Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Roger Stone and The End of an Era

He's a dirty trickster who racked up winning campaigns for 40 years. But has he met his match in Mueller?

There are only two professions in America in which one can meet so many felons: organized crime and disorganized politics. No wonder longtime GOP consultant Eddie Mahe once called campaigns “garbage moving in the right direction.”

Before the age of 24-hour cable, Facebook, value shaming, and Twitter, there was a time in American politics when one needed more than a social media following and a pulse to be a political consultant. You could be weirdly sincere, unapologetically corrupt, principled, opportunistic, selfless, ruthless, comically evil, flamboyant, or just plain nuts. You could be all these things and a myriad of others. There was only one thing you needed to be.

You needed to be good.

It was the purest form of the marketplace. Those who were good prospered. Those who weren’t were winnowed out. Recall the sad tale of the “homeless Republican consultant,” which the Washington Post reported with unbridled glee many years ago. A man went to Washington to join the ranks of GOP campaign advisors, had a few small successes, had more big failures, and ended up on the streets, penniless.

It’s tough now to count how many perfectly tailored, perfectly messaged, perfectly coiffed, and perfectly vapid consultants are routinely featured on most cable news networks. They seem to know everything, except how to win. I’ve known people who have worked in American politics for 40 years or more and can’t recall ever stumbling across any of these poseurs. Neither have others I’ve known and respected. Nowadays, everybody is a “Republican consultant” it seems, but it is not a heroic Spartacus moment. Many wonder how these “celebrity cable consultants” eat.

As the immortal Dorothy Parker once said, “Authors and artists and actors and such, never know nothing and never know much.” Parker would have added political consultants to her pithy put-down of the shallow, had any stumbled into the Algonquin bar in the 1920s.

Social media has reduced consultants to a narrow band of acceptable persons and personalities. It’s less about understanding a facet of the country and more about affirming the conventional wisdom. Granted, the Trump campaign has had its share of…unique figures, yet most were flashes in the pan. We can comfortably predict that Omarosa’s political future is at an end, for example, as is Anthony Scarmucci’s.

But Roger Stone was the last of an era, an age. While many hope his end will herald a new, clean age of campaigning, I’m sorry to say that the same exploitation will continue; the only difference is that it will be neither eccentric nor effective.

There are consultants who have lost every campaign they’ve ever worked on, yet make good money and their opinions are given the weight of a kingmaker. To be fair, if the ratings are to be believed, these ne’er-do-wells make for good cable news—but not good campaigns. I can think of one such GOP consultant who has never won a national campaign. Ever. Even by accident—although he has been fingered as the reason for some candidates losing. But there he is, on “Meet The Press” and “Morning Joe,” spewing tiny pearls of borderline insight and very conventional wisdom. Other GOP consultants invariably find their way onto the MSNBC and CNN shows, which are ever eager to put on anyone who claims to have licked an envelope on a losing Republican campaign to batter Donald Trump.

Dark side? You bet.

As curious as Roger Stone’s arrest was, it is also a sign that the time of those eccentrically effective consultants may have drawn to a close. The claim by CNN that they happened to be at the raid on a “hunch” is laughable and may be the strangest coincidence since the Reichstag fire. But that is just the new marriage between big media and big government.

For those of us who made our political bones in the latter half of the 20th century, figures like Stone were a constant source of intrigue. He walked a fine ethical line, was cunning and sometimes malicious, and yet was so damned good that a part of you respected him. To wit, over the last 10 elections, Ronald Reagan is the only Republican to have won New York, and he won it twice. A young Roger Stone, Reagan’s regional political director for the Northeast, including New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, helped make that happen. Stone helped win those three states for Reagan. Twice.

In Connecticut alone, in 1980, Stone personally recruited 300 moderate Republicans to cross the No Man’s Land between the establishment and the conservative movement to support the Gipper—in the primary, over the homegrown George H.W. Bush. In 1987, Stone, working for the campaign of Congressman Jack Kemp, was the driving force behind Newsweek writing the awful and unfair cover story “The Wimp Factor,” about Bush, the war hero.

He was one among an entire breed of weirdly successful consultants, controversial and reminiscent of other characters of American politics, including Paul Corbin, Lyn Nofziger, and Arthur Finkelstein. Each of these men was hugely effective and each marched to his own drum. Corbin, a Democrat and a Kennedyite of long standing, actually helped JFK win the Republican stronghold of Upstate New York, something no one thought possible in 1960. A hater of Jimmy Carter, Corbin stole and delivered the Carter briefing books to the Reagan-Bush campaign as a means of bringing him down in the 1980 campaign and restoring Camelot in 1984 with the election of Senator Ted Kennedy to the presidency. Corbin was not crazy.

Nofziger was the “Michael Corleone” of the American right. He didn’t want to wipe out everybody. Just his enemies. He also was peerless in his advice to the Gipper, keeping him out of many scrapes over the years. His contempt for the system was legendary, down to his wearing of Mickey Mouse ties and refusing to sport White House passes.

Nofziger protégé Ed Rollins qualifies in his own right as both effective and a singular character. Finkelstein was sui generis, an eccentric recluse who shunned the spotlight and just did his job, winning one so-called helpless campaign after another, against all odds, over many years.

Not too curiously, all these characters were very good gamblers—Corbin and Stone at cards, Finkelstein played the ponies, and Nofziger at everything. They were all right out of a Damon Runyon novel. So is Stone. And all were utterly charming when the need called for it.

James Carville’s “Ragin’ Cajun” affectations would rank him lower on the list of outward facing consultants and pundits. Just too forced, too contrived.

Roger, for a time, wandered from his first, best calling, writing several books that, while bestsellers, were mostly popular with the propeller beanie cap set. One accused Lyndon Johnson of orchestrating the assassination of President Kennedy (it was the next to last conspiracy theory to be tried, the last being that JFK committed suicide). But it was at politics that he excelled.

At a tender age, Roger orchestrated the notorious “Canuck” letter in 1972, which helped sink the Ed Muskie campaign for the Democratic nomination. The fake letter accused Muskie of using the work “Canuck” as an ethnic slur and was sent to the right-wing Manchester Union Leader, which published it with glee. Muskie denounced the paper on the street in front of the Union Leader, but then dissolved into tears before the New Hampshire primary. Canadian-Americans were a sizable voting bloc in the Granite State. Muskie was seen as the best Democrat to defeat Nixon in 1972. As was once said about another dirty trickster, “If you have a job do to and you don’t care how it’s done, send Paul Corbin.”

Roger was never caught, but he was accused of “sabotage and espionage” by the Senate Watergate committee in 1973. As I wrote in my book Reagan Rising, “His dry wit and knowledge of ethnic and urban policy kept him at the cutting edge of politics in the 1970’s—with an eye toward sartorial splendor, he had a flair for high fashion and high jinks—but he derived a daredevil’s thrill from edging too close (too close for some) to the ethical line…. Yet, he kept coming back, and seemed to have more lives than a cat.”

During the 1972 Nixon campaign, he assigned a security guard, Michael McMinoway, “to infiltrate Democratic presidential campaigns in several states.” Stone also floated fake stories about socialists supporting Congressman Pete McCloskey, effectively sandbagging his quixotic campaign to challenge Nixon in the 1972 primariesStone was very good at winning—at all costs.

When Stone was elected chairman of the Young Republicans in 1977, his defeated opponent led a walkout of several hundred. Finagling was charged, but Stone airily replied, “Eastern liberals who are too old to be Young Republicans” were the only ones complaining.

Later, the now-deceased columnists Bob Novak and Rowly Evans wrote, “Even Republicans too insensitive to worry about the impact of Roger Stone’s past are getting worried about his future.” They wrote that 42 years ago.

Knowing Roger, he may just spit the hook—one more time.

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He is the author of four books on Ronald Reagan, a definitive biography of Newt Gingrich, Citizen Newt, the New York Times bestseller December 1941and his newest, Honored Madam, a biography of Mary Ball Washington, due out this fall.