Amid the relaxed post-work clientele at the Empire Room, Roger Stone and I kept on trucking. Well, I mostly just chilled out in the passenger seat while he took us down a runaway truck ramp.
In the second half of our discussion, I one-up his tattoo of Nixon with some requisite tomfoolery (that’s where the “Antics” part of “Insight. Antics.” comes in handy) and we delve through his uncommon political pedigree, not to mention a slew of observations and predictions. (Check out Part 1 if you missed it.)
His love of Richard Nixon is offputting, but understandable in context. As is his out-of-character casting of the ballot for Jimmy Carter. Some of these things just don’t happen today, like being 15 and writing a former Vice President only to have him reply personally and then find you again two years later.
There’s nothing more apolitical than his mourning the height of sophisticated men’s fashion. There’s nothing more political than regrets of his role in the 2000 Recount. There’s nothing more awesome than someone calling George H. W. Bush “everybody’s first husband.”
Alright, game on…
Brief Wit: When you were very young you supported Kennedy?
Roger Stone: My parents were Catholics. By the time I was 18, I was a Nixon Republican already.
BW: What brought you there?
RS: When I was growing up in Westchester, the woman next door to me was a Republican town committeewoman and she was a big Goldwaterite. It was 1964. I was completely disinterested in politics. I remember the 1960 election; I clearly favored Kennedy over Nixon because Kennedy’s hair was so much better. And because he was a Catholic and I was a Catholic and I got caught up in the first Catholic president thing.
After the election I did some reading. That’s when I figured out that he stole the election from Nixon.
BW: How so?
RS: Chicago and Texas, between [Mayor] Richard Daly and Lyndon Johnson. Richard Nixon won the 1960 election. He beat John Kennedy. They had to steal it. It’s pretty recognized that enough election fraud in both those places tipped the election.
So, I became a Goldwater zealot. The woman next door gave me these books and pamphlets and I read all of them. I read Goldwater’s book Conscience of a Conservative and that was my formative experience. It was at that point I knew I was a conservative; it was at that point I knew I was a Republican.
I was crushed when Goldwater lost. I was disappointed in Goldwater because there was nothing pragmatic about him. During the election he went out of his way to lose. He goes to Florida and says, “We need to end Social Security.” He goes to Tennessee and says, “We need to sell the Tennessee Valley Authority.” Therefore, I was drawn to the more pragmatic politics of Richard Nixon.
BW: What was pragmatic about Nixon?
RS: He had a broader coalition. He did not write half of the people out of the party after he was nominated. Goldwater did. [Nixon] recognized that the only way you could win is to have some Democrats and Independents. If you only win Republicans and no one else you will always lose.
So, I wrote Nixon a letter. He was practicing law in New York City. He was out of politics. Former Vice President. I was 15: “You know what Mr. Vice President, Kennedy stole that election. You should run again. You shouldn’t take it.”
He wrote back immediately: “I appreciate your letter, but I’m done with politics. On the other hand, if I change my mind, I’ll be in touch.”
Two years later, I got a phone call from a guy named John Whittaker, who was an assistant to the Vice President, asking me if I was still interested. I said I was. I took the train into the city for an interview and I got hired as a driver.
BW: A driver?
RS: That was it. I was 16; I had my driver’s license. I wasn’t supposed to be driving at night, but I told them I was older than I was.
BW: They didn’t check?
RS: They didn’t check. I drove Nixon and John Davis Lodge, who was the former governor of Connecticut and really kind of my mentor, all over New England and the Northeast in his 1968 comeback.
BW: So you get to talk to them because they’re in the backseat?
RS: I got to watch them more importantly.
BW: What did you learn and what were the next steps after that?
RS: I went to college. George Washington University. Governor Lodge wrote a letter and got me a job [as an intern] in the White House. I was 18; I was a freshman in college. I worked under, way under, Pat Buchanan. I saw him twice. My job was to cut out news clippings and paste them for the news summary. It was pre-Internet, pre-fax, and the President needed to see every newspaper in the country first thing in the morning.
BW: Who did you work with there?
RS: Most of the people I worked with are dead. John Ehrlichman. Bill Safire, also dead.
BW: Were you friends with William Safire?
RS: Yes. We ended up being the same. He was known as a liberal Republican. He was an editorial writer for the New York Herald Tribune, which was the voice of Rockefeller Republicans. By the time he moves to The New York Times and gets a column, he starts to be considered a conservative.
You see one of the great things about Nixon is that Nixon was not an ideologue at all. He liked brains. He could have Harry Dent who was an arch-conservative and Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was an arch-liberal and he wanted to hear them debate and then he would make decisions. He was neither a man of left or right, he believed in ideas and debate and ferment.
BW: There is sort of a Lincoln/Obama “Team of Rivals” parallel there.
RS: Well, the Nixon operation had a right wing and left wing.
BW: What happened later?
RS: Well, I graduated. I go to the Committee to Reelect the President, which ended me up in front of the grand jury and made me unemployable for three years. I went to the grand jury. I was 19. (The dates and ages got fuzzy here.)
BW: What did they ask you? Did you know anything about Watergate?
RS: I knew very little. I knew nothing about the break-in. To this day, I don’t understand the point. We were polling on [Democratic nominee] McGovern by 30 points. We were heading for giant victory.
Anyone who knows anything about politics knows there’s no information at the Democratic National Committee worth having. In a presidential campaign, the center of action is at the [campaign headquarters]. The DNC is a sleepy outpost. What were we looking for? I’ve talked to [G. Gordon] Liddy about this.
BW: What did you do next?
RS: Finally, Bob Dole hired me as a Legislative Assistant. I went out with a bunch of my pals [including Charlie Black, chief adviser to the 2008 McCain campaign] and formed the National Conservative Political Action Committee. We pioneered the whole concept of negative campaigns. We don’t call it negative: we call it taking the senator’s record and putting it on TV so people can see it. We took out a whole crop of liberals.
John Sears, who I had met in the Nixon days, hired me to work on Reagan’s 1976 [presidential] campaign and rehired me to work on the 1980 campaign. And [James] Baker [III] hired me to work on the 1984 reelection campaign. Many of the Nixon people later served as Reagan people because of the Southern California connection.
BW: Did Nixon and Reagan like each other?
RS: Reagan liked Nixon, although he would tell you he thought Dick was kind of odd. Nixon never understood Reagan.
Nixon told me at his apartment here in New York in 1979, “John Connolly will be the nominee.” I said, “Mr. President, not a fucking chance.” He said, “You’re wrong, you don’t know Ron. He has no substance.” I said, “You don’t know Ron. He doesn’t need substance. He’s a star, he’s got charisma.”
Nixon always underrated Reagan. Nixon looked at it this way: “I’m smarter than Reagan, I worked harder, I worked at it day and night. How does he make it look so effortless?” Nixon was insecure. Reagan was a guy totally comfortable in his own skin.
BW: I read you regret some of the 2000 Recount things you did… I think that it’s important to show to people on the left you are not some caricatured, consciousless guy, as many would try to easily bucket you.
RS: I did my party duty in 2000. In 1981, I had my first statewide race of my own, Tom Kean’s campaign for governor of New Jersey. He was a sure loser. There were only two gubernatorial races that year, Virginia and New Jersey [like this past year.] I went to James Baker, who was then the White House Chief of Staff, and said, “I want the president to visit New Jersey.” He said, “We’re going to lose. We’ll go to Virginia; we’ll split them. We’ll win Virginia, we’ll lose New Jersey and that will be that.” For a year I told him, “You’re wrong, we’re gonna win.”
At the very last minute, Baker said, “Your polls are close enough, we’re going to take a chance.” Reagan went to New Jersey at the last minute and certainly played a role in putting Kean over the top. Kean won by 1,200 votes out of 2 million. The Kean thing went into a recount. I lived in New Jersey for two months doing a recount. I had more recount experience than most people in the party. PS: We lost Virginia.
So, my attitude in 2000 was, I owed Jim Baker a big fat favor. Baker called me and said, “Can you go down to Florida for a couple days?” A couple days turned into a couple weeks…
BW: What happened there?
RS: If you saw the [HBO] Recount movie, the Democrats believed the recount would be a high-minded legal debate. We realized this was totally a street fight. You’ll never be able to determine who actually won, and therefore possession was 9/10 of the law. “No, we won, you lost. You can’t prove you won.” It was all possession.
BW: Later you conceded some sadness about Bush.
RS: The war.
BW: Did you ever support the war?
RS: No. I’m not a pacifist by any means. If you advocated right now war against the Saudis, count me in. They’re our enemy. They’re feeding terrorism. That is a war that makes sense to me. The war in Iraq doesn’t make sense to me. What’s our vital national interest?
I think the war was a mistake. And if you were going to go to do the war [in Iraq], then go in with overwhelming force. I honestly think if Gore had been president, he would have gone into Afghanistan and Iraq twice as heavy because he had to prove something. And I think he would have been more successful.
I have misgivings about [the recount]. I was very disappointed in George W. Bush. The only thing I agreed with was his tax policy and his Supreme Court nominations.
BW: Harriet Myers?
RS: Please. What an embarrassment. No. Alito, Roberts.
BW: Is there a campaign you wish you could have run that you didn’t?
RS: No, I consider myself very lucky. There are not many people who grow up to actually meet and work with their political hero. I got to meet and work for my hero. A guy who was my hero before I met him.
BW: Who do you think will be the 2012 Republican nominee?
RS: It’s amazing to me we have a whole crop of candidates, none of whom are in public office. Former governors, former this, former that. It’s way too early. I can tell you who I’m not for: Mitt Romney.
Explain to me how you go to bed one night pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, pro-tax increase, pro-more spending. And you wake up the very next morning, and you change your mind on every one of those issues. He’s a phony. I do think you can change your mind on issues over time because facts change. You learn new things. I do think people evolve. But when you cash in your entire belief system overnight, that’s not credible.
Plus, he’s got the Bushies around him. The same people that were interested in seizing the party machinery for Jeb are around Mitt.
BW: Do you have anyone in mind?
RS: I like John Thune, Senator from South Dakota. I like [former governor of New Mexico] Gary Johnson, though I don’t know if he is electable. Essentially, he divorced his wife and she went out and killed herself. Not a good narrative if you’re trying to get elected.
BW: What do you think of Sarah Palin?
RS: She’ll never run for public office again. She’ll always be a force within the party. I don’t think she is electable at this point because she is completely caricatured. She is far more intelligent than the caricature of her that has been portrayed. But it doesn’t matter. Once the American people decide on something it’s settled. “Oswald killed Kennedy.” “Sarah Palin’s dumb.”
BW: “John Kerry’s boring.”
RS: “John Kerry’s boring.” Boy, is that the truth. We decide certain things are true and we don’t want to revisit them.
BW: Ever met her?
RS: Yes. She’s amazingly charismatic. Charisma is something you can’t learn.
BW: It’s interesting that you say that. Your idol was Nixon and he was never charismatic.
RS: That’s actually not true. His ability to fill a room was still significant. Where he didn’t do well was one-on-one. He still had a certain stature that you saw in Ronald Reagan. They were larger than life. George H. W. Bush was always smaller than life. He could have been everybody’s first husband.
BW: You’re known as a clothes horse. Articles about your thoughts on men’s style have been written in GQ and Penthouse. What are your fashion trends for 2010? What should a guy wear?
RS: Well, the days of dressing are really over. There was a time when people dressed up. I don’t expect people in Florida or Los Angeles to dress up. No one ever wears a suit anywhere. But now, no one even dresses up here [in New York.]
First of all, all-natural fibers. If you’re wearing anything synthetic next to your body there is something wrong with you. Some guys I worried if there was an open match, they’d go up like that.
Beyond that, it’s just all the classics. Fashion changes, style never changes. Things that are in good taste today will be in good taste ten years from now. A well-cut pair of jeans. A well-cut blue blazer. A regimental striped tie. A Brooks Brothers all-cotton button down shirt.
I haven’t had a suit made in 15 years. If you just take care of it and have things well-made, they should last you a lifetime. If they don’t, you’re not taking good care of them. For example, you should never dry clean a suit. Nothing destroys a suit faster than dry cleaning. Instead, take a whisk broom and some cool water. Enough to get it slightly wet. And let it dry outside.
BW: Why did you get the Nixon tattoo? Why not… Gerald Ford?
RS: Oh, please! Gerald Ford was, next to George H. W. Bush, the worst president of my lifetime. I was never an admirer. The truth is I voted for Jimmy Carter.
I got a tattoo of Nixon on my back right around the time Spitzer went down. I did it for two reasons. One, I admire Nixon’s resilience. It’s not about philosophy because I am more of a Reagan Republican. But what I liked about Nixon was he was undefeatable. He would just come back from personal adversity. He would keep coming back, he would never quit. No matter how badly he was defeated, he would claw his way back.
BW: Did you think his portrayal in Frost/Nixon was accurate? It had a lot of that, right?
RS: It had some of it. Having spent a lot of time with Nixon and heard him say “fuck” many, many times because he was in the Navy, there is no chance he said, “Did you do any fornicating?”
Nixon swore like a sailor. He always wanted to be one of the boys, so when he was with the guys, he would particularly swear.
He had this great joke: People would ask him for an autograph. “Give this to your wife or your girlfriend, whichever one you want.” He always thought that was hysterical.
BW: Did the tattoo hurt?
RS: It hurt like a son of a bitch. But I was drunk. I was in California on vacation and I was thinking about it. It took four hours. The worst pain was at the very end, when they did all the shading. But the [second and] real reason I did it? Because it pisses liberals off.
BW: It doesn’t piss me off. I think it’s hilarious.
RS: I’ve been thinking about [what’s next]. There are two possibilities. I’m either going to put Reagan’s head right here [on my lower left ab]. You ever see those tattoos where it looks like he’s ripping through your skin and sticking his head out? Or, I am going to put [above Nixon] on my shoulders in Olde English: “Republican Gangsta.”
That seems apt. But a Hulking out-Reagan? Pure bliss.