Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Book Review: Confessions of a Political Hitman

Confessions of a Political Hitman: My Secret Life of Scandal, Corruption, Hypocrisy and Dirty Attacks that Decide Who Gets Elected (And Who Doesn't)
(Sourcebooks, 309 pages) Author: Stephen Marks

Digging up political dirt on your opponent is as old as politics itself. Dirt sticks. People remember cutting attacks and it affects their voting decision - or, whether they vote at all. When solid information is unearthed that makes an opponent look bad, it becomes a very powerful tool that can be released at key times in a political campaign - precisely when it will have the most impact in switching votes.

Modern political campaigns have a polite term for the muckraking that is involved in digging up the goods on political opponents. It is called 'Opposition Research', also known by its short form, 'oppo'. Funny enough, the actual information that is produced is also called 'oppo'. Good 'oppo' is truly invaluable in winning a tough campaign. And a great 'oppo' - the person, who produces the dirt, is a rare and valuable asset.

Stephen Marks, the author of Confessions of a Political Hitman, as well as a ceaseless self-promoter, claims to be one of the finest 'oppo' men ever. Criss-crossing the United States over a 12 year career that began in 1994 and continued until 2006, he recounts in this autobiographical memoir the countless political campaigns he worked for on the Republican side: from state campaigns to national presidential campaigns.

In spite of the flashy title, the actual work involved in opposition research is actually very unglamorous. First, the candidate rarely wants to even acknowledge that they actually have hired a professional muckraker. So Marks worked in isolation, completely alone, and generally in contact only with the campaign manager. It was standard practice to avoid contact with anyone in the campaign, so that his existence would not be fodder for gossip and so that any interesting facts he found would not leak out.

His work would often be done long before the campaign began, increasing his isolation. This grunt work is basic research that is known to detectives and private investigators everywhere. It begins with a thorough check of physical court records in the target candidate's hometown, particularly for divorce records, bankruptcies and lawsuits that shed light on the target. Following that, Lexis-Nexis is used and all publicly available records are pored over. The hours are long and the worksite is the basement record rooms of small county courthouses across the United States.

Surprisingly, Marks is very sparse on advice about research techniques. He seems bored even to describe them in useful detail. Instead, he relies on spinning the facts he actually does find and especially looking for hypocrisy between the candidate's current positions and actions in the past. His favourite cases were former defense lawyers running for office, because he could inevitably discover through court records evidence of their defending the most egregious offenders of social mores, which would completely contradict the candidate's official policy on law and order.

What makes this a great read is that Marks is also an unhinged exhibitionist. He is self-centered and amoral, yet he characterizes himself as a "political innocent." Yeah, right. His profession is to uncover, document, comment upon and even exaggerate, the failings of others. By definition that is not the work of an innocent. His self-delusion, however, is to the reader's benefit. While being self-centered and self-indulgent may be serious character flaws, they make for great and sometimes salacious autobiographical details.

He condemns many of the candidates he investigates for the slightest trace of hypocrisy, particularly their sexual indiscretions. Yet, throughout the book he details, proudly, his predatory and deceptive sexual exploits in his character as "oppo-man". His hypocrisy and lack of self-awareness is stunning.

He ends the book having changed from a right-wing idealist into a centrist cynic. He now claims to be a reformed man, who has quit his itinerant lifestyle and has settled down to more savoury work. His "oppo-man" character has been left in the past.

This book does not merit a top recommendation because it lacks enough practical advice about how to do opposition research. Whether credible or not, there are few better train-wrecks of a book that so shamelessly delve into the actual nitty-gritty of trashing an opponent. It is an unusual take about a subject that has been rarely covered with such authority.