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Rolling stone

| Friday, February 1, 2019

The scene last week was surreal even for our current media-soaked culture: Richard Nixon’s protege and longtime Donald Trump-confidant, Roger Stone, paused on his way out of a Florida federal courthouse and stepped in front of a phalanx of cameras and microphones. Stone had just received a seven-count criminal indictment, and he eschewed the cover of a borrowed overcoat or the pretense of shame or embarrassment typically observed in other indicted suspects. Rather, he approached the assembled media and smiled as a large crowd booed and chanted, “lock him up.” Stone stepped up to the microphones and declared, “As I have always said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Stone has since pled ‘not guilty’ to the charges set out in a 23-page indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller, including allegations of obstruction, lying to Congress and witness tampering. I suggest Stone is guilty of two additional crimes: failing to give proper attribution for his hubristic declaration regarding ‘being talked about,’ and misquoting the source material. These lapses are not surprising, given that Trump himself has observed: “Roger is a stone-cold loser, … [he] always tries taking credit for things he never did.” Stone’s defiant speech on the courthouse steps was a good example of someone aspiring to demonstrate effortless wit by stealing it from someone else — in this case from someone with wit to spare.

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, born 1854 in Dublin, Ireland, was a poet and writer who became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. While Wilde’s plays and stories continue to be read and studied, his greatest fame is as the author of classic epigrams, or clever one-liners. Among his most popular works was the short novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” While ostensibly telling the story of Dorian Gray, a shallow and attractive young man who descends into a life of unrepentant hedonism, the true star of the story is Lord Henry Wotton, a jaded and bored man of wealth who drops cynical witticisms like ash flicked from one of his innumerable opium-laced cigarettes.

As the story opens, Wotton is visiting an artist friend who has painted the most remarkable portrait of Gray. Wotton insists that a work of such rare beauty should be exhibited, but the painter is hesitant to do so, demurring that he has put too much of himself into it. Wotton teases the painter about having artistic standards, and sets his role as the demon working to lure the unwary with the pleasures and treasures the world offers.

“What odd chaps you painters are! You do anything in the world to gain a reputation. As soon as you have one, you seem to want to throw it away,” Wotton declaims. “It is silly of you, for there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about. A portrait like this would set you far above all the young men in England, and make the old men quite jealous, if old men are ever capable of any emotion.” As the context makes clear, Wotton’s taunt is an invitation to seek fame at any cost, which is the lifeblood of the narcissist. Wotton ignores the fact that an artist’s reputation is based on the quality of his work, and proposes that any action that attracts attention is worthwhile.

Stone, of course, attempts to make Wilde’s epigram his own through the introductory, “As I have always said.” Stone then goes on to shorten Wotton’s nuanced observation that “a reputation” is valuable in and of itself, regardless of whether the reputation is for good or bad.  Stone got his start working for Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign and has a tattoo on his back of the disgraced ex-president. Unlike an accomplished artist, Stone’s reputation is built on a career as a ‘dirty trickster,’ the political equivalent of a dog running loose on a playing field during a game. He draws attention as he disrupts the contest and avoids capture, but he is not a player, and the game ultimately is not about him.

Wotton’s cynical, world-weary profligacy, as crafted by Wilde, prefigured Wilde’s own descent into scandal just as Dorian Gray was being published. Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas, a handsome youth, the son of Sir John Sholto Douglas, the Eighth Marquess of Queensberry (a renowned sportsman who had established the modern rules of boxing). The Marquess publicly complained about the relationship, and Wilde took the offensive and sued him for slander. Raising truth as a defense, the Marquess argued that Wilde had solicited 12 boys to commit sodomy between 1892 and 1894. Wilde’s lawyer withdrew the suit, since there was abundant evidence of Wilde’s guilt. Wilde’s fortunes darkened after the Crown issued a warrant for Wilde’s arrest on indecency charges.

Following his own arrest and release on bail, Stone declared his innocence along with swearing loyalty to Trump, in an unambiguous plea for a pardon. Stone’s bravado makes one wonder if he fully grasps the importance of being earnest in his responses to Mueller’s charges, as succeeding layers of lies and diversions may only serve to assure a lengthy prison term. Wilde’s cynical observation that it is “fiction” to think that “[t]he good ended happily, and the bad unhappily,” was ultimately tested by his own life. Wilde ended up serving two years in London’s Reading Gaol after being convicted of gross indecency. Perhaps Stone should consider another Wilde epigram to guide his future actions: “Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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