Tricky Dick’ pot, dining with Alex Jones, and other adventures with the high priest of hijinks.
By Matt Labash
Read Part I of “Stoned In Cleveland,” the Roger Stone experience at the RNC, here.
It’s been said of Roger Stone that he is a high priest of political hijinks, that he is a skilled confidence man, that he is like the U.S. Army of treachery, screwing more people before 9 a.m. than most people do in a whole day. (Full disclosure: It was me who said all those things in print, but at least I’m citing an unimpeachable source.)
Over the years, I’ve ridden shotgun on many of Stone’s capers. I’ve watched him try to blow up the Reform party from within, possibly to aid Republicans, possibly just for fun. (His motives are often a mystery, one suspects even to himself.) I’ve watched Stone punish the father of his arch-nemesis, Eliot Spitzer, embarrassing the latter by unearthing information that the former belonged to a club that didn’t admit minorities. I’ve watched him start an anti-Hillary 527 called Citizens United Not Timid—you can work out the acronym for yourself—while using a spokesman/cut-out named “Noodles”, whom he met in a bar and recruited for the job only after a drinking mate informed Stone that the guy he first tried to enlist, a nice Italian gentleman, was a soldier in the Lucchese family.
But now that Trumpism is the dominant strain of the Republican party, Stone no longer even seems to feel the need to operate in the shadows. When a guerilla insurgency (nearly) wins the country, the guys humping guns in the jungle become the new overlords. Stone hastens to add humbly—for him, anyway—that he has no official role in the Trump campaign. Though he’s been friends with the Donald for four decades, long consulted on his casino ventures, and has been his chief political advisor since God was a boy, these days, he’s a man without portfolio, which seems to be how he likes it. “I’m basically Sid Blumenthal, but smarter,” Stone says, comparing himself to the Clinton’s morally challenged advice dispenser by way of explaining his own peculiar role in Trump World.
Besides, Trump is on record that he is his own best advisor. (“I’m, like, a really smart person,” he’s demurely assured us.) And laugh if you must—I certainly have—but Trump’s largely been proven right, if judged solely by electoral results. When I ask Stone what advice he’s given Trump that Trump has ignored to Trump’s own benefit, there’s quite a laundry list: “I would’ve done some polling, he did none. I would have done some analytics targeting, they did none. I would’ve added unpaid advertising, they did none.” But it’s all worked out, Stone says, because “the voters are fed up. They’re looking for someone who they think has the cojones to take on a corrupt, rigged system.” As the author of the New York Times bestseller, The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, Stone recognizes one of Trump’s most appealing lines: “‘The system is rigged, folks. It’s all rigged.'”
Plying his trade outside the tightly controlled Trump campaign bubble, Stone can say anything, which he reliably does without getting collared by His Orangeness. (Most recently, Stone did so last night, antagonizing his old deposed rival for Trump’s ear, Corey Lewandowski, tweeting that “a drunk @Clewandowski tries to crash #Trump family box at #RNC,” then posting a picture of Trump holding his temples in aggravation with the caption, “Corey….STFU.”) As a result of Trump’s ascendance, Stone’s voicemail is perpetually full with old chums, wannabe new ones, reporters, and—in a nod to his newfound popularity—with death threats. “They all sound amazingly like Joe Conason,” Stone cracks. But he doesn’t find them that funny, since he now takes the trouble of booking security at speaking gigs, often complimenting his guardians on their well-tailored suits if warranted, since one of the most sacrosanct of Stone’s Rules is “Look good = feel good.”
As with his inbox, his social dance card is pretty full, too. At the RNC, Stone is advertised as a “VIP guest” at “the most fab party at the RNC,” the “Wake Up! LBGT RNC event”—a shindig for sleepy gays who may not be hip to the fact that radical Islam hates them. The event is headlined by the publicity barnacle/platinum-haired It-boy of the alt-right gay movement, Milo Yiannopoulos. (Yes, Republicans now have platinum-haired gay It-boys, and critics say the GOP doesn’t pitch a big tent…) Stone ends up failing to show for this one, citing exhaustion. Though I suspect it was out of consideration for me, since I tell him I feel ridiculous in ass-less chaps ever since mine shrank in the dryer.
Stone’s main order of business at the convention, however, is headlining/co-organizing a pro-Trump “Unity Rally,” a bit of a billing misnomer, since the sub-groups its seeks to “unify” are such disparate contingents of the Republican party as Bikers for Trump, Truckers for Trump, Christians for Trump and Millennials for Trump. While people like to say Trump rallies are violent, I’m hoping that if there’s any Altamont-like unruliness, it’s the Bikers for Trump stomping the Millenials for Trump. Not for any particular reason—I just enjoy watching Millennials get stomped.
We are already late for the rally, co-organized by professional conspiracy theorist extraordinaire Alex Jones and his InfoWars media empire, where Stone himself makes steady appearances. But after returning from a media engagement, Stone has a more pressing concern: lunch. His blood sugar is low, and one of Stone’s Rules is “Stone without food is worthless.” We return to his hotel, where he has to go wake up “Mrs. Stone,” as he calls his wife, Nydia. Standing at the elevator bank, he asks me to go to the hotel restaurant and order three of anything—the faster it comes, the better. He and Mrs. Stone will join me in a moment.
I head to the Westin’s restaurant, Urban Farmer, one of those locally-sourced farm-to-table joints, where the menu has items like “granola waffles” and “panna cotta yogurt.” I order the least precious-sounding thing I can find, in solidarity with Trumpkins—good, simple, honest folk—which turns out to be a white-cheddar hamburger on English muffins with aioli (the word “urban farmers” prefer to “mayonnaise.”)
The Stones join me, Mrs. Stone being apologetic for sleeping so late. She had to put down a half a bottle of wine at 4 a.m., when she had night terrors, becoming convinced that someone had once been killed in their room. I ask her if it was a Kennedy and if Roger will write a new book about it. She laughs, mentioning that his next book actually is an examination of who killed JFK Jr. (Hillary Clinton being high on the suspect list.) Roger shrugs with an eff-you-dismissiveness, telling me that I am behind the curve, and need to catch up with Conspiracy-Minded America, since as previously established by Mr. Trump, The Fix Is In.
“Labash, get with it!,” he commands. “I told you, this is the Age of Stone. The American people caught on to the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald did not kill Kennedy. That Watergate was a set-up taking Nixon down because he was a peacemaker. That Hillary Clinton lied about Benghazi—I’m covering all my books, here—and that America is ready for Donald J. Trump!”
“We’re all Alex Jones now!” I say, dishing Stone an assist. But he doesn’t like people insulting his new best friend. “Better Alex Jones than his cousin Van Jones,” Stone says of the CNN commentator and former Obama staffer, “a man who said Jews have injected people with AIDS—so who is the radical?” I ask Stone if he believes 9/11 was an inside job. “I really don’t know,” he responds, “but I have to admit that I’m curious as to why building three comes down when it’s clearly not hit by a projectile. But I’m not an expert. I actually think it’s offensive for people to say, ‘Oh, if you go on the air with Alex Jones as I have and Trump has, then you must subscribe to everything else Jones believes in.’ They don’t say that about Wolf Blitzer.”
I defend Blitzer, suggesting that there’s scant evidence he believes in anything. “Who knows what he believes in?” Stone shoots back. “It’s offensive to believe that at CNN, they’re objective, but atInfowars.com, if you’re interviewed there, you must agree with everything they say.” Stone submits, for instance that he doesn’t believe in chemtrails. “I’m not buying it, [Jones] seems to think there is something there…that doesn’t mean we can’t agree with the fact that there is a two-party duopoly that has run the country into the ground, that had given us the exact same policies—endless war, erosion of civil liberties, massive debt, and bailouts for the swindlers of Wall Street—while regular people CAN’T FIND WORK! That is the legacy of the Bushes and Clintons, together.”
Stone is getting cranky that the burgers haven’t come since he’s in a hurry and his blood sugar is now in freefall. “Labash,” he chastises, “I know you’ve never been an advance man, but can I give you one piece of advice? Order something that doesn’t need to be cooked, like a ham sandwich.” Now in Alex Jones mode, I persist in the interrogation, asking if Stone believes that Ted Kennedy was whacked. “No,” he says, emphatically. “Too many steaks, too many stewardesses, too many scotches.”
Fair enough. We agree to disagree. Not about chemtrails, but about whether Donald Trump, if elected, will likely drive America to its knees. Stone doesn’t hold my #NeverTrump prejudices against me. In fact, he says of my editor-in-chief, “I’ve always liked Bill Kristol. He’s a classic Hubert Humphrey Democrat. The guy’s in the wrong party, but that’s not my fault. He’s got a great sense of humor, and is a gentleman.” Maybe the unity theme is taking after all.
The burgers finally come, and Stone suggests we take them to go. Noting our lateness and how he’s standing up rally-goers, Stone says, “They’re going to f—ng kill me.” But when I point out his off-white, southern pol, Willie Stark-ish-suit, offering that nobody would want to see that bespoke work of artistry besmirched with urban-farmer aioli stains, he readily agrees. While Trump-rally crashers have often brought the violence, Stone would rather get roughed up than stained. “That would actually be the greater tragedy,” he offers. “I can always have surgery, but the suit can’t be replaced.”
We finish lunch, Stone checks himself out in the reflection of a camera lens of his ever-present documentary film crew, and then shouts, “Let’s go! We have balls to bust.” I remind him that this is supposed to be a unity rally. “Right!” he laughs, “I’ll take care of that.”
Like Trump, Stone is an extemporaneous speaker, and once we pack into the van, he allows that “I probably ought to give some thought to what I’m going to say.” Instead, he ends up grousing about Ohio governor John Kasich, who has boycotted Trump even as the Republican convention is going off in his home state. “He’s a pathetic stoner,” Stone says. But being a Libertarian at heart, Stone adds, “I have no problem with that, except he is a big proponent of the war on drugs. Cut the shit! What’s the deal?” Stone reminds me that as a side-business venture, he is growing his own strain of “Tricky Dick” marijuana at an undisclosed location in California.
Well, mostly undisclosed. “Our grow site is literally a stone’s throw from Dick Nixon’s birthplace in Yorba Linda.” That’s how Stone’s hero/mentor would’ve wanted it, I offer. “There’s no question,” he agrees. “He was a giant fan of Acapulco Gold, actually. Though if he were alive today, he’d have gone for the Kush. The key thing about our strain, Tricky Dick, is that if you smoke it, you become extremely paranoid and want to go to a Chinese restaurant immediately.” I ask Stone how many times he’s used that one. “About four thousand,” he admits. “But go with the tried and true.”
We arrive at the Trump Unity Rally, being held in an outdoor amphitheater that snugs up against the Cuyahoga River at Settler’s Landing Park. Sadly, we have already missed Alex Jones’s star turn. Though I got a taste of him the night before. At a dinner at Luca Italian Cuisine, put on by Daily Caller editor Tucker Carlson (a friend of both mine and Stone’s), Alex Jones made the scene as well, taking a chair next to me. While we waited interminably (due to the size of our party) for what ended up being the best meal I’ve had in Cleveland, Jones, for whatever reason, got his dish way before anyone else. (A conspiracy?)
I asked him what he’d ordered. Scarfing his food down since he hadn’t eaten all day, Jones surveyed his food as if noticing it for the first time. “Noodles and meat,” he guessed. “You want some?” he generously offered. No, I’m fine, I told him. “C’mon! Have some!,” he said, in the trademark gravelly boom that makes him sound like a professional wrestler from Denton County, Texas. Really, I’m okay, I told him. But Jones wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Let’s do airplane!” he said. And then, grabbing a random utensil off the table, Jones forked up some “noodles and meat,” flying it into my mouth like I was a two-year-old child. “Kind of like he does to his audience,” one of my tablemates later suggested.
At the rally, Stone disembarks from the van as I survey the crowd. The useful thing about covering a Trump rally is that you don’t have to bother with tedious man-on-the-street interviews, since you already know what everyone has to say. Most of them are wearing it on their t-shirts and hats: Make America Great Again…..Don’t tread on me….Satan’s a punk….Go ahead ISIS and Make My Day. (The last of which features Trump striking a Dirty Harry pose while holding his .44 Magnum.) Off in the corner, a black vendor is doing booming business selling “Donald Fucking Trump” t-shirts. It’s a clever licensing hustle, not unlike those pulled by the man it honors, who regularly lends his own name to the highest bidder. Considering this vendor bid nothing, he assures me that the word “fucking” will make sure he stays out of court for trademark infringement. A very smart precaution, since the shirt’s namesake has been involved in roughly 3,500 lawsuits.
Stone takes the stage in his ice-cream man suit, saying self-deprecatingly, “I can’t wait to hear what I have to say!” But then he’s off like a shot, going full Kingfish, removing his jacket and first handing it off to a surly looking Biker for Trump. Then perhaps worrying about grease stains, Stone instead hands it off to the director of the documentary crew that’s been following Stone for years, Morgan Pehme. “That’s a move I learned from James Brown,” Stone tells the assemblage, of his throw-off coat. (“I can’t believe I’m holding his f—cking coat!” Pehme says to me. “How’d I become his advance man?”)
I have witnessed Stone speak in public settings before, but here, he is not his usual picture of cool reserve. He rasps and shouts and crackles and pops. He brings the Billy Sunday, spreading the old-time religion about the New Orange Messiah. The crowd is jacked, no longer sore at Stone for standing them up in favor of his English-muffin burger with aioli. (Stone explains his lateness by saying he had some “meetings” at the Westin.)
“This is not the Republicans versus the Democrats,” Stone intones. “This is the elites of the Republican and Democratic parties who have driven this country into the ditch versus Donald J. Trump and the rest of America.” He points out the closed factories along the semi-gentrified Mistake by the Lake. He decries Hillary Clinton, “a short-tempered foul-mouthed greedy bipolar mentally unbalanced criminal,” and how her thugs probably moved Vince Foster’s body in Ft. Marcy Park. He rakes her sexual-predator husband, whom she constantly covers for and lies about.
He revs up a “No Justice No Peace” chant, crediting his old pal, the Rev. Al Sharpton, who Stone used to advise for sport, for which he was roundly criticized. A decade ago, as I was covering Sharpton’s presidential run in South Carolina, Sharpton’s campaign manager, who was also an old crony of Stone’s, told me, “If Roger found some ants in an anthill that he thought he could divide and get pissed off with each other, he’d be in his backyard right now with a magnifying glass.”
Stone skids into a big finish, bringing the crowd to its feet. (Well, they were already standing). He raises both hands in the air and forms Tricky Dick’s trademark victory signs. Stone’s shirt is drenched with sweat, which is understandable, since humidity aside, he’d set the barn on fire. I later discuss the performance with our friend Tucker Carlson, telling him I’ve never quite seen Stone this way. “You know that old Hunter Thompson line, about how when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro?” Tucker responds. “Well it’s hard to think of a time that’s been any weirder than the last year. But as the rest of us are bumbling around blindly, trying to make sense of what the hell is going on, Stone has an odd sort of clarity and sees opportunity. Because ‘weird’ is the world he has always inhabited, anyway.”
Stone descends the stage, and his security detail ushers him toward an air-conditioned bus, where Alex Jones is likewise cooling his jets. Stone heads toward it in a hurry. “I want to get there before somebody shoots me,” he says.
As Stone leaves, word comes over police radios that protesters are headed right at us, making their way down a hill toward the park. I walk up the hill to see what’s what. About 50 or so scraggly-looking, ripe- smelling protesters are on the march, over half of which seem to be women, about 98 percent of them white. (I actually spot more minorities at the Trump rally.) But they are ready to tangle and square off verbally with whoever wants their action. A Trump supporter with a bullhorn takes the bait, wades into their crowd, and starts shouting them down. It’s hard to make out much of the debate, such as it is. But for a verbal street brawl, there are modern, nerdish imprecations, such as “Google it!” Even our Days of Rage, these days, are now diminished by our virtual world.
In the midst of this semi-comic exhibition, the cops move in before anyone throws bones and breaks their Googling fingers. Lines of police insert themselves between the two sides—on foot, on bike, on horseback. Cleveland’s finest, along with other forces pitching in from around the country, have the situation well in hand. Best I can tell, nobody gets so much as a scratch. Still, the Trumpistas and the Sandalistas keep lobbing f-bombs at each other over the wall of cops. The Trumpistas start chanting about building a wall, even though all the whiteys who piss them off most were already born on this side of whatever wall might be built. The Sandalistas just seem to want to burn everything down, including America herself, as they chant, “Smash the system, smash the state, America was never great!” If you listen closely enough to the chant, you’d swear that the two sides are in agreement on the first two-thirds of the agenda.
While the tussle unfolds, some Christians for Trump are blowing shofars off on the side. I don’t bother to ask their rationale. Not only is it rude to interrupt a shofar solo, but I spent a considerable amount of time in Sunday school as a child. I know that the Lord told Joshua to have his priests blow their ram’s horns, sounding long blasts as his people gave a great shout, toppling the walls of Jericho. According to The Book, the walls came down in seven days—one, if you don’t include six days of marching time.
Whether you consider that story literal truth or allegory or fanciful hocus pocus, it seems the world was a little simpler then. Because whatever walls divide these two sides now are going to keep standing for a long, long time.