The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Roger Stone should be a footnote in history. Instead, his life shows our descent to shamelessness.

Roger Stone was sentenced to 40 months in prison on Feb. 20, after being convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Howard Fineman, a former chief political correspondent for Newsweek, is a news analyst for NBC and MSNBC.

In 1978, Democrat Charles “Pug” Ravenel was giving Sen. Strom Thurmond (R), the former segregationist, a tough race for reelection in South Carolina. Ravenel was from a prominent, well-liked local family, but had made the mistake of prepping at Exeter and playing football at Harvard.

How do you tackle him? Well, if you were Roger Stone, you somehow “heard” thirdhand that Ravenel had promised at a private Manhattan fundraiser to be a “third senator from New York.” You get that rumor published in a minor New York rag. Then you and your partner in crime, a young South Carolina hustler named Lee Atwater, take this “news” and spread it from Charleston to Greenville to Myrtle Beach. And then you win the race going away, even as poor ol’ Pug protests that he’d never said any such thing.

Stone proudly told me the Ravenel story years later. As a political reporter, then and now, I talked with Roger a good bit — we all did — and over the decades he inevitably book-ended the conversations the same way. They began, “You didn’t hear this from me,” and ended, “Keep me out of trouble.”

I didn’t admit hearing things from him, but there was nothing I could do, even if I wanted to, to keep him out of trouble.

It would be reassuring to find a noble person to embody the political age that runs from Richard M. Nixon in 1972 to Donald Trump in 2019, some OK Boomer who was and remains our moral compass through the years, ensuring that we stay the sacred course as the Last Best Hope of Mankind on Earth.

Instead, we have Roger Stone.

He is the gamey sinew that connects a second-term president who quit in 1974 rather than be impeached to one who seems almost eager to be impeached. Stone admired, advised and did dirty work for both men. Partly through his efforts, Stone’s former consulting partner, Paul Manafort (now on jail on tax charges) became Trump’s campaign chairman in 2016.

Now, at 67, Stone is, like Manafort, a convicted felon. He is facing prison for lying to Congress and intimidating witnesses about his efforts to acquire and publicize stolen Democratic emails. Typically for Stone, it’s not clear how much malfeasance he committed and how much he claimed to have done. He is the kind of guy who likes to embellish his own bad rep: political consultant as Times Square grifter.

He should be a footnote in history. Instead, the arc of his life illuminates the descent of the Right — and much of our political machinery — into a quicksand of cynical shamelessness from which we are struggling to escape. There never was anything philosophical about Stone, unlike many other conservatives. He was always in it for something akin to social revenge.

As a boy, he hated the swells but wanted to be one — in his own way. He was the Hungarian-Italian son of a well digger, living in a tiny bungalow amid the sweeping lawns of Pound Ridge, N.Y.

To stand out in school in the mid-60s, Stone chose not to be a disheveled rebel of the Left (that was for rich kids of local country club Republicans) but an angry dandy of the Right: aping William F. Buckley, lauding J. Edgar Hoover and, most of all, idolizing Nixon, whom he met and loved in part because of the fine quality of Nixon’s suit and tie. “Nixon knew how to dress,” Roger told me. This was his highest form of praise.

Nixon’s deeper appeal to Stone was his ruthlessness and refusal to quit. Nixon’s aura drew Stone to Washington, where he briefly attended college before joining others to stir up trouble for the Committee to Re-Elect the President, often aptly called CREEP. They distributed fake “Socialist” propaganda on behalf of the Democrats, and a racist letter supposedly written by a Democratic candidate.

After the Old Man left Washington in disgrace, Stone stayed close, writing memos and setting up private dinners with reporters. Stone soon figured out that his best bet — for a big score and fine clothing — was to advise Men of Means who had no political experience but an ego-driven desire to run for, or at least threaten to run for, elective office.

The hook-up with Trump was inevitable and served both men’s purposes: Stone would suggest that Trump was getting ready to jump into this or that campaign; Trump would say, “That’s just Roger.” The routine worked for a time: They could dabble without being taken very seriously — until the moment when they had to be.

That time came in 2016. In May of that year, I was in Trump’s office in Trump Tower. He was, unbelievably, the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party. “We have a mutual friend,” I said, looking to see the reaction I’d get. “Roger Stone. I’ve known him forever.”

Trump was silent for a moment. He smiled but looked wary. Trump finally said, “He’s something, huh?” And he shook his head in what seemed to be appreciation.

Read more:

Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: Roger Stone’s conviction, and Trump’s ugly response, further demonstrate the president’s corruption

David Von Drehle: The knocking of FBI agents must have been music to Roger Stone’s ears

Dana Milbank: The Roger Stone clown show is the Trump presidency in microcosm