Democratic Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and Democratic Georgia Representative Hank Johnson on Wednesday filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Moore v. Harper. In their brief, Whitehouse and Johnson argued that far-right fundraiser Leonard Leo and his allies are clandestinely funding other briefs in the case that push the independent state legislature theory, which, if adopted by the Court, would remove the ability of state courts to weigh in on issues fundamental to federal elections, including redistricting. On this week’s episode of Now & Then, “Fat Cats and Hidden Hands in Politics,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman used Leo’s influence as a springboard to trace the history of outside financial control over American politics, from Thomas Jefferson’s secretive support of an anti-Federalist newspaper in the 1790s to direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie’s incendiary 1970s rhetoric. One of the more colorful political kingmakers of the 20th century was Chicago insurance magnate W. Clement Stone, who developed a staggering economic and political symbiosis with Richard Nixon.
“On the small finger of his right hand, insurance tycoon W. Clement Stone wears a knuckle-size green ring he describes as an Australian black opal worth $100,000,” wrote Ted Burke in the March 1972 edition of Town & Country magazine. “When he gazes into it he sees pictures: people, birds, a cave scene of men hunched over a fire, and sometimes–if he turns the ring a certain way–real live people like President Richard Nixon…”
The friendship between Stone and Nixon provided more than gristle for tongue-in-cheek, quasi-mystical magazine profiles in the style of New Journalism. The link between the two men reshaped the funding structure of Republican politics.
Stone’s road to becoming an indispensable political donor was long and winding. His father, a compulsive gambler, died when the magnate-to-be was three years old in 1905. Stone began to sell insurance in banks as a young teen. He set up his own insurance firm when he was twenty, and by the early 1930s – even as the Great Depression deepened–he employed 1,000 agents. By the 1960s, Stone’s Combined Insurance Company of America had helped him to amass around $400 million.
Stone embraced the resultant attention. Before Castro took Cuba, Stone bought thousands of Cuban cigars, which he kept in three warehouses and smoked incessantly as he built a philanthropic empire. He served as Trustee of Interlochen Arts Academy and as an Executive Board member of the Boys Clubs of America (now the Boys & Girls Clubs), which provided after-school programs for disadvantaged children.
There were also more unique pursuits, like Stone’s late-1960s involvement with the Chicago street gang the Conservative Vice Lords, to whom he loaned $60,000 in an attempt to boost community relations. Or his financial backing for the mysterious Study of Cycles, Inc., which argued that there was a relationship between planetary motions and the stock market.
As Stone gave, he also became a passionate self-help maven. In 1954, he founded a magazine called Success Unlimited. He published two best-selling self-help books, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, written with his close friend and Think and Grow Rich author Napoleon Hill, and The Success System That Never Fails. Stone also wrote a book on Extra-Sensory Perception (ESP), The Other Side of the Mind.
Stone registered a trademark on “Positive Mental Attitude” and created the accompanying acronym P.M.A. His catchphrase became: “I feel happy. I feel healthy. I feel terrific!” He even commissioned a “Healthy, Happy, and Terrific” theme song for his insurance agents. Most of his framework of positivity was undergirded by a rhetoric of self-reliance reminiscent of Stone’s favorite boyhood author, Horatio Alger.
Stone met Richard Nixon in 1964, through the Boys Clubs. Elections for the charity’s Chairman were afoot, and Herbert Hoover, the former U.S. president and three-decade Boys Club leader – only three weeks away from his demise – urged Stone to support the Boys Club Chairman candidacy of former Vice President Nixon, who had been largely out of the public eye since losing the 1962 California gubernatorial contest to Democrat Pat Brown.
Nixon won the Boys Clubs Chairmanship, and shortly thereafter began putting out feelers for a potential presidential comeback quest in 1968. Stone quickly began donating money and time to the cause. “I realized this was my one chance to change the course of history by electing this man,” Stone later told the press.
Stone’s commitment to Nixon was helped, of course, by the fact that the two men shared a political vision. Stone explained: “Nixon believed in the whole concept of stopping this trend toward socialism, that a person should not depend on the government for support, that he should develop the concept of self-motivation.”
In early 1968, Stone got together with his Chicago insurance colleagues and promised to match them, 50 cents to every dollar, in donations to Nixon. The gambit worked, and Stone managed to get many of his less flamboyant, but decidedly pro-business, friends aboard Nixon’s fundraising juggernaut.
Stone ended up donating $2.8 million to Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. Stone’s publishing imprint, Hawthorne Books, also distributed Where He Stands — The Life and Convictions of Spiro T. Agnew, Nixon’s running mate’s main campaign literature.
Stone argued that Nixon’s success in the campaign was due to PMA. “One of the precepts of our philosophy – P.M.A. – is ‘every adversity carries with it the seed of an equivalent or greater benefit,’” he said. In reference to Nixon’s own specific overcoming of his political doldrums, Stone declared, “I’ve watched this man grow up.”
As Nixon prepared to enter the White House, Stone was decidedly present. On January 3rd, 1969, two weeks before the Inaugural, Stone hosted a lavish, 500-guest dinner for Nixon at Chicago’s Sheraton-Blackstone Hotel. A choral group called “The American Majority” sang. Stone dedicated a new orchid type named, “The Patricia Nixon.” And Nixon, in a gesture of goodwill, toasted outgoing President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Stone stuck around once Nixon was in office. In October 1969, Stone – a Christian, too – served as Chairman of National Bible Week. He visited the White House and presented Nixon with a miniature version of the sculpture “Let Us Beat Swords Into Ploughshares,” the larger version of which was a 1959 Soviet gift to the U.S. that resided at the United Nations Sculpture Garden.
By year’s end, Stone was a Member of the National Advisory Committee to the President, a trustee of the Richard Nixon foundation, a member of the National Advisory Committee for Minority Business Enterprises, and the Executive Vice Chairman of the Republican National Finance Committee.
A more formal job in the administration – including Stone’s desired post of U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom – did not materialize.
This oversight did not stop Stone. He gave $1 million to Nixon-endorsed candidates during the 1970s midterms. At the 1972 Republican National Convention in Miami, Stone did one better, holding the most visible off-site party, at the Playboy Plaza. The luau-themed event was complete with competitive hula-hooping and appearances by Jimmy Stewart and Ethel Merman. Stone raised another $2 million for Nixon and the GOP in 1972.
A telling anecdote about Stone’s power: Future Trump ally Roger Stone – no relation – was working as a young operative for Nixon’s Committee to Re-elect the President. According to the younger Stone’s book Nixon’s Secrets, the young upstart told various higher-ups that he was Clement Stone’s nephew, and deputy campaign director Jeb Magruder even took the low-level staffer to a power lunch at Sans Souci. The elder Stone found out about the ruse during a visit, and allegedly called Roger Stone a “pompous ass” to his face.
As the Watergate scandal built, Stone began to take even more credit for Nixon’s rise. In July 1973, days after presidential aide Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee that Nixon taped all Oval Office conversations, W. Clement Stone appeared on the Chicago television station WMAQ and made a startling revelation.
“On two occasions,” Stone began, “[Nixon] gave me the highest honor that I will probably ever receive, from my viewpoint. He called me aside and said, ‘Clem, you know and I know that I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.’”
Given Stone’s braggadocio about his influence over Nixon, the insurance man did not escape totally untouched by the mushrooming scandal. Less than a month after Nixon’s resignation, over the Labor Day 1974 weekend, Stone visited Nixon at his San Clemente hideout. Four days after his time with Nixon, Stone flew to Washington to briefly meet with President Ford in the Oval Office.
When Ford preemptively pardoned Nixon for Watergate two days after seeing Stone, on September 8th, Democratic congressmen and pundits argued that Stone must have come armed with some sort of missive, or even a deal.
On October 17th, 1974, President Ford – in an exceedingly rare move – appeared before the House Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the pardon. South Carolina Representative James Mann assumed some kind of emissary role in Stone’s Oval Office visit. He asked Ford, “Are you at liberty to tell us the gist of the communication involving President Nixon from Mr. Stone to you?”
The truth, at least according to Ford, was that Stone had not come to talk about Nixon at all, but rather about his other favorite topic – P.M.A. “Mr. Stone came to see me about a program that he has used very successfully in his business, a program which he is very proud of, and he was urging me to institute it in the various bureaus and departments of the Federal Government,” Ford revealed. “There was no other message conveyed by him from Mr. Nixon to me.”
Despite his ensnarement in the pardon drama, Stone believed Watergate was actually a positive. As he told the Chicago Tribune in June 1977, “Watergate was a turning point in the history of ethical standards in America because [Nixon] only did, in his way, what Johnson did and Kennedy did and others have done in the past. Who cried when Barry Goldwater’s phone was tapped when he was running for office?”
Stone’s positivity paid off; he remained a fixture in GOP circles, and even got to host a special reunion on January 17th, 1981, three days before Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. Stone brought 250 Republican politicos – bridging the Nixon and Reagan eras – to a reception at the Georgetown Club.
Reagan’s Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, was in the building. So was John Mitchell, Nixon’s disgraced Attorney General and Watergate schemer, who had emerged from prison. And so was Supreme Court Chief Justice and Nixon appointee Warren Burger.
Mitchell talked with Appointments Secretary Dwight Chapin, who had served eight months for his role in Watergate. After his sentence ended in 1976, Stone hired Chapin at his magazine Success Unlimited. Chapin became president and publisher, changing the name to Success: The Magazine for Achievers.
Stone smiled and smoked his cigar: “Keep in mind, we Republicans have been together a long time,” he told the press.
Given the current focus on clandestine financial networks in today’s GOP, Stone’s reminder remains very true.
For more on Stone and Nixon’s fundraising innovations, read Victor Li’s riveting 2018 Nixon in New York: How Wall Street Helped Richard Nixon Win the White House.
And head to the Twitter account of Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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