A day in the orbit of Mr. Dirty Tricks.
By Matt Labash
There are worse fates than covering a Republican convention, but damned if I can think of any. The traffic is ungodly. The frumpy delegates look like they were tailored by Betsy Ross. The protesters smell like old cheese stored in a used sweat sock. And in the unlikely event you stumble upon an untold story, rest assured it will have been tweeted six ways to Sunday before you can even turn on your laptop.
Then there’s the knotty dilemmas of what to wear in these uncertain times: jacket’n’jeans, or full-on suit? Natural fibers or sweat-wicking synthetics in this Cleveland steam bath? In the event that Black Lives Matter snipers make it past security, does Kevlar make me look fat? In matters sartorial, as in so many matters political over the years, I turn to my old friend and serial subject, Roger Stone.
In addition to being Mr. Dirty Tricks, Donald Trump’s unofficial consigliere, the nation’s preeminent practitioner of the political black arts (he cut his teeth with Nixon’s “ratf—ers,” proudly sporting a tattoo of Tricky Dick’s face on his back) and a conspiracy-minded writer of “alternative histories” (he’s written an entire book on how LBJ whacked JFK), the always-dapper Stone additionally pens a style blog, Stone on Style, where he gives detailed instruction.
Delegates can “go with the flow and pack the $10 American flag shirt from Wal-Mart,” or they can spice things up “with unique, but tasteful, belt and sock choices.” Protesters should attire themselves in Che-Guevara-wear to “celebrate a sadistic murderer of innocents,” or maybe “a Bernie Sanders t-shirt even though George Soros is paying you to disrupt the convention on behalf of Hillary.” (Also, “don’t bathe.”) Party elites can go with seersucker, linen or Dupioni silk suits, with optional straw panamas, boaters or trilbies, since they’ll want to look their smartest even as they spectacularly fail “in stopping the people’s will and snatching the nomination from Donald J. Trump.” Journalists, he sadly concludes, “are slobs…. far beyond sartorial help.”
Saving myself from the dreariness of the usual convention company, I elect to spend the week with Stone. (Our Stone diary will hopefully feature multiple installments.) As we sit in the heavily fortified lobby of the Westin hotel on Monday morning, where most high-ranking Trumpkins are holing up, Stone is turned out in all his summer finery: spectator shoes, a jockey-print Hermes pocket square, an off-white suit that looks like the Good Humor man-meets-Harry F. Byrd. “The key thing is not the suit,” he says, “but for a speech, you’ve got to be able to strut.” And here he sheds his jacket, showing off an ornate pair of suspenders. As he roosters around in tight circles like he’s bringing the old-time religion, I tell him he looks like Uncle Earl Long, which pleases him greatly. “He once pissed in a Coke bottle on the floor of the Louisiana State Senate so he wouldn’t have to break up the filibuster,” Stone beams.
Stone hasn’t completely abandoned his usual ratf—ing operations. His minions, he tells me, are in a safe house outside the ever-widening security perimeter. “We have giant posters of Bill Clinton with the word ‘rape’ that are supposed to be plastered all over the city,” Stone says, all set to pivot to the general now that all these annoying delegates with their whiny “conscience clauses” have mostly been dispatched. (A political convention is no place to tote around a conscience, which will only weigh you down.)
But Stone is mainly here to take a victory lap, since Trump’s success, in a way, is his own. It seems like only yesterday—though it was actually 1999—that I was riding around California with Trump and Stone, exploring Trump’s star-crossed bid to take over the Reform party, as Stone was then Trump’s Paul Manafort. While Stone was either fired or quit as an official political strategist last August, depending on whose version you believe, he and Trump never really broke up, and they still speak “from time to time,” Stone says cryptically, even as Stone’s prints are all over the campaign. (Manafort, who aced out Stone’s now-fired bête noire Corey Lewandowski for control of the Trump campaign, being Stone’s old consulting partner. When Manafort publicly signed onto the campaign, Stone called me, singing “Back In The Saddle Again.”)
Trump’s aborted Reform party run causes us both to look back with bemused nostalgia. Somewhere in a warehouse, Stone says, he still has thousands of bottles of “Trump 2000” Purel hand sanitizer, which he’d place in fishbowls for grubby reporters at campaign events, since Trump then found shaking hands “barbaric.” And of the homely Reformers, who’d drink box-wine at party mixers while staring goggle-eyed at Melania, trying in vain to get Trump to take a gander at the platform of the party he wanted to take over, Stone remembers “there was so much double knit, that if anyone lit a match, that would’ve been a major fire hazard.”
As I watched Trump do things like tour a Holocaust museum, congratulating our rabbi guide on having a “great location,” as though Trump were sizing it up for repurposing as an Auschwitz-themed casino, it all seemed a lot funnier when there were about a million impediments to Trump becoming The Leader of the Free World. As opposed to now, when the only hurdle left seems to be Crooked Hillary. I ask Stone if he feels like Trump is the dog that caught the car. While Trump has even “exceeded my expectations,” Stone understates, he also takes what-can-I-say pride in the fact. “We were just 16 years ahead of our time,” but Americans, who once viewed a Trump candidacy as a suspect reality-show premise, have caught up.
But just because Stone now pretends that Trump is the second coming of Jesus H. Reagan, and I’ve detailed how Trump is a litigious, facile Twitter-head who speaks on a fourth-grade level and cheats at golf, we don’t let it ruin our friendship. And so I’m off with Stone as he prances down the media catwalk.
Even if the serially anti-establishment Stone (he formally left the Republican party a few years back to become a Libertarian) is now something close to the establishment, he still strains the leash, having been banned from MSNBC and CNN for hijinks such as tweeting, among other things, that CNN commentator Ana Navarro was “borderline retarded” and “dumber than dogs—t,” and that African-American commentator Roland Martin should “eat some more Popeye’s.” (Though he continues to hold both in low regard, Stone allows that some of this may have been late-night martini induced.)
But he now takes meetings with HBO executives, is featured as the star of Politico panels, has an independent documentary crew that’s been following him around for years, and regularly snaps towels with reporters, promising to spare them from audits when Trump makes him IRS commissioner. He hooks up with Tammy Haddad and Betsy Fischer Martin for their Bloomberg podcast “Masters in Politics,” parrying their anti-Trump slings and arrows, sounding relatively honest as he dazzles them with well-crafted one liners on the happenings of the day. (Stone says Hillary should pick Virginia senator Tim Kaine as vice president, even though “I have on reliable authority that when he walks into a Richmond restaurant, he orders vanilla ice cream and weak tea. The guy is boring. Very boring. The guy is so boring he’d paint an Easter egg white.”)
As Stone departs their curtained cubicle studio in the convention media center, demanding that we go to lunch since lunch is not just necessity, “but ritual,” he picks up reporters like a lint roller, firing quips and seasoned political analysis as if some ice-cream-suited Machine Gun Kelly.
Personally, I care to share profile subjects about as much I care to share my wife. The latter of which has never bothered Stone, a proud and confirmed swinger. I hang with people like Stone—outsider/insiders—partly not to have to suffer the indignities of traveling in ravenous packs of fellow journalistic hyenas, scavenging for scraps from not-terribly-interesting political types. But Stone’s now taking all the fun out of it with all his new friends. I remember him when he was busying himself with arcane down-ballot gambling initiatives and strategizing for stand-up comedians and former madams from the Eliot Spitzer hooker scandal in stunt candidacies. Those days seem to have receded. “Labash, I’m huge. I’m a big deal now,” he jokes, though I can’t tell if he’s really joking, and I’m not sure if he can either.
I tell him it’s kind of ironic that the likes of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney, the type of Republicans who arguably set the table for Trump’s ascendance, are now making noises about possibly voting Libertarian out of disgust. Stone pitches in, finishing my thought: and he once left the Republican party to become a Libertarian because he was disgusted with the likes of Jeb Bush and Mitt Romney.
Things change. “I was a fringe player,” Stone says with a wicked smile. “Now I’m in the mainstream, and Mitt Romney is a fringe player.”