Roger Stone began his career in political dirty tricks young. In 1960, he was eight, and decided he liked John F. Kennedy’s hair more than Richard Nixon’s. It was important to him for Kennedy to win the mock election at his school, which leaned Nixon, so he began sidling up to kids in the cafeteria line to ask, “Did you know Nixon has proposed school on Saturdays?” Kennedy won in a landslide unexpected enough that the local newspaper picked up the story.
Or so Stone tells the story in Get Me Roger Stone, a documentary directed by Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, and Morgan Pehme that debuts on Netflix May 12. Stone joyously plays along with the film’s effort to portray him as the political Prince of Darkness, a sobriquet that, according to one observer seen on camera, he would love to have on his tombstone. Yet the filmmakers have an appropriately jaundiced eye for Stone’s tall tales; as Tucker Carlson puts it, in Stone’s telling of history he “was sitting next to Washington as they were crossing the Delaware. He was with Eisenhower on D-Day. He was cradling Bobby Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel.” Funny, but then Carlson follows up with this stroke of perspicacity: “Is it more brilliant and impressive to influence world events or to stand on the periphery of world events and yet get recorded as having influenced world events?”
Everyone has a story about Stone, whom Jeffrey Toobin of The New Yorker wittily dubs “the sinister Forrest Gump of American politics — this Machiavellian, almost crazy guy who shows up at every key moment in recent American history.” Indeed, hours after I viewed this quite amusing if also dispiriting film, a highly placed New York political figure told me that it was Stone who convinced Donald Trump not to enter the Empire State’s gubernatorial race in 2014, thereby saving him from what would likely have been a humiliating loss. Instead, Stone argued Trump should keep his powder dry for a White House run in 2016, an idea that appealed to the future president’s predilection for the big and bold.
Trump, interviewed before the election, turns up in the film praising Stone, as does Stone’s long-time lobbying partner Paul Manafort, who acknowledges that Stone was one of “two or three” people urging Trump to hire him before the Republican convention last year. Manafort adds that Stone was deeply involved in campaign messaging even after Trump fired him (Stone says he quit) around the time the candidate began taking heat for his contretemps with Megyn Kelly.
It isn’t hard to believe Stone continued to exert influence on his onetime mentee: the Trump campaign, as the film makes clear, was the apotheosis of Stone-ism, the culmination of a 30-year effort by Stone to persuade Trump to seek the most powerful office on earth. “The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” notes Toobin. Both men, after all, revel in making enemies. “Roger is unique in my experience because he actually embraces infamy,” Toobin says. “He doesn’t worry that you think he’s a sleazeball; he wants you to think he’s a sleazeball.”
Stone is a reason why we have a president who is more at home in a professional-wrestling ring than he is discussing the origins of the Civil War.
Which makes Stone, with his Guys and Dolls wardrobes, his cigars and martinis and endless reserve of funny stories, a captivating subject for a light-hearted documentary. But if Stone helped turn politics into a joke, maybe that joke isn’t funny anymore, if it ever was. Stone is a reason why we have a president who is more at home in a professional-wrestling ring than he is discussing the origins of the Civil War. Over footage from The Apprentice, Stone explains that Trump looked tough and authoritative and decisive on the show: “Do you think voters, non-sophisticates, make a difference between entertainment and politics?” If we did once think that, we don’t anymore.
Toobin and his New Yorker stablemate Jane Mayer, also interviewed in the film, greatly bewail Stone’s role in dragging politics into the big top and then through the elephant dung, but this is a familiar refrain. When Democrats win elections, it’s because they’re wonderful visionaries, but when Republicans win it’s only because they appealed to America’s base impulses, slung mud, or outright cheated. (That Hillary Clinton keeps blaming her defeat on misogyny, James Comey, and the Russians, instead of on her own failures, is a perfect example of liberal loser’s limp.) Mayer compares Stone to the Joker, but the Joker wanted to blow up everything; Stone merely wants to blow up Democrats.
Like Mayer and Toobin, I’d prefer to have a president with some experience in government, or knowledge of government, or at least some interest in government. And Stone is easy to blame for Trump, a big shiny target who even painted a bull’s eye on his back, albeit in the form of a Nixon tattoo. But let’s not blame the diagnostician for the disease. As Carlson puts it, more in respect than in anger, “Roger actually gets democracy in a way I think most people who cover politics don’t.” In another on-camera interview, Weekly Standard writer Matt Labash captures the upshot of that understanding with characteristic pithiness: “Now the children’s table is the adult table and Alex Jones is passing the dinner rolls.” Donald Trump turned out to be the president for this American moment. Roger Stone saw that, but he didn’t Jedi-mind-trick the rest of us into playing along.