Like a lot of people, we somehow had gone through life blissfully unaware of the existence of rightwing sleazeball Roger Stone until he started popping up all over during Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; he always gets described as a Nixon-era dirty trickster, although his actual involvement with Nixon was more as a post-Watergate admirer, one of those slimy Young Republicans who thought the worst thing Nixon did was leaving evidence behind.
Now Stone’s career and political philosophy, such as it is, are the subject of the terrific new political documentary Get Me Roger Stone, produced for Netflix and released on the streaming service this weekend. Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme, the documentary pokes and prods at the self-made myth of Roger Stone, who’d like you to believe he’s a political genius, the dark master of hardball politics and the man largely responsible for both the nastiness of modern politics and the presidency of Donald Trump. Without pushing the point too insistently, the film invites us to be skeptical about that. While he’s definitely an éminence greasy behind the scenes of rightwing politics, Roger Stone is more than anything an expert image merchant, and his favorite product is Roger Stone. Oh, hey, here’s a trailer!
Fortunately, Get Me Roger Stone does more than just not screw up — the filmmakers know they’re dealing with a self-made chameleon, and they interview plenty of journalists and political experts who’ve tried to make sense of the amoral bastard. Even his onscreen supporters acknowledge Stone’s love for the dark side of politics — after all, it’s part of his image.
Many of the best lines come from Jeffrey Toobin, whose 2008 New Yorker profile is required reading in Roger Stone Studies. Toobin sums up Stone succinctly in the film’s first few minutes: “Roger is the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics. This Machiavellian, almost crazy guy who shows up at every key moment of American history.”
From the admiring but also sometimes skeeved-out Tucker Carlson (who actually comes off as not an asshole in this picture, a small surprise), there’s this: Stone “actually gets democracy in a way, I think, a lot of people who cover politics don’t. Democracy is the process of appealing to the majority.” Hold on a second. There’s a better word for that, at least as it’s practiced by Stone and his ilk: Demagoguery. There are more sources who are critical than supportive of Stone, but that’s not a problem — Stone does a fine job of selling himself.
Stone tells us a story — who knows, it might even be true, but don’t put money on it — of his very first political involvement, as an elementary schooler during the 1960 election. His mom was for Kennedy, so li’l Roger was, too, and he says that before his school’s mock election, he told every kid in the lunch line Nixon was for school on Saturdays, and Kennedy won the kiddie election in a landslide. “For the first time ever, I understood the value of disinformation,” Stone says, pleased with himself as always. “Of course, I’ve never practiced it since then.”
As for his brief engagement with Nixon’s 1972 campaign: he was dispatched to deliver a campaign contribution in the name of the “Young Socialist Alliance” to the New Hampshire headquarters of Republican liberal Pete McCloskey, where he was careful to get a receipt, which he promptly took to the Manchester Union-Leader in an attempt to call attention to McCloskey’s dangerous leftist tendencies. Stone calls the prank a “perfect example of of a dirty trick that had no purpose and no effect, but the Nixon people thought it was great” — and as far as we can tell, it’s the only actual dirty trick he ever worked for Nixon.
Not exactly Gordon Liddy stuff, but since his name showed up on a list of people paid with dirty CREEP money, 19-year-old Roger Stone became the youngest person to testify before the Watergate grand jury, and that was enough to build a reputation as a dirty trickster upon. And yes, years later he got that Nixon tattoo on his back, which he says represents Nixon’s “resilience.”
Stone ran Reagan’s 1980 campaign in three states, and claims to have identified (and maybe named, why not?) “Reagan Democrats” as a key portion of The Gipper’s base. Later in the 80’s, Stone dived into (or helped invent, according to some) the game of lobbying the government he helped elect, as part of the consulting agency, Black, Manafort & Stone. Yes, that would be Paul Manafort.
In addition to political consulting, the group did a thriving business lobbying for corrupt third-world dictators, and gained the nickname “the Torturers’ Lobby.” Toobin says the firm “in their brazenness, really created the modern sleazeball lobbyist” who would take any client, no matter how much blood on their hands, as long as they professed to be anti-communist and — more importantly — paid well.
Stone isn’t bothered by squeamish liberals who thought the business was amoral, saying, as if it’s a Deep Insight, “One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.” Stone is proud of his time repping dictators, because “I made a lot of money and I can’t think of anything I did that was either illegal or immoral.” See, he really is a master of realpolitik. Toobin says morality simply isn’t a concern for Roger Stone, who “sees morality as a synonym for weakness. That’s something that he’s always going to have contempt for.”
Stone was also a big fan of one of the 20th century’s most casually horrible Americans, Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer buddy Roy Cohn, whom he met in the early ’80s and who introduced him to a guy named Donald Trump. Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett (who died the day before Trump’s inauguration, and to whom the film is dedicated) says of Stone’s toadying admiration for the old red-baiter, “Roy Cohn is the single most evil person I have ever covered. If that’s a magnet for you as a young man, it says you’re soulless before you start.”
By then, Stone was quite happy to embrace — and burnish — the image of dirty trickster; as he tells the filmmakers, “It’s gonna to be in the first paragraph of my NYT obit, so I might as well go with the flow.” As to the charge that he is himself without morality, Stone disagrees, of course: “Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers. Those are bitter losers.” Gosh, that sounds familiar somehow.
And so on. There’s the squicky sex scandal that got him booted from Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign: Stone and his wife advertised in a swingers’ magazine, looking for a nice orgy, which didn’t go over too well with the family-values crowd. (David Letterman joked that Republicans had gotten to the point where it was scandalous that a guy had sex with his own wife.).
Stone stayed in politics, but in the background; he claims to have instigated the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the 2000 Florida vote recount, but others say he’s exaggerated his role. Stone brought us the bullshit story of Michelle Obama’s “Whitey tape,” which still hasn’t surfaced, if you can believe that, and has also been accused of forging the documents about George W. Bush’s military shirking that brought down Dan Rather — a true shame, since the shirking was real and corroborated by other sources, even if the papers were fake.
And of course, there’s Trump, who Stone always thought would make a great president; kindred fans of conspiracy theories, Stone turned Trump on to the notion that Barack Obama was hiding his birth certificate, which finally made Trump a national political contender (this may have been the moment our world entered the crapsack alternate universe we’re in now. Somewhere else, Donald Trump is a smart articulate humanitarian with a goatee).
The second half of the movie is mostly about the 2016 campaign, although Stone left his official position with the Trump campaign after the first Republican debate and Trump’s feud with Megyn Kelly. Stone insists he quit, while Trump says he fired him, in part because “he liked to get a lot of publicity for himself, which I didn’t want.” Which may sound awfully familiar to President Steve Bannon and President Jared Kushner now. His ouster was probably orchestrated in part by Corey Lewandowski, who hated Stone, and the feelings are mutual — in yet another display of his highly original wit, Stone says “a Polish language expert” had recently informed him that “‘Lewandowski,’ loosely translated, means ‘cocksucker.'” The man is so freaking smart!highly improbable story claiming Ted Cruz had had five mistresses, Cruz blamed Stone for feeding the story to the Enquirer, which of course Stone denies — he only went on the record to say he thought if it were true, the story would hurt Cruz with his evangelical base (which it didn’t, because most people are puzzled that even Heidi would sleep with Cruz). Cruz, with that trademark prissive-aggressive nasal voice of his, angerwhines that Stone is a dirty trickster, “a man for whom a term was coined, for copulating with a rodent” How the hell did we miss that clip when Cruz said it? Regardless of whether “ratfucking” was coined to describe Stone (we doubt it was), “Copulating with a rodent” needs to stick to Ted Cruz like the rooftop ride of poor Seamus the dog has clung to Mitt Romney’s reputation. Also, Ted, we’re pretty sure it’s not about fucking a rat. It’s about a rat fucking a campaign.
Again and again, Stone’s image as a dark manipulator seems mostly a matter of self-aggrandizement. He’s a political operative and player, for sure, but you have to doubt the true Sith alignment of a guy who’s happy to be introduced as “The Prince Of Darkness” — any whiff of sulfur around Stone was self-applied, not from the pits of Hell. It’s his schtick, and he enjoys it, even teasing the filmmaker that the “Stephen Colbert character that I play called Roger Stone” isn’t the real him, but he’ll never say who the real Roger Stone is. Which is not to say he’s had no influence at all; New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer gets it perfectly right, saying Stone is
very smart about anger. It’s one of the things he understands best. It’s angry, white working-class voters whose resentments are being milked to push an agenda that’s useful to some of the richest people in the country. These are hardly people who are in tune with the little guy’s interests. But they understand how to manipulate the little guy’s interests.
It’s all a show, and Roger Stone would love to consider himself the ringmaster, even if he’s more like lead clown, and probably the man who did the most to push Donald Trump into running for president — or really, a strong second to Donald Trump’s own ego and desire for revenge after the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, so let’s give some credit to Barack Obama, too. Thanks a lot, Obama.
Trump himself only speaks to the filmmakers a little, but when he does, it’s pure Trump as the most enthusiastic consumer of his own bullshit. You can easily see why Stone loves him: Trump is the perfect vehicle for a con artist like Stone. You know what impresses Trump about Stone? Stone recognizes how smart Trump is. God knows that if Trump really did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue, Stone would let Trump know it was a grand idea — though he’d take care not to put it in writing.
Roger understands that I’ve always gotten great ratings, whether it’s on “The Apprentice” or virtually any interview, and that’s why people want to interview me. And I think that’s one of the things that’s always fascinated Roger, because ultimately, it is all about the ratings, and it is all about people watching and the eyeballs.
It truly is all about the ratings and the people watching and the eyeballs, not to mention the biting and the scratching and the hurting, oyyy.
The last bit of the movie looks at Stone’s partnership with Alex Jones, who Stone says is a very important figure, even though “the elite media likes to call him a conspiracy theorist” (this is followed by a clip of Jones screaming “I don’t like ’em puttin’ chemicals in the water that turns the frickin’ frogs gay!”) Says Stone in his Man of Wisdom voice, Alex Jones “has a bully pulpit that allows him to reach millions of people, and they are Trump’s people. They are outsiders, skeptical about government, skeptical about the bullshit government is always trying to peddle you.” And they are remarkably receptive to the bullshit Stone and Jones and Trump are peddling.
The movie closes with election night, getting through a summary of Trump’s narrow surprise victory far more efficiently than Donald Trump ever does when he’s nattering on about it, so we don’t get much at all about Stone’s or Manafort’s possible connections to Russia (which are fake news anyway). The filmmakers ask Stone, in a stretch limo on the way to Trump Tower, “What message would you have for the viewers of this film who will loathe you when the credits roll?”
Stone, dressed in his very best Oswald Cobblepot getup, replies, “I revel in your hatred, because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.” Yes, yes, he’s totally won, and all the commenters secretly agree with him. Too bad Roger Stone’s brand of politics — which he didn’t invent, sorry — are already proving to be far more effective at winning an election than running a country.
Get Me Roger Stone, (2017) Directed by Dylan Bank, Daniel DiMauro, and Morgan Pehme. 1 hour 32 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix.
Program note: This documentary was way better than this week’s lame deleted comments; Dear ShitFerBrains will be back next week!
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