“I was like a jockey looking for a horse. You can’t win the race if you don’t have a horse. He’s a prime piece of political horse flesh in my view.” – Roger Stone on Donald Trump.
A grapefruit-size grinning face of Richard Nixon is tattooed on the back of Roger Stone, the longtime political operative and legendary dirty trickster. Stone, 64, credited with propelling Donald Trump into politics, defends the tattoo proudly in an early scene from Get Me Roger Stone, the fascinating and instructive new documentary recently released on Netflix.
Anyone trying to keep up with the daily drama emanating from the White House lately — from President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey to the multiple Russia investigations to the Comey memos — could benefit from a screening of this film.
The documentary follows Stone from his earliest days in politics, as a 19-year-old neophyte performing dirty tricks for Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign and the youngest person called to testify in front of the Watergate grand jury, to his close involvement in Trump’s surprising win last year.
I had heard of Roger Stone, of his gutter-level tactics, his conspiracy theories and his close ties to Trump. But I had little idea of the depth of influence he’s had on American politics the past five decades and on the current White House tenant. Like others, I’ve been intrigued by the forces that propelled Trump to the presidency and so deeply divided our nation. Get Me Roger Stone offers some of the best insight into this I’ve seen anywhere.
Interestingly, the filmmakers — Morgan Pehme, Dylan Bank and Dan DiMauro — met Stone six years ago and planned to do a movie focusing on his influence on American politics. They had gathered five years worth of footage on Stone before the 2016 presidential campaign even began. But as Trump marched through the primaries, with Stone ever-lurking in his shadows, they realized they had something much bigger.
Their goal was not to make a liberal, finger-wagging hit piece, DiMauro told me, but a film that peeled back the veneer of modern political campaigning and explained how Stone — and others like him — have muddied modern political discourse.
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” DiMauro said. “By making this film, we wanted people to understand the profound effect (Stone) has had on our politics and the degradation of political discourse over the past 50 years.”
Co-director Pehme said he hopes viewers of the film realize elections are about more than just the candidates. “We are painfully naive about the fact that the most powerful people, the people really moving our country, are the people behind the camera, in the shadows, like Roger Stone,” he said.
After Watergate, the film follows Stone through his Forrest-Gump-like political career: Working on the campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; peddling access in the influential D.C. lobbying firm of Black, Manafort and Stone (known as the “Torturer’s Lobby” for taking on clients such as Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines); pioneering negative TV ads through political-action committees; orchestrating street protests on behalf of George W. Bush during the 2000 Florida presidential election recount.
“Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers,” Stone says in the film.
In 1987, Stone began urging Trump to run for president. In the film, Trump praises Stone repeatedly, calling him “tough” and a “quality guy.” In one sequence, the film shows how Stone helped sabotage the Reform Party’s chances in the 2000 presidential election by urging Pat Buchanan to run as a Reform candidate, then backing Trump to run against Buchanan. In part because of Trump’s brash attacks on his rival (“He’s a Hitler lover,” Trump repeatedly says about Buchanan), the Reform Party imploded, paving the way for Bush’s contentious win that year.
Stone’s fingerprints, according to the film, were again all over Trump’s victory last year: the “Make America Great Again” slogan (borrowed from a Reagan campaign Stone worked on); questioning President Obama’s birth certificate; spreading unfounded allegations that Bill Clinton is a serial rapist. Stone’s name has also been mentioned in connection to the widening FBI inquiry into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald,” Paul Manafort, Stone’s ex-partner and Trump’s former campaign manager, says in the film.
Toward the end of the movie, Stone is seen inside a stretch limo winding its way through midtown Manhattan. It’s after the November elections and Stone is aglow with his protégé’s victory.
“This is the manifestation of a dream I’ve had since 1988,” he says. “I always thought Donald Trump had the size and the courage … to become president of the United States.”
The camera follows Stone as he exits the limo and disappears into Trump Tower.
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