When political dirty trickster Roger Stone was arrested and charged with lying to Congress, obstruction of justice and witness tampering on Friday, the result wasn’t merely the indictment of one man: Instead, it was an overdue condemnation of a component of our political system. The fact that Stone did not disappear into deserved irrelevance after 1974 demonstrates that neither he, nor the Washington political culture that continued to tolerate him, learned the right lessons from Watergate.
People are allowed to make mistakes and seek redemption, even in politics. But Stone never apologized and never seemed to grasp that he was a cog in a fog machine that denied voters the real information they deserved to make their constitutional choice. Stone’s continued presence on the political scene reinforced the idea that “the coverup is worse than the crime” instead of, “above all, don’t commit the crime.” It shouldn’t have taken this long for us to reject that amoral approach to power and leadership.
The Nixon Foundation tried to distance the former president from his disgraced admirer on Friday.
As a member of President Richard Nixon’s Committee to Re-Elect the President, better known as CREEP, Stone helped recruit a young operative to spy on a group of Quakers who had set up a peace vigil in front of the Nixon White House. Stone also admitted to Congress that he faked a contribution from the Young Socialist Alliance to Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican who in 1972 was mounting a challenge to Nixon in the New Hampshire primary. After delivering the $135 in cash and receiving a receipt, Stone then drafted an anonymous letter to the conservative Manchester Union Leader with a photocopy of the receipt to discredit McCloskey.
Stone did not merely engage in dirty tricks; in 1972, the then-19-year-old Stone was assigned by CREEP official Herbert “Bart” Porter to recruit a spy to penetrate the campaigns of Democratic presidential hopefuls. The secret Nixon agent Michael W. McMinoway introduced himself successively into the campaigns of Edmund Muskie, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern. Stone became his case officer, receiving intelligence from McMinoway via a post office box in Washington.
We are all innocent until proved otherwise, but Stone long ago gleefully admitted his guilt as an avid saboteur of our democracy. In this, he reflected an attitude that came from the top. Despite the touch of humanity he showed in one interview with David Frost, Nixon never really apologized for his political sins. He never admitted the full scale of the abuses and criminality of his administration and re-election campaign, choosing to reduce Watergate to a single break-in. In his recent book, “Nixon’s Secrets,” Stone presented himself as Nixon’s “closest political confidant” in Nixon’s “final campaign” for rehabilitation. According to Stone, he negotiated the “He’s Back” cover of Newsweek for Nixon in 1986. The goal was effectively to normalize criminal behavior by presidents one likes.
Unlike Nixon, however, Stone never sought rehabilitation. He was a welcome player in both the 1980 and 1984 Reagan-Bush election campaigns. In 1982, at the request of lawyer Roy Cohn, President Ronald Reagan sent Stone a telegram to wish him a happy “‘first anniversary’ of your ’29th’” birthday. That summer, the Reagan White House noted in its files that “Roger Stone, who was President of the Young Republicans at age 20, was actively involved in the campaign for the President and is a great supporter of his.” And after Reagan’s re-election in 1984, office seekers wrote to Stone at his consulting firm looking for jobs with the administration.
Eventually, Donald Trump came to enjoy the company, and political assistance, of Stone. In 2000, when Trump first dipped his toe into presidential waters, Stone seemed to be his sole campaign staffer. On Friday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders sought to downplay the Trump-Stone relationship, insisting, “Stone is somebody who has been a consultant for dozens of Republican presidents and candidates and members of Congress.” Rather than exculpating Trump, that argument condemns the establishment that failed to cast Stone out.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report may allow us to see whether Stone played the same subordinate role for the 45th president as he did for our 37th. If so, Stone would have the dubious distinction of having participated in the implosion of two presidencies.
Timothy Naftali, a former director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library, is the director of New York University’s undergraduate public-policy major and co-author of “Impeachment: An American History.”