One of the happiest stories of 2018 was the National Basketball Association debut of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Andre Ingram at the ripe old age of 32. Breaking into the major league of basketball at 32 is like getting a driver’s license at 105. Ingram was, in the words of a much younger teammate, “a testament to hard work, never giving up and just sticking with it.”
Washington’s answer to this feel-good saga is the 66-year-old figure of farce named Roger Stone, who has finally achieved his lifelong dream of a central role in a high-profile scandal. Stone’s exuberant appearance on the courthouse steps after being booked on federal charges related to the Trump-Russia investigation was the performance of a lifetime. You got the feeling he had been practicing in front of a mirror for decades.
His double-V-for-victory gesture was a nod to the time when his dream took root. As a college student in 1972, poor Stone was born too late for a starring role in Watergate. But his walk-on part as an extra in that drama — Stone was dog-sitting for a Nixon campaign official when a Watergate burglar called the man from jail seeking illicit aid; the young gofer took a message — taught him the tawdry thrill of notoriety.
Stone knew himself well enough to realize that he would never make headlines for statesmanship, nor would he ever be suited to any Washington job above deputy assistant undersecretary for grifting. If he was to make his mark in the Beltway big leagues, it would have to involve something scandalous.
Even though he had his back tattooed with an image of a grinning Richard M. Nixon, even though he finagled a partnership with that flashing billboard of shady dealing Paul Manafort, even though he strutted through the sack-suited streets of the capital dressed like a Batman villain, even though he practically begged gossip columnists to write about his interest in swinging , Stone could not — as the saying goes — get arrested. No one cared.
The knocking of FBI agents on his door Friday morning must have been music to his ears — a testament to hard work, never giving up and just sticking with it. As he toured the television networks after posting bail (“Mr. Mueller, I’m ready for my close-up!”), Stone tried to fake outrage at the supposed excesses of his arresting officers. But his utter contentment kept shining through. As Charlotte the spider wrote of Wilbur, while the guileless pig dozed on his pile of manure, Stone was RADIANT.
He is an example of a deep truth about Washington: The city may raise statues and temples to its heroes, but its heart belongs to the rogues. You can always spot an outsider to capital culture: They go back home in disgrace. One little scandal — a mistress on the government payroll, an island getaway furnished by a grateful contractor, a dalliance in an airport restroom — and they skulk away in shame. That’s not the Washington way. The thing to do when humiliated in the capital, especially if the humiliation is self-inflicted, is to go on as before, preening, pontificating and poking at your enemies. In time, all will be forgotten.
Washington rewards the shameless. Perhaps you heard that Bill Clinton has another book contract? Or that Donald Trump lives in the White House?
Or maybe you’ve noticed the return to ubiquity of Newt Gingrich on television and the op-ed pages. Gingrich was a hundred times the strategist that poor Roger Stone will ever be, and a thousand times as ambitious. But the quality that makes them soulmates (soul-less mates?) is the complete absence of shame in their mental equipment.
Only the truly shameless could engineer the impeachment of a president for covering up an affair with a much younger staff member — while conducting a secret affair with a much younger staff member. That was the national service rendered by House Speaker Gingrich in the year 1998. Gingrich, who enjoyed delivering long lectures on the need to restore “civilization” and “family values” to our troubled land, showed how richly he valued his own family by offering his wife at the time a choice between divorce and an “open marriage.”
Understandably, she chose divorce — but the rest of us don’t appear to have the option. We’re stuck with Gingrich like rancid gum from a dirty sidewalk, because Gingrich is stuck on us. To go and spout no more is for him an unthinkable fate.
Fame and infamy are properly opposites. The first is earned by merit; the second is earned in shame. But we have created a culture of undifferentiated celebrity; say what you must, but spell the name right. This culture has oozed from entertainment to government; in the case of clownish Stone, it may be laughable. In the broader context, this very bad joke is on us.
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