Roger Stone wants you to see his upper-back tattoo. It’s Richard Nixon’s face. Look at it! He shows it off repeatedly in the new Netflix documentary, Get Me Roger Stone, which follows the 64-year-old archconservative political operative into the general election stage of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. (The documentary, directed by Daniel DiMauro, Dylan Bank, and Morgan Pehme, features several minutes of original interviews with Trump that were all recorded before he won the GOP nomination.)
Stone spent the past two decades counseling Trump toward a life in national politics. He led Trump’s failed 2000 bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. A decade later, Stone coached Trump in the language and ethos of the Tea Party as Trump launched an outrageous campaign to disprove President Obama’s U.S. citizenship. He counseled Trump in the earliest captivating stages of his 2016 presidential bid. Most recently, Stone is rumored to have counseled Trump to fire FBI Director James Comey, who oversaw an official investigation of Russia’s possible influence in the election. Without Stone, this documentary would lead us to believe, Trump wouldn’t have run for the presidency, much less won.
Stone got his start as a political adviser in the 1970s, shuffling funds for Ronald Reagan’s 1980 primary campaign in the Northeast. In Get Me Roger Stone, he takes a lot of credit for pioneering the dark art of post-Nixonian campaigning. Jeffrey Toobin says Stone invented modern political lobbying; Tucker Carlson says Stone basically invented slander. Stone fancies himself an immortal trickster and master propagandist; the former explains why he’d be drawn to someone like Trump, and the latter explains how he wound up starring in his own documentary. “Even if Donald Trump loses,” Stone says, “I win because the Stone brand has been front and center.”
Get Me Roger Stone is best thought of as a pitch deck for Stone the brand. At the beginning of the documentary, Stone makes a big to-do about outlining the core principles he uses to advise his clients. “Stone’s Rules,” as he calls them, include axioms like, “It is better to be infamous than never to be famous at all.” The filmmakers do Stone the favor of grafting these rules onto stylized title cards sequenced to explain Trump’s progress in the presidential race.
“THE ONLY THING WORSE IN POLITICS THAN BEING WRONG IS BEING BORING” (the GOP primaries)
“NOTHING IS ON THE LEVEL” (the GOP convention in Cleveland, prior to which Trump’s supporters and aides, including Stone, expressed fears that the Republican establishment would steal the nomination from Trump at the last minute)
“TO WIN, YOU MUST DO EVERYTHING” (the general election campaign against Hillary Clinton)
The rules themselves are banal, slogans you’d see taped to the dorm-room walls of a young, pretentious cynic. (“I live a pretty Machiavellian life,” Stone says at the nadir of his self-awareness.) It is dime-store insight that Stone is peddling; the smartest bit of Get Me Roger Stone is an offhand remark by Carlson, when he jokes that Stone has stood ringside at every major event in U.S. history, including events he wasn’t even alive for. Stone isn’t particularly influential, Carlson suggests, so much as he just so happens to always be present. He’s always backstage, always shaking hands with the somebody of the moment. He gets around. Toobin describes Stone as a “sinister Forrest Gump of American politics.”
To be sure: Stone is an experienced consultant, and his Rolodex is impressive. In the documentary, longtime GOP strategist Mike Murphy personally attests to Stone’s intelligence, but concedes that Stone gets bogged down in adversarial pretense when he conducts himself with the press. “He grabs that persona as his pro-wrestling name,” Murphy says, “but in the real world of politics, he’s a strategist. I think when he does the ‘dirty trickster’ thing for the media, he’s having fun but he’s slumming a little bit.”
The “dirty trickster” routine is a crucial inclusion in the Stone package. Watching Get Me Roger Stone and realizing that none of the three directors involved are especially suited for a political documentary with a critical point of view, you get the sense that Stone recruited these guys to help him pitch that package to general audiences. The man and his documentary propose that Stone invented modern, post-Trump politics as we know it, and that to understand how American politics has gotten so loud, vulgar, and basic, you must understand Stone — and, if you’re a potential client, maybe go so far as to hire him for his services.
But to know anything about American presidential politics of the 1800s is to appreciate that it has been a bloodsport for much longer than Stone has been around. Here, for instance, is an excerpt from an editorial that the Cincinnati Gazette, which backed President John Quincy Adams in the 1828 election, published as criticism of Adams’s opponent, U.S. Army Major General Andrew Jackson: “General Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute, brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a mulatto man, with whom she had several children, of which number General Jackson is one!”
Such nastiness predates Stone’s career by a cool century and a half. Surely, he knows that. But he also knows that history, facts, and common sense are nothing in the face of great marketing — such as this, his very own film.
Stone is hardly the first glorified memo-pusher to put himself on a pedestal like this. Get Me Roger Stone services one of America’s stranger fetishes in recent decades — the cult of the political operative.
The cult was founded during Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, which inspired the novel Primary Colors. Joe Klein’s 1996 best seller cast fictional counterparts for Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as senior campaign aides George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, and Dee Dee Myers. Undoubtedly, the cult’s greatest achievement in the way of pop culture is The West Wing, which series creator Aaron Sorkin staffed with barely disguised stand-ins for various White House staffers under Clinton: Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) was Stephanopoulos, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) was Myers, and Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) was Rahm Emanuel. (Myers consulted on early seasons of the show.)
In the 2000s, pop culture was less kind to the prevailing operatives of the day: Karl Rove, Frank Luntz, Ed Gillespie — the unfashionable Republicans who followed President George W. Bush to Washington. Rove, in particular, ranked right below Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and Bush himself in the administration’s official order of vilification. But the cult of the operative empowers people like Rove, be they liberal or conservative, long after they leave public office. Rove and Carville have become permanent fixtures of the modern cable news ecosystem; Rove as a regular Fox News contributor, Carville as a former contributor and now occasional guest at CNN. There, these consultants star in rounds of pointless, endless conflict, panel segment after panel segment, killing time between, and then during, election cycles until their marks of credibility are burned into the discourse. They’re go-to analysts now.
Mind you, Stone doesn’t have much in the way of tangible political victories compared with Stephanopoulos, Rove, or Obama’s presidential architect, David Plouffe. In the documentary, Stone’s reputation is built on loving innuendo from his admirers (and himself), but few great achievements beyond publicity for himself. He knew Roy Cohn. He knows Donald Trump. Big whoop. He’s a guy who knows a guy. He knows all the guys. And he has the ear of some powerful people. So does every other oddly overdressed white man who wears a striped, double-breasted suit in northwest Washington, D.C.
In this light, Stone is not quite the boogeyman that his heartfelt admirers, his most rabid critics, and his personal documentarians make him out to be. He is not the Ernst Stavro Blofeld of modern American politics. He’s a beta tester for Donald Trump’s rhetoric, to be sure, and a petty replica of the man himself: a tabloid hound who would wither and die if reporters stopped calling and covering him. So he makes an ass of himself for the sake of infamy — per Stone’s rule no. 1.
The author and journalist Jane Mayer, who is as impressed with Stone as anyone else in the doc, describes him as a spectacle desperately in search of an audience. “His pleasure at burning down the house is infectious for people,” she says. “As a reporter, you call him up because you want the outrageous quote. You want to hear what he has to say.” The reporters are slumming it, too. If you want to see how gullible they are, such that they’d all gather to celebrate an old, clingy fanboy as a digital Machiavelli — boy, have I got the documentary for you. But if you want to understand how American politics has gone so wrong so fast, and in such an improbably sustainable manner, you’re just a couple of hundred years too late.