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Roger Stone, the Cockroach of American Politics

The new Netflix documentary "Get Me Roger Stone" tracks the life and times of an operator who has a habit of sticking around.


Last week, shortly after President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, Roger Stone tweeted, “Somewhere Dick Nixon is smiling.” Then he had a cigar. And then he told Politico about it.

It’s no surprise that Stone was celebrating. He had been lobbying Trump to fire Comey for weeks, according to multiple sources. This was staggeringly inappropriate in a way that’s become commonplace in the early days of the Trump administration: Stone, alongside his former lobbying partner Paul Manafort, was being investigated by the FBI for possibly illegal contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.

As such, it turned out to be a good week for Netflix to release the documentary Get Me Roger Stone. He’s a man whose fingerprints are all over some of the worst aspects of American politics in the past five decades: Watergate, lobbying, negative advertising, the 2000 recount, the Clinton conspiracy complex, and, perhaps most famously, Donald Trump. He’s a consummate Republican insider—he’s worked in various capacities for Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, and Trump—who nevertheless presents himself as an anti-elitist crusader, a link between GOP officials and angry members of the white working class. (Stone, who dresses like a mix between Tom Wolfe and the Penguin, refers to the bulk of voters as “non-sophisticates.”)

Still, there is also a sense that Stone has fooled the media into thinking that he’s a puppet-master when he has actually played only a bit part. Get Me Roger Stone takes its name from one of Stone’s few moments of genuine self-awareness. “First they say, ‘Who is Roger Stone?,’ then they say, ‘Get me Roger Stone,’ then they say, ‘Get me a Roger Stone type,’ and finally, they say, ‘Who is Roger Stone?,’” Stone says. It’s a good encapsulation of the transience of fame, of the political variety and otherwise. But Stone’s fluctuating relevance also gets at the documentary’s main problem, which is that it seems uncertain if Stone has engineered our bad political moment or is merely a symptom of it.

Get Me Roger Stone opens with Stone looking on from the shadows as Trump, a giant visage on the screen, gives his “law and order” acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in July of 2016. The message is unmistakable: Roger Stone helped create Donald Trump.

Trump’s outsized presence turns out to be one of the movie’s great weaknesses: Too much of it feels like one long inevitable march to Trump. At times, this works to great effect, especially when we see Stone’s role in degrading public trust in government and pouring corrupt money into elections. But other times it feels like a host trying to resist a virus. Stone himself, with his Cheshire Cat grin, proves elusive, lost somewhere in the role he wants to project. “My name is Roger Stone and I’m an agent provocateur,” he says while sipping a James Bond-ish martini at the film’s beginning.

Still, like its subject, Get Me Roger Stone is enormously and effortlessly entertaining. A cast of talking heads—Jane Mayer, the late Wayne Barrett, Jeffrey Toobin, a surprisingly thoughtful Tucker Carlson—provides context and righteous indignation. (On the last point, Barrett and New York Daily News columnist Harry Siegel are both indispensable.) Stone portrays himself as a trickster practically from birth and a fully-formed ratfucker—a term of art for those who specialize in political dirty tricks—by the time he entered the political big leagues as a mere teenager. He was the youngest person to go before the Watergate grand jury, which he is still very proud of. And his love for Richard Nixon seems entirely genuine, though Nixon’s appeal is more a matter of style than substance. Stone admires Nixon, whose face he has tattooed on his back, for his perseverance and his “anti-elitism,” which for Stone mostly means telling liberals to piss off.

Stone’s mostly conventional work for Reagan is presented as a precursor for the creation of the lobbying group Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly, which would become infamous for representing some of the world’s worst dictators and human rights abusers. The film moves at a brisk pace when dealing with Stone’s backstory, and that’s a shame only when dealing with this chapter in Stone’s life, which may very well be his most important endeavor. Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly helped transform Washington, D.C., and American political culture in more insidious and overt ways than Stone’s other claims to fame, with the exception of his role in creating the Donald Trump we know today.

As Siegel notes, the firm pioneered one of Washington’s most destructive revolving doors—they elected politicians, then lobbied them—and helped finesse the reputations of some true monsters, like Mobutu Sese Seko. The firm “really created the modern sleazeball lobbyist,” Toobin says. Stone, typically, doesn’t give a shit. “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist,” Stone shrugs. “I’m proud of the job I did at Black, Manafort and Stone because I made a lot of money.” These sections are Get Me Roger Stone at its best, when the film depicts Stone as the embodiment of everything rotten in American politics without getting too caught up in his web.

We then rush through Stone’s other brushes with fame—the sex scandal that got him fired from Bob Dole’s campaign in 1996, his role in the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that disrupted the Florida recount, his manipulation of Donald Trump to destroy the Reform Party in 2000, which helped elect George W. Bush—before getting back to the main attraction: Donald Trump.

Stone’s role in Trump’s political evolution—the two have worked together since the mid-1980s—is undeniable, but the film struggles to capture it. Trump is interviewed but it’s clearly a courtesy and he says nothing remotely interesting. “Roy [Cohn] thought Roger was a very tough guy,” Trump says. Get Me Roger Stone tries to capture the essence of their relationship by tagging along with Stone as he calls Bill Clinton a rapist in a number of different settings—outside the RNC, inside the RNC, in Florida, on the streets of Manhattan. But these moments say little about Stone, besides the fact that he clearly enjoys getting under people’s skin.

At the same time, both Stone and his allies—particularly Paul Manafort—overstate his influence on contemporary politics. “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Manafort says. “While it will be a Trump presidency I think it’s influenced by a Stone philosophy.” But Toobin hits the nail on the head. “I think he sees the Trump campaign at once as his creation but also as something that he’s not allowed to participate in day to day,” he says. “And that understandably makes him sad.”

The Stone that emerges is no Svengali. Instead of the man responsible for what ails the country—or, in his parlance, what is making America great again—Stone appears to be exiled from both the Republican Party and Donald Trump’s inner circle. Recent events suggest Stone is still playing a role in Trump’s presidency, but it’s just as likely that Stone is writing himself into another political story. In fact, his penchant for media attention got him fired from Trump’s campaign (Stone claims he resigned). His attachment to the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones seems born of loneliness more than anything else—Jones will have him when no one else will.

So even though the film ends on a note of triumph—or horror, depending on your perspective—it rings hollow. This is probably Stone’s last turn on the big stage, using his on-and-off relationship with Trump as a springboard. “Even if Donald Trump loses I still win because I’ve been front and center and my brand of politics have come into their own,” Stone says before the election.

But even if you give him credit for our wrecked political landscape, Get Me Roger Stone shows that there’s little for Stone to be proud of, beyond his cockroach-like ability to stick around. “I ask you,” Carlson asks near the end of the film, “is it more brilliant or impressive to influence world events or to stand on the periphery of world events and yet get recorded as having influenced world events? Maybe the latter!” It isn’t the latter.