, President Kennedy was murdered not by Lee Harvey Oswald but by a serial killer — his own vice president, Lyndon Johnson. And the Watergate scandal was not about President Nixon’s dirty political tricks, but, umm, hookers.

This, at least, is the world according to Stone, who saved the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush (or, depending on your perspective, stole it from Al Gore) and now styles himself an “alternative historian.”

“I know a lot people don’t like to hear this; they think it’s crazy or partisan,” Stone said at the time, “But they’re wrong. The evidence is there.”

Some people clearly don’t mind hearing Stone’s theories. Last year, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, his book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, hit the New York Times best-seller list. Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth About the President, Watergate and the Pardon, published in August, is hovering on Amazon.com’s top 25 political books and nearing a second printing.

Despite the books’ success, they have not won Stone much admiration from mainstream journalists or historians. “His Kennedy book is totally full of all kinds of crap,” veteran investigative reporter Hugh Aynesworth, who covered the assassination for the Dallas Morning News and spent much of his life debunking conspiracy theories about it, declared at the time of the interview. Added Max Holland, a historian who has written extensively about both the assassination and Watergate: “He’s out of his ever-lovin’ mind.”

Stone, who wallows lasciviously in insults from his enemies the way other people do in bubble baths (his stonezone.com website lists three dozen or so as if they were glowing endorsements) is unconcerned.

Schooled by rough-and-tumble politicians including his idol Nixon (whose face is tattooed on Stone’s back) and Joe McCarthy’s snarling attorney, Roy Cohn, Stone’s aptitude for political necromancy is the stuff of political legend. The Village Voice once called him “the most dangerous person in America today,” and, yes, that’s one of the epithets Stone delightedly displays on his website.

His affinity for dirty tricks extends literally back to his childhood, when he rigged his first-grade classroom’s straw ballot on the 1960 election by warning the other kids that Nixon, if elected, would force them to go to school on Saturdays. “I was for Kennedy for the best of reasons,” Stone explained. “He had better hair.”

Later, working for Nixon during the former president’s post-Watergate political exile, Stone confessed his youthful treachery. Nixon laughed: “You should have gone to work for Bobby,” the Kennedy family political enforcer.

Since moving to South Florida from Washington, D.C., in the weeks after 9/11 (“I could see the smoke of the Pentagon from my office, and that was it for me”) Stone said in the interview he bides his time between elections by working with corporate clients (particularly if they’re interested in building casinos) and conducting small-scale insurgencies against local pols and journalists who’ve annoyed him — seemingly as much for his own amusement as anything else. He also took a break from the Republican Party, helping run former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s 2012 Libertarian presidential campaign after concluding that he “absolutely could not abide Mitt Romney.”

But his most visible work has been on his books. The Man Who Killed Kennedy essentially argues that Lyndon Johnson shot his way into the White House, ordering the deaths of nearly a score of men over the course of his political career — the last of them Kennedy, gunned down by a convicted Texas murderer named Malcolm Wallace who was “Lyndon Johnson’s personal hit man.”

Wallace, who died in an auto accident in 1971, is just one of several raffish — and deceased — Texas characters whose misanthropic adventures make up the foundation of the book. They include notorious fertilizer swindler Billie Sol Estes and a convicted forger named Madeleine Brown who claimed to have been LBJ’s mistress for nearly two decades. (Her son unsuccessfully filed a paternity suit against the Johnson family.) Their remonstrations have been widely rejected by historians and political scientists.

Nixon’s Secrets, though, has attracted more scholarly support. Two-thirds of the book is a conventional biography that is by no means a whitewash of Nixon. Stone writes that the president took campaign money from the mob, had a long-running affair with a Hong Kong woman who may have been a Chinese spy, and even once unwittingly smuggled three pounds of marijuana into the United States when carrying the suitcase of jazz great Louis Armstrong.

The book’s take on Watergate, though, is far more unconventional. It portrays Nixon as mostly, though not entirely, the scandal’s confused victim rather than its bad guy. The real mastermind: John Dean, the White House attorney who eventually became a folk hero of sorts by testifying against Nixon and his henchmen.

Dean, Stone writes, was actually the one who ordered the abortive burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington’s Watergate complex that touched off the scandal. Stone believes Dean was seeking not secret campaign plans but to remove evidence that might link his fiancée, Maureen Biner, to a ring of prostitutes that was servicing visiting DNC politicians.

That sounds preposterous. But the existence of the prostitution ring, which was run from apartment building next to the Watergate, is well documented, as is the fact that its customers included some Democratic Party officials. (And Republicans, too.) The FBI had raided the offices of its lawyer the week before the Watergate burglary.

Stone writes that it was run by an ex-stripper named Heidi Rikan, Biner’s friend and former roommate. The burglars had a key to a desk where pictures of the hookers were kept, he says, and one of the phones they were trying to bug, located in an office that was usually unoccupied, was used mostly to arrange dates with the prostitutes.

John Dean, reached by the Miami Herald at his Los Angeles home at the time of the interview, refused to comment on the allegations. But he and Maureen Biner, who’ve been married four decades now, sued the authors of a 1992 book that made similar claims about the prostitution ring, a suit that was settled out of court after nine years of legal infighting.

Some historians who’ve investigated the theory that the Watergate burglary had less to do with politics than party girls have dismissed it. Anthony Summers, author of The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, says he spent a great deal of time on the hooker theory and could find no evidence that Maureen Biner or any of her friends were connected to the prostitution ring, or that it triggered the burglary.

“It is an unresolved lead and certainly not one that can be dismissed,” he told the Herald. But he added: “It has also been reported in ways that can be considered more conspiracy theory than reliable reporting.”

There is, however, a small but growing group of journalists and historians known as the Watergate Revisionists, a label first applied to them derisively but which they now wear proudly. And they all applaud Stone’s book.

“I’m glad Roger’s book is getting attention,” journalist Phil Stanford at the time of the earlier interview. He’s the author of White House Call Girl: The Real Watergate Story, a 2013 revisionist work. “Stone is one of those rare political insiders who knows the score but doesn’t shy away from saying what incredibly dirty business it all is.”

Focusing on Dean and the call-girl ring, Stone said, solves one of the central mysteries of Watergate: What the hell were the burglars thinking?

“There is no good political reason for that burglary,” Stone argued. “Nixon was ahead of [Democratic candidate] George McGovern by 19 percent in the polls, on his way to a 49-state blowout in the election. And what are you going to find in the offices of the Democratic National Committee? Everybody knows the real action is at the candidate’s campaign headquarters, not the party offices.”

Stone, though only a teenage Nixon campaign worker at the time, skated along the edges of the Watergate scandal. He pulled a couple of minor dirty tricks, including running a spy inside the McGovern campaign, and was, quite by accident, one of the first to know that the burglars had been arrested and that the Nixon reelection committee was involved.

Stone, house-sitting for an absent campaign official, was eating pizza when the phone rang. The caller identified himself as James McCord, and asked Stone to take a message for his boss. “Tell him I’m in the lockup, and tell him the jig is up,” McCord said.

“I remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound good at all,’” Stone recalled, a conviction that only deepened the next morning when he read in the paper that McCord was one of five men arrested inside the Watergate. And, as the Nixon reelection committee adamantly insisted over the next few weeks that it wasn’t connected to the burglary, Stone knew it was lying.

It did not daunt his admiration for Nixon, which had already survived any number of presidential actions — wage-and-price controls, abandonment of the gold standard, doubling of social-welfare spending — that offended Stone’s conservative political leanings.

“Nixon was never a conservative,” Stone said. “Would a conservative have recognized Red China? Would a conservative have started detente with the Soviet Union? But I bought into the argument that conservatives had to work from within the Republican Party, even when it wasn’t behaving conservatively. Where else were we going to go?”

He also loved the way Nixon could take a punch. Scorned by the press as a red-baiting yahoo, nearly dumped as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice-presidential running mate in 1952 over a political slush fund (he saved himself with his famous “Checkers” speech, which ended with a maudlin but effective salute to the family dog) and left for politically dead after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, Nixon refused to give up.

Stone’s affection redoubled when Nixon recast himself as a senior statesman after resigning the presidency in 1974.

“I love his perseverance, his indestructibility,” Stone said in the interview. “I love his feeling that when you get knocked down, defeated, discouraged, you have an obligation to pick yourself up and get back in the game. It’s his personality that attracted me, not anything ideological.”

That personality was complex and often contradictory, as Stone learned when he worked closely with Nixon during the twilight of the former president’s life, arranging off-the-record chats with journalists and politicians. Most receptive audience: Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

“When I brought Reagan a memo from Nixon, Nancy would always say, ‘Ronnie, listen to what Dick has to say. He’s smart,’” says Stone. “And Reagan did listen. During the 1984 campaign, Reagan looked a little weak during his first debate with [Democratic candidate] Walter Mondale. I hand-carried a long memo to Reagan from Nixon that said, ‘Don’t try to hide from the age thing. (Reagan, at 73, would be the oldest man ever to be elected president.) Make a joke about it.’

“In the next debate, somebody, sure enough, asked Reagan if age was a problem. And Reagan, totally deadpan, says, ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ Everybody roared, and that was the end of Mondale.”

There was Nixon the canny political analyst. But there were other Nixons, especially when he drank and let down his guard a bit. (Favorite libation: The vodka martinis he called silver bullets, mixed according to a recipe Nixon got from Winston Churchill.

“He’s adept at showing the Nixon he wants you to see,” Stone remembered. “He’s a paradox. He’s brilliant but obtuse. Confident but paranoid. He clearly had sides, a dark one and a light one. He is really very private. Just to walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, I’m Dick Nixon and I’m running for office’ was extraordinarily difficult.”

Stone’s fascination with and devotion to Nixon extends well past the tattoo on his back, which he got about 10 years ago when “I was in California, I was drunk, and it seemed like a good idea.” (He originally intended to add the faces of Reagan, Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, but has held back because, “to be honest, it hurt like a son of a bitch.”)

He is one of the world’s foremost collectors of Nixon ephemera, with several thousand objects ranging from campaign buttons to 45 rpm records of his speeches stashed way inside his consulting-company office in Fort Lauderdale. There are Nixon punching bags and Nixon action figures and even a couple of Nixon bongs. (Yes, the kind used to smoke marijuana; Stone doesn’t know exactly who marketed them, but it’s probably a safe guess that they weren’t licensed by the Nixon estate.)

It looked like just the sort of room from which something like the ill-famed Brooks Brothers Riot might have been plotted. But Stone said he lit the fuse for that one from a trailer outside the Miami-Dade Government Center, where election officials were wrangling over a recount of the hanging-chad ballots of the closer-than-a-gnat’s-whisker 2000 presidential election between Bush and Gore.

If anyone was guilty of dirty tricks, Stone insisted in the interview, it was the officials inside who wanted to recount the ballots. “It was all an act on their party, the Great Karnak,” Stone said, hand on forehead as Johnny Carson used to do in his mind-reading skits. “‘Oh, this guy meant to vote for Gore, no matter what his ballot says.’”

While the election officials went about their nefarious tasks, Stone said, he was outside in the Republican trailer, innocently spying on the walkie-talkie communications of Democrats. (”Not that they had anything worth listening to.”) Then one of his operatives called from inside the courthouse. An electorial canvasser and a Democratic operative had picked up a stack of ballots and were headed for a closed, windowless room, Stone’s minion said. What should be done?

“Follow them!” Stone barked. “And whatever you do, don’t let them close the door!”

A stream of shouts — Get off of me! Mind your own business! — echoed through Stone’s walkie-talkie. “They’re trying to close the door!” shouted Stone’s man. “Break it down! Break it down!” Stone shouted back. The screaming, foot-stomping mob that poured into the courthouse may have been chasing a phantasm — it was reported later that what was being taken into the closed room were sample ballots rather than the real thing — but it did its work well. Within two hours, election officials voted to shut down the recount.

Dirty trick? Stone said at the time of the interview that’s in the eye of the beholder: “One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civic participation. I didn’t do anything illegal. Everything was protected by the First Amendment. In this world, you’ve got to be bold.”

Stone has always been the happy warrior of political connivery, exuberant in discussing his talents for duplicity and double-dealing. But recently there have been signs that the special counsel investigation was exhausting his gleeful approach to dirty tricks.

“I’ve been under a two-year microscope, in which every aspect of my life has been examined,” he told Fox News in an interview Thursday, just hours before his arrest. “My personal life, my family life, my private life, my business life, my political life. And that has been extremely draining.”

His legal expenses and the drying up of his political consulting work -- politicians shy from employing anybody under investigation by the FBI — had burned through his savings and forced him to sell his car and give up his health insurance, Stone said.

“I struggle to pay my lawyers first and foremost, pay my rent, pay my taxes,” a subdued Stone said. “It is not a fun existence.”

This story has been updated to correct the county where the “Brooks Brothers riot” occurred.

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