By Michael Smerconish, Inquirer Columnist
‘Oh, I went to an orgy there once.”
That was Roger Stone’s response after I answered his question on my New York City hotel of choice. He’s standing shirtless and wearing khakis inside his pied-à-terre on the Upper East Side, where we meet before going for a drink and dinner. The two-bedroom with hardwood floors is decorated with vintage martini shakers and political memorabilia, including a poster of Richard Nixon sporting an Afro.
Stone had just awoken from a well-earned nap. He’s had a busy week. After three decades of advising Donald Trump, the two have just parted company and Stone has been busy fielding media inquiries. Whether he quit or was fired depends on which of the two men you ask.
Stone pulls a polo shirt (skull and crossbones, no alligator or man on a horse for him) over his bare back, which famously sports a tattoo of Nixon. But before we leave, he asks if I want to see the closet. Mine’s an easy call given his appreciation for sartorial splendor.
After the death of Mr. Blackwell in 2008, Stone began publishing his own best-and-worst dressed list on an annual basis at his website Stonezone.com (full disclosure, I made the former in 2014).
A full wall of his bedroom is filled with neckties and his closet is packed with seersucker and bespoke suits, although he professes to not having purchased one in years. He tells me the New York Times has a profile of his fashion sensibilities scheduled for its men’s style section in September.
“My tailor was a Chinese guy on 44th Street named Chen who was trained on Savile Row,” he says, “He was skilled and knew to leave enough fabric in the seams for weight fluctuations.”
Spending time with this practitioner of political dark arts is a steady diet of stories featuring household names. We begin with a drink at a neighborhood corner spot that Stone says caters to Manhattan Republicans, “including Rudy.”
When the owner greets him by name, Stone advises to look for a mention of his place in an upcoming tabloid column as the scene of a clandestine political meeting. (My hunch is that when it is published, he will be named as one of the attendees.) The owner offers a round. Stone demurs.
Walking to dinner, Stone tells me we are headed to an Italian restaurant favored by another GOP strategist, Ed Rollins. “I might stick a fork in his neck if we see him,” he tells me, not laughing. I still think he’s kidding until he reveals that he’s been dealing with a painful detached retina brought on by a boxing match with “some young guy.”
Rollins is not his only nemesis. He has famously tangled with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, making certain that Spitzer’s penchant for black socks made the tabloids. (I make a mental note to pick up the tab.)
Stone tells me about his current workload. He’s enjoying success as an author. His book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ is a Times best seller and he will soon publish The Clintons’ War on Women.
“She didn’t kill Vince Foster but she helped move the body,” he tells me, before commencing a dissertation on carpet fibers and an explanation of how Foster’s body was found on a muddy trail with no dirt on his shoes.
He says all the recent notoriety with Trump has been good for his business. “I get calls from potential clients who need a ballbuster,” he says.
Hearing this, I immediately think of a scene in the 2008 HBO documentary Recount, directed by Jay Roach (Meet the Fockers and the Austin Powers movies), which told the story of the Florida vote in the 2000 election.
When the Republican tally is in trouble, Bush family confidant James Baker barks, “Get me Roger Stone.” Stone then orchestrates what was described as “the Brooks Brothers riot,” in which congressional staffers protested the counting of ballots in Miami-Dade.
“That’s not a dirty trick,” he tells me over pasta, at the finish of another story, this one concerning his success, at the request of a client, in having a candidate removed from a ballot due to phony signatures.
To hear him tell it, politicians at all levels have sought his counsel over the years, including some who have kept their distance. “I never met the man,” Stone says about a big city mayor who he claims engaged his services to research the contributions of an elected political critic, in the process uncovering widespread fraud in the form of straw donors. Stone is a real life Ray Donovan – only his clients toil in state capitals and Washington, D.C., not Hollywood.
My glass of Montepulciano is long empty, so when a busboy approaches to offer water, I ask for another round of wine.
“Stone’s rules: Never ask a busboy for wine,” Stone snaps. “They barely speak English.”
There’s that, too. Stone has rules for politics and rules for life that he promises to assemble in book form someday, including:
“White shirt only after six.”
“Admit nothing, deny everything, launch counterattack.”
“If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Until recently, Trump seemed to be following Stone’s rules. An internal Trump campaign memo leaked to the media last week was presumably written by Stone (he won’t publicly say) and includes a blueprint the candidate has been following. The memo reminds Trump of what Roger Ailes once told Ronald Reagan: “You didn’t get elected on details, you got elected on themes.”
While Stone won’t say that the memo is his handiwork, he’s awfully knowledgeable about the contents. And there is something else he will not say – bad things about Trump, in stark contrast to his willingness to trash talk the rest of the field. Instead, he has emerged on television as Trump’s biggest cheerleader.
I later hail a cab wondering whether his departure from Trump is all just part of the plan.