Roger Stone: Performance artist on the fringe

It’s difficult to not remember the times one has encountered Roger Stone. I have personally done so a handful of occasions — not by choice — and each provided me with incredibly entertaining stories to share with friends. And those stories are exactly what he wanted. Because above all else, Roger Stone wants attention. Not power, not influence, not responsibility, and certainly not whatever political values he professes to support.

As Roger said outside the federal courthouse, “the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.” He has the worldwide infamy he’s craved, but it comes with responsibility, something he’s never sought. He has lived on the fringe because it gave him the opportunity to be infamous without consequences. But when the fringe wins, its residents have to change or be held accountable.

Stone has cultivated his dirty trickster image for decades, but it rests on very little substance. Through all of the antics, from the sycophantic adulation of Richard Nixon to taking up residency in the fever swamp of InfoWars, Roger Stone has been more of an idea than an actuality. While he maintained that he was a libertarian, the reality is that Stone does not care. If not exactly a nihilist, he is nonetheless willing to amend his views to bolster his notoriety.

I met Roger Stone in the Fall of 2015. We were to appear opposite one another in two segments about the 2016 election on Fox & Friends. Still relatively new to the world of television punditry myself, I was anxious and it showed. When Stone entered the green room, he saw me not as a verbal sparring partner, but as a potential mark.

After politely introducing himself to me and making the requisite small talk, Stone shifted to his natural rhythm. Carefully, he performed a well-rehearsed aria of self-promotion not in roaring crescendo, but in a soft melody.

Ackkk! He softly exclaimed. I looked up from my iPhone to find his arms pointing to the flat screen television, with a look of mild disgust on his face. The target of his theatric revulsion was none other than Pope Francis, who was visiting the United States at the time.

“Somebody should shoot the son of a bitch.” Roger gently said in the most flippant of manners.

“Why?” I said along with some sort of stammered defense.

“He’s a god damned communist. I would pull the trigger myself if I could.” It was shocking and somewhat jarring to hear, but none of it should have been surprising. After all, it was Roger Stone who said it. Extremity is the point.

The conversation ended there, we did our two segments, and I assumed that was that. But as we were leaving, Roger turned on the charm again, this time in an over-the-top manner. He knew enough about me to recognize I was not a fan of Donald Trump or his presidential campaign. He pulled me aside and said that he was angry. Angry at the way he had been fired by Trump over the summer, angry that he had been cast aside after years of loyal service in favor of people he deemed unworthy, so angry that he shared my belief that the man should not be president. Not five minutes before, Stone had been championing Trump’s campaign on air. Now he was poo-pooing it and hoping that I would take the bait.

As we walked out of the narrow hall of the Fox News green room and into the building’s lobby, Stone placed his hand on my elbow, gently maneuvered me so that I faced him, and was now whispering in my ear. He volunteered to help me and whomever I was working with in helping to thwart the Trump candidacy. I insisted, truthfully, that I was not part of some network seeking to thwart Trump, but rather just a guy with an opinion. Roger clearly wanted to know who Trump’s enemies were, insert himself into the matter, and engage in what he believed to be valiant combat on behalf of his long-time friend and client.

Every subsequent green room interaction with Roger followed the same pattern. Roger would try to knock me off-kilter with an act of extremity designed to cultivate the image of Roger Stone, the prince of darkness, followed by a ham-handed bid to insinuate himself. For instance, shortly before going on air, I watched him demand a blow-out from a FOX stylist (she rolled her eyes, but acquiesced). In April 2018, trailed by a documentary film crew, he declared loudly that Lyndon Johnson had been in on the plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy. He also noted that the same type of people (perhaps the very same!) were after Donald Trump, insisting for emphasis that he too was a victim, having been poisoned with Polonium 210 by the Deep State. He knew that every person he told this to would tell the story of the crazy, amoral Roger Stone and, in turn, become unwitting propagators of his legend.

I only saw Roger break his pattern once. He faded into the background as former FBI agent Naveed Jamali slammed Trump to Stone’s face, unaware of the latter’s identity. Roger just smiled and nodded along, aware that the rest of us would fill in Naveed once Roger went on air, and that this moment would become Naveed’s personal version of the Roger Stone experience.

Deep down, Roger Stone strikes me as a boy playing at politics who has never wanted the real life consequences of truly being in the arena. It is why he has sought not to be in the heart of power, but to place himself on the periphery. He strives to project proximity to the powerful rather than power itself. Until recently, he has been shrewd enough to recognize that the closer you are to the center of power, the more limited your time in the limelight is likely to be. Life on the fringes comes with a kind of longevity. So Roger has opted to be on the margins, like the bearded lady in a freakshow, demanding we gawk at this strange attraction.

Yet in recognizing that the worst thing you can do in politics is to be boring, Roger has understood something about America. We have latched onto Sarah Palin, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others like them. They are often wrong, but they certainly are entertaining. Roger Stone makes the act more explicit and extreme than many others. He purposefully injects the sinister into the equation and leaves each of us wondering if it’s a calibrated act or if he is indeed crazy. But he’s not really telling us anything about Roger Stone. In giving us what we want — a Nixon tattooed, natty-dressing, sexual omnivorous amorality — he’s telling us an awful lot about ourselves and we are telling one another an awful lot about him.

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