Everything you know is wrong. At least when it comes to two of the most notorious chapters of 20th century American history — the Kennedy assassination and Watergate.
President Kennedy was murdered not by Lee Harvey Oswald but a serial killer — his own vice president, Lyndon Johnson. And the Watergate scandal was not about President Nixon’s dirty political tricks, but, umm, hookers.
This, at least, is the world according Roger Stone, the legendarily bare-knuckle Republican consultant who saved the 2000 presidential election for George W. Bush (or, depending on your perspective, stole it from Al Gore) and now styles himself an “alternative historian.”
“I know a lot people don’t like to hear this; they think it’s crazy or partisan,” says Stone, who lives in Fort Lauderdale when his consulting firm is not out toppling governments or wrecking rival candidacies. “But they’re wrong. The evidence is there.”
Some people clearly don’t mind hearing Stone’s theories. Last year, the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, his book The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, hit the New York Times best-seller list. Nixon’s Secrets: The Rise, Fall and Untold Truth About the President, Watergate and the Pardon, published in August, is hovering on Amazon.com’s top 25 political books and nearing a second printing.
Despite the books’ success, they have not won Stone much admiration from mainstream journalists or historians. “His Kennedy book is totally full of all kinds of crap,” declares veteran investigative reporter Hugh Aynesworth, who covered the assassination for the Dallas Morning News and has spent much of his life debunking conspiracy theories about it. Adds Max Holland, a historian who has written extensively about both the assassination and Watergate: “He’s out of his ever-lovin’ mind.”
Stone, who wallows lasciviously in insults from his enemies the way other people do in bubble baths (his stonezone.com website lists three dozen or so, ranging from “the dapper don of dirty deeds” to “the undisputed master of the black arts of electioneering,” as if they were glowing endorsements) is unconcerned.
“It’s always better to be talked about than not talked about,” he says dismissively. “And the biggest sin in politics is to be boring.”
Not being talked about has never been a problem for Stone. From the fringes of Watergate to the infamous Brooks Brothers Riot that halted the Miami-Dade County recount of ballots after the 2000 election, from the ad campaign that sank Michael Dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign to ratting out a New York attorney general’s yen for hookers, Stone has become America’s most notorious political hatchet man.
Schooled by rough-and-tumble politicians including his idol Nixon (whose face is tattooed on Stone’s back) and Joe McCarthy’s snarling attorney, Roy Cohn, Stone’s aptitude for political necromancy is the stuff of political legend. The lefty Village Voice once called him “the most dangerous person in America today,” and, yes, that’s one of the epithets Stone delightedly displays on his website.
His affinity for dirty tricks extends literally back to his childhood, when he rigged his first-grade classroom’s straw ballot on the 1960 election by warning the other kids that Nixon, if elected, would force them to go to school on Saturdays. “I was for Kennedy for the best of reasons,” Stone explains. “He had better hair.”
Later, working for Nixon during the former president’s post-Watergate political exile, Stone confessed his youthful treachery. Nixon laughed: “You should have gone to work for Bobby,” the Kennedy family political enforcer.
Since moving to South Florida from Washington, D.C., in the weeks after 9/11 (“I could see the smoke of the Pentagon from my office, and that was it for me”) he bides his time between elections by working with corporate clients (particularly if they’re interested in building casinos) and conducting small-scale insurgencies against local pols and journalists who’ve annoyed him — seemingly as much for his own amusement as anything else. He also took a break from the Republican Party, helping run former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson’s 2012 Libertarian presidential campaign after concluding that he “absolutely could not abide Mitt Romney.”
But his most visible work has been on his books. The Man Who Killed Kennedy essentially argues that Lyndon Johnson shot his way into the White House, ordering the deaths of nearly a score of men over the course of his political career — the last of them Kennedy, gunned down by a convicted Texas murderer named Malcolm Wallace who was “Lyndon Johnson’s personal hit man.”
Wallace, who died in an auto accident in 1971, is just one of several raffish — and deceased — Texas characters whose misanthropic adventures make up the foundation of the book. They include notorious fertilizer swindler Billie Sol Estes and a convicted forger named ✔Madeleine Brown who claimed to have been LBJ’s mistress for nearly two decades. (Her son unsuccessfully filed a paternity suit against the Johnson family.) Their remonstrations have been widely rejected by historians and political scientists.
Nixon’s Secrets, though, has attracted more scholarly support. Two-thirds of the book is a conventional biography that is by no means a whitewash of Nixon. Stone writes that the president took campaign money from the mob, had a long-running affair with a Hong Kong woman who may have been a Chinese spy, and even once unwittingly smuggled three pounds of marijuana into the United States when carrying the suitcase of jazz great Louis Armstrong.
The book’s take on Watergate, though, is far more unconventional. It portrays Nixon as mostly, though not entirely, the scandal’s confused victim rather than its bad guy. The real mastermind: John Dean, the White House attorney who eventually became a folk hero of sorts by testifying against Nixon and his henchmen.
Dean, Stone writes, was actually the one who ordered the abortive burglary of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington’s Watergate complex that touched off the scandal. Stone believes Dean was seeking not secret campaign plans but to remove evidence that might link his fiancée, Maureen Biner, to a ring of prostitutes that was servicing visiting DNC politicians.
That sounds preposterous. But the existence of the prostitution ring, which was run from apartment building next to the Watergate, is well documented, as is the fact that its customers included some Democratic Party officials. (And Republicans, too.) The FBI had raided the offices of its lawyer the week before the Watergate burglary.
Stone writes that it was run by an ex-stripper named Heidi Rikan, Biner’s friend and former roommate. The burglars had a key to a desk where pictures of the hookers were kept, he says, and one of the phones they were trying to bug, located in an office that was usually unoccupied, was used mostly to arrange dates with the prostitutes.
John Dean, reached by the Miami Herald at his Los Angeles home, refused to comment on the allegations. But he and Maureen Biner, who’ve been married four decades now, sued the authors of a 1992 book that made similar claims about the prostitution ring, a suit that was settled out of court after nine years of legal infighting.
Some historians who’ve investigated the theory that the Watergate burglary had less to do with politics than party girls have dismissed it. Anthony Summers, author of The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, says he spent a great deal of time on the hooker theory and could find no evidence that Maureen Biner or any of her friends were connected to the prostitution ring, or that it triggered the burglary.
“It is an unresolved lead and certainly not one that can be dismissed,” he told the Herald. But he added: “It has also been reported in ways that can be considered more conspiracy theory than reliable reporting.”
There is, however, a small but growing group of journalists and historians known as the Watergate Revisionists, a label first applied to them derisively but which they now wear proudly. And they all applaud Stone’s book.
“I’m glad Roger’s book is getting attention,” says journalist Phil Stanford, author of White House Call Girl: The Real Watergate Story, a 2013 revisionist work. “Stone is one of those rare political insiders who knows the score but doesn’t shy away from saying what incredibly dirty business it all is.”
Focusing on Dean and the call-girl ring, Stone says, solves one of the central mysteries of Watergate: What the hell were the burglars thinking?
“There is no good political reason for that burglary,” Stone argues. “Nixon was ahead of [Democratic candidate] George McGovern by 19 percent in the polls, on his way to a 49-state blowout in the election. And what are you going to find in the offices of the Democratic National Committee? Everybody knows the real action is at the candidate’s campaign headquarters, not the party offices.”
Stone, though only a teenage Nixon campaign worker at the time, skated along the edges of the Watergate scandal. He pulled a couple of minor dirty tricks, including running a spy inside the McGovern campaign, and was, quite by accident, one of the first to know that the burglars had been arrested and that the Nixon reelection committee was involved.
Stone, house-sitting for an absent campaign official, was eating pizza when the phone rang. The caller identified himself as James McCord, and asked Stone to take a message for his boss. “Tell him I’m in the lockup, and tell him the jig is up,” McCord said.
“I remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t sound good at all,’” Stone recalls, a conviction that only deepened the next morning when he read in the paper that McCord was one of five men arrested inside the Watergate. And, as the Nixon reelection committee adamantly insisted over the next few weeks that it wasn’t connected to the burglary, Stone knew it was lying.
It did not daunt his admiration for Nixon, which had already survived any number of presidential actions — wage-and-price controls, abandonment of the gold standard, doubling of social-welfare spending — that offended Stone’s conservative political leanings.
“Nixon was never a conservative,” Stone says. “Would a conservative have recognized Red China? Would a conservative have started detente with the Soviet Union? But I bought into the argument that conservatives had to work from within the Republican Party, even when it wasn’t behaving conservatively. Where else were we going to go?”
He also loved the way Nixon could take a punch. Scorned by the press as a red-baiting yahoo, nearly dumped as Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice-presidential running mate in 1952 over a political slush fund (he saved himself with his famous “Checkers” speech, which ended with a maudlin but effective salute to the family dog) and left for politically dead after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial campaign, Nixon refused to give up.
Stone’s affection redoubled when Nixon recast himself as a senior statesman after resigning the presidency in 1974.
“I love his perseverance, his indestructibility,” Stone says. “I love his feeling that when you get knocked down, defeated, discouraged, you have an obligation to pick yourself up and get back in the game. It’s his personality that attracted me, not anything ideological.”
That personality was complex and often contradictory, as Stone learned when he worked closely with Nixon during the twilight of the former president’s life, arranging off-the-record chats with journalists and politicians. Most receptive audience: Ronald and Nancy Reagan.
“When I brought Reagan a memo from Nixon, Nancy would always say, ‘Ronnie, listen to what Dick has to say. He’s smart,’” says Stone. “And Reagan did listen. During the 1984 campaign, Reagan looked a little weak during his first debate with [Democratic candidate] Walter Mondale. I hand-carried a long memo to Reagan from Nixon that said, ‘Don’t try to hide from the age thing. (Reagan, at 73, would be the oldest man ever to be elected president.) Make a joke about it.’
“In the next debate, somebody, sure enough, asked Reagan if age was a problem. And Reagan, totally deadpan, says, ‘I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.’ Everybody roared, and that was the end of Mondale.”
There was Nixon the canny political analyst. But there were other Nixons, especially when he drank and let down his guard a bit. (Favorite libation: The vodka martinis he called silver bullets, mixed according to a recipe Nixon got from Winston Churchill.
“He’s adept at showing the Nixon he wants you to see,” Stone remembers. “He’s a paradox. He’s brilliant but obtuse. Confident but paranoid. He clearly had sides, a dark one and a light one. He is really very private. Just to walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi, I’m Dick Nixon and I’m running for office’ was extraordinarily difficult.”
Stone’s fascination with and devotion to Nixon extends well past the tattoo on his back, which he got about 10 years ago when “I was in California, I was drunk, and it seemed like a good idea.” (He originally intended to add the faces of Reagan, Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, but has held back because, “to be honest, it hurt like a son of a bitch.”)
He is one of the world’s foremost collectors of Nixon ephemera, with several thousand objects ranging from campaign buttons to 45 rpm records of his speeches stashed way inside his consulting-company office in Fort Lauderdale. There are Nixon punching bags and Nixon action figures and even a couple of Nixon bongs. (Yes, the kind used to smoke marijuana; Stone doesn’t know exactly who marketed them, but it’s probably a safe guess that they weren’t licensed by the Nixon estate.)
It looks like just the sort of room from which something like the ill-famed Brooks Brothers Riot might have been plotted. But Stone says he lit the fuse for that one from a trailer outside the Miami-Dade Government Center, where election officials were wrangling over a recount of the hanging-chad ballots of the closer-than-a-gnat’s-whisker 2000 presidential election between Bush and Gore.
If anyone was guilty of dirty tricks, Stone insists, it was the officials inside who wanted to recount the ballots. “It was all an act on their party, the Great Karnak,” Stone says, hand on forehead as Johnny Carson used to do in his mind-reading skits. “‘Oh, this guy meant to vote for Gore, no matter what his ballot says.’”
While the election officials went about their nefarious tasks, Stone says, he was outside in the Republican trailer, innocently spying on the walkie-talkie communications of Democrats. (”Not that they had anything worth listening to.”) Then one of his operatives called from inside the courthouse. An electorial canvasser and a Democratic operative had picked up a stack of ballots and were headed for a closed, windowless room, Stone’s minion said. What should be done?
“Follow them!” Stone barked. “And whatever you do, don’t let them close the door!”
A stream of shouts — Get off of me! Mind your own business! — echoed through Stone’s walkie-talkie. “They’re trying to close the door!” shouted Stone’s man. “Break it down! Break it down!” Stone shouted back. The screaming, foot-stomping mob that poured into the courthouse may have been chasing a phantasm — it was reported later that what was being taken into the closed room were sample ballots rather than the real thing — but it did its work well. Within two hours, election officials voted to shut down the recount.
Dirty trick? Stone says that’s in the eye of the beholder: “One man’s dirty trick is another man’s civic participation. I didn’t do anything illegal. Everything was protected by the First Amendment. In this world, you’ve got to be bold.”