Roger Stone entered the Oxford Union in mournful parade on Tuesday night. His black coat was hung over the shoulders like Darth Vader’s cape, though such an aesthetic was dashed by his pinstripe zoot suit underneath, which was more reminiscent of ‘Fat Tony’ from The Simpsons, than ‘evil ruler of the galaxy’. In his choice of attire, Stone clearly attempts to live up to the moniker ‘Prince of Darkness’, though on the occasion of our meeting it came of looking slightly like a halloween costume, with all the cartoon baddies of pop culture rolled into one.
As the Union hacks around me stood in solemn silence – dazzled by the proximity of political infamy – I stifled giggles as Stone’s entourage appeared, all in the uniform of Burberry rain macs. Were these the Inspector Gadget auditions, or was I in for a strip tease?
The glamour of the Union he adored, and so eager for his avid followers back in the USA to get a glimpse of the famous debating society, Stone instructed one of his team to play paparazzo with his camera-phone alongside the Union’s hired photographer. I suspect these pictures were intended for immediate upload to one of Stone’s websites in the US, Infowars or Stone Cold Truth – America first, as they say. As Stone and I sat down, I asked why his grandson was prodding a camera in my face. “It’s for the website” I was assured. “We’ll just use some clips.” At that moment I imagined the titles of said video excerpts: ‘Oxford libtard ANNIHILATED by Roger Stone’, etcetera.
Yet despite the anticipated opprobrium of his supporters – those on the nativist right who Stone himself has termed ‘non-sophisticates’ in the past – I could hardly resist an interview with one of Trump’s most prominent supporters. Stone is so intimate with the President that he has received dear Donald’s most esteemed gift – implication in the House of Representatives’ Russia probe (he has attempted to crowdfund half a million dollars for his defence). As I was unable to turn down the chance of an interview, so was he. Referring to himself as “an agent provocateur”, Stone seeks out the attention of any and all media. CNN were in to grill him just before I arrived with my pen, paper, and dictaphone. Despite lambasting the so-called ‘Clinton News Network’ in his address to the Union, Stone was more than happy to sit under their shining lights and boom mic.
Worlds collided in the Union’s dimly lit Gladstone room. The old media and the new. The left and the right. The truth and lies. I wondered what our long dead four time Prime Minister who the room is named after, the arch ‘muscular liberal’ William Gladstone, might have thought if he saw a CNN producer and an employee of the alt-right conspiracy network Infowars standing side by side with their cameras fixed on a man with a track record of racism and misogyny (the words “stupid negro” and “die bitch” spring to mind). Perhaps liberalism should start lifting again. But Stone acts so deftly as intercessor between the two worlds, that those on one side often forget his association with the other. In this he differs in the extreme from his Infowars co-presenter Alex Jones, who humiliated himself with a tirade about ‘the EU Nazi plan’ while appearing on the BBC’s Daily Politics. Stone saves his more noisome diatribe for Twitter (a website from which he is now permanently banned) and
Trump campaign events, where he regularly called for the imprisonment of the opposition candidate during the 2016 election.
When I ask Stone whether his highly composed address to the Union was an example of this duality, Stone admits: “you have to obviously speak to your audience.” Here I was reminded of that old warning about the dangers of a charming zealot. Of Nixon (his political mentor) and the Watergate scandal, he says “I don’t think he knew.” Never have I heard something so doubtful told with such equanimity. Nixon himself resigned from the Presidency, had to be pardoned by his successor, and apologised for wrongdoing. “There’s no evidence” Stone insists. To back up this ‘unorthodox’ claim, he tenders the excuse: “I’ve written an entire book on this subject.” At this moment, a terrible truth dawned on me. Roger Stone knows how to woo an audience. In the Union chamber, he made all the right jokes. Equally, he profits in America from the impression that he is a gentleman. Amongst his base, the simple fact of having written books – regardless of their veracity – is worthy of note, and one expects that President Trump, the least literate holder of the office in history, is similarly enthralled by a ‘literary’ figure. Now, sitting in an armchair at the Oxford Union, with the cameras flashing and the applause of the audience thundering, the impression that this man is somehow respectable only grows. He wants to be seen as more than a conspiracy theorist.
The main lines of Stone’s rhetoric, about “a permanent governing class”, seem at first to have a Jacksonian undertone. But on closer inspection, the sense of any grand ideology falls away. It is so clear that Stone’s driving belief seems not to be patriotism, but rather a kind of paranoia about America. He has never in his career been satisfied that a candidate can stand and fall through the processes of democracy. Instead he has been willing to reach the heights of duplicity to protect his heroes. And whenever they fall, he has the same hysterical excuse. Back in 1960, when Kennedy ran for president, the young Stone ensured that his fellow Catholic would win the school mock election by telling everyone in the cafeteria that his opponent Nixon would bring in a Saturday school day. Stone later called this a political trick, but many would describe it as a lie. He now predictably refers to the assassination of the president in 1963 as “a violent coup against John F Kennedy”. Teenage mendacity did not fall away in later life, and after his conversion to the Republicans, Stone was the youngest person implicated in the aforementioned Watergate scandal, the Nixon administration’s criminal attempt to keep the Democrats out of power. He says of that president’s resignation in 1974: “I think Nixon was taken out in a peaceful coup.”
In 2018, as Robert Mueller’s investigation rolls on, who knows what the outcome will be for Stone’s latest political idol, the serial liar Donald Trump. In regard to Trump’s presidential campaign, he speaks of “the use of the entire government surveillance apparatus to violate the constitution.” The thread between all these major instances in Stone’s career seems not to be any guiding political belief, except that the American political system is always against him. It seems that he can never be satisfied with the political process, instead he paints a sensationalist picture of “a permanent government that is neither Republican or Democrat.” But that, I suppose, is the problem with conspiracy theorists – their arguments and grievances always endure, because they are never obliged to provide any evidence.