Roger Stone, the veteran Republican political consultant, has been to every GOP convention since Nelson Rockefeller was booed down in 1964.
"Barry Goldwater said, 'extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,' thus sweeping away any chance at becoming president of the United States," Stone said, sipping a Ketel One martini at the steakhouse within the Seminole Hard Rock casino on the outskirts of Tampa. "It was like pouring gasoline on a flame."
It was shortly after 8 p.m. on a rain-soaked Monday night, and Stone was fondly recalling conventions of yore on his 60th birthday with Diane Thorne, his raven-haired Australian assistant, and her friend Gretchen, a blond tenth-grade English teacher from Miami Beach. He had his hair bleached signature blond, and wore a custom tailored tan suit, a red-and-yellow striped tie, and a white handkerchief in his breast pocket ("I'm Roger Stone, I have to dress this way," he says). Smoke from the airplane-hanger-sized gaming room adjoining the steakhouse wafted into the restaurant.
Officially, Stone was in town for work. This winter, he publicly announced he was quitting the GOP to become a libertarian and signed up to manage former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson's quixotic White House bid. He was still mad that Ron Paul did not encourage his followers to back Johnson. "I find it interesting," he said, "Ron Paul, who himself ran as a libertarian candidate in 1988, who only four years ago endorsed the Constitution candidate over John McCain, now says the liberty movement must stay within the Republican party. Why? For his idiot son? That makes no sense. To keep Rand Paul's fund-raising list producing? So his son can now profiteer the way his father has? Ron Paul, the guy who talks constantly for principle, demonstrates he has none. If he did, he'd be for Gary Johnson."
As Stone sees it, his own journey from lifelong Republican to libertarian outsider was a consequence of the Republican party's rightward march on social issues and double talk on spending. "It doesn't take long to get corrupted," he said, "therefore you say I want to reduce spending and debt, but oh I'm for TARP and the auto bailout and Medicare part D. It's hypocrisy. That's my whole problem with Republicans today. They sound good. They talk a good game. But when we had both houses of Congress and George W. Bush was president, we spent worse than Democrats. Why would anyone take us seriously?"
Rick Santorum, he says, "is a religious fanatic and a state-ist. He wants the state to decide for the individual. He is about as far from Barry Goldwater as you can get." Mitt Romney has no core. Paul Ryan talks a big game but is a product of the establishment. On August 17, Stone published a much-discussed piece of gossip on his website The Stone Zone claiming the Koch Brothers had handpicked Ryan. "The selection was cemented at the July 22nd fundraiser Koch held for Romney at the former's sumptuous Hamptons estate," Stone wrote. "Koch pledged $100 million more to C-4 and Super PAC efforts for Romney for Ryan's selection." Ryan's voting record to Stone indicated he was someone who would help businessmen like the Kochs rather than stick to his small-government principles.
We all ordered crab cakes and shrimp cocktail. Stone went with the New York strip, done "Pittsburgh" (charred on the outside, rare in the middle). "This is good," Stone said biting into his steak. "When you're with Gary Johnson, you're eating at PF Changs or Outback. We're very frugal with campaign cash."
"What are you talking about?" Thorne said. "We eat at Chipowah, or whatever it's called."
"It's Chipotle," Stone said. "You know," he said turning to me, "I kind of like Chipotle for lunch."
I asked him how the convention was shaping up. "Too early to say," he replied. Romney, in Stone's view, is a weak candidate. "He just was stronger and had more staying power than anyone else. He had to the good fortune to run against Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Herman Cain. None of those guys were viable." He said he was not at all impressed with the Romney campaign organization. "I see Fat John Sununu is back in the hierarchy. That's a bad sign."
Stone said Sununu, who was George H.W. Bush's chief of staff, had pushed to raise taxes. "He's not a conservative ... I mean, John Sununu is a self-important bullshit artist."
It wasn't just Romney, or Ryan, or the state of the party that bothered him. On his birthday, Stone was feeling generally gloomy. "I think the country is in desperate trouble," he said. "I hate to say I'm pessimistic, but I'm very pessimistic. The party that I once thought stood for individual liberty has morphed into the same party as the Democrats. They're both big government, Wall Street–dominated parties. All the Wall Street guys went for Obama last time, and now they're for Romney this time. It's government by Goldman Sachs for Goldman Sachs." He has no love for Obama, either. "Worse than Carter," he declared. "Carter was a governor. At least he ran something in his life. This guy hasn't even run a bath."
Stone's mood picked up when he recalled campaigns of the past. He was in Miami Beach in 1968 for Nixon's nomination and again in 1972 for his reelection. "I did see the famous scene [in '72] when Sammy Davis hugged Nixon. And Nixon was completely unprepared and was like, who is this little black man? What are you doing? And Sammy Davis is saying, 'this Dick Nixon is a groovy cat.' It was very weird."
Stone said today's Republican Party would be unrecognizable to Nixon, who after all, created the EPA and courted labor unions. Nixon is "rolling in his grave," Stone stated. "It's interesting, I am uncertain whether Nixon was pro-life or pro-choice. He told people different things."
Stone thinks politics has gotten a lot less interesting since those Nixon days. For one, there are "fewer and fewer" dirty tricks. While the press jumped on Romney's birther joke last week, he sees none of the subterfuge and mischief that defined the Nixonian scorched-earth politics. "They don't [even] have any clean tricks," he said of the Romney team. "I don't know how you run a one-dimensional campaign."
It was nearing 10 p.m. Stone was scheduled to meet Johnson at a party at the Cuban Club hosted by the American Conservative Union. There was a chance Johnson might be late because Fox News might be interviewing him. "Easy trade-off there," Stone said, "a bunch of Republican hacks or a huge national audience."
He got up and walked into the casino, carrying his steak in a Styrofoam box.