The Virgin Mary in Elephant Dung

Opposition researchers want to force presidential candidates to quit the race. They dig for everything politicians want to hush up. Stephen Marks intends to serve society by doing just that.

Stephen Marks doesn’t give the impression that he could become basically aggressive. When one looks at this tall man from the East Coast, one gets the impression he might be a salesman in a men’s clothing store. His voice and his total appearance have no sharp corners or edges and he always finishes long sentences with the question, “Do you understand?” put in such a way that one gets the impression he’s truly interested in the most intensive exchange of ideas possible.

Actually, he’d like nothing more than to get out of this whole politics business. Too often he watched how upstanding politicians were butchered during campaign battles, only because they didn’t bring the necessary gunslinger mentality with them. Because he for years supplied the ammunition for such attacks, he began to have pangs of conscience. Marks wrote a book in which he documented his withdrawal from the game and how he established a small consulting firm. “Just for a more peaceful, normal life,” as he puts it.

That was last year. The primary season hadn’t yet begun in earnest, Americans preferred to talk about the Super Bowl, and 2008 seemed light years away for Marks. But then the candidates began to invade the television screen, the blogger scene heated up, and the previously foggy field of candidates came into focus until there were only three left – McCain, Clinton and Obama.

Now Marks sits in his office in Arlington, Virginia. The furnishings aren’t exactly lavish, just a television set as large as two cabinet doors, and it runs constantly. Other than that, only the dozens of stacks of paper and file folders show that the man in his mid-forties is really busy. He wants to destroy one of the remaining presidential candidates again this year. “The fever hit me again,” he grins.

Stephen Marks works in one of the most glitzy branches of the American election business: Opposition Research, a shadow industry worth millions. Their mission it is to discredit opposition candidates with incriminating material or, best of all, force them completely out of the race because of scandals.

The candidates themselves are already attacking each other with more than kid gloves, but Marks dismisses those daily attacks as kid’s games. “Soon I’ll put out the first really aggressive TV spot of the campaign,” he says. It’s already finished. Marks, who describes himself as a “political hitman,” pushes the play button on his recorder. The one-minute video shows a painting of the Virgin Mary in elephant dung. A dark voice reports that Hillary Clinton allowed tax money to be used for the exhibition of that work against the wishes of the Mayor of New York. That plays well. At least among religious voters.

Like all Opposition Researchers, Marks rummages through politicians’ lives always on the lookout for anything absurd that could undercut the candidate’s credibility. That has less to do with conspiratorial snooping than it does with classical research through the opponent’s biography.

Lax privacy protection laws

The lax privacy protection laws in the United States are especially helpful to him. “We rummage through everything looking for potentially damaging material,” Marks says. In public archives, tax returns, criminal records and last but not least in a candidates congressional voting record. “Elections get to be sort of like legal proceedings.”

Whether on local or national levels, elections without Opposition Research are not conceivable. Both parties have their own research teams but also hire additional searchers, advisors and lawyers to look for negative material. The tiniest detail is not irrelevant, even if it took place years ago. Who has an unpaid parking ticket in their past? Or whose financial supporters aren’t as squeaky clean as they claim. And what was their doctoral dissertation about? Have they taken trips paid with taxpayer funds? Are there suspicious titles on their wish lists? Larry Zilliox, 15 years in the business puts it this way: “We’re in the information vacuum cleaner business. We pick up everything there is to pick up.”

If anything actually turns up, it’s deal time. The research teams pass the information to handpicked journalists, mostly with the understanding that the source remains anonymous. Journalists seldom object because an exclusive story is good for the career, among other things. The candidates also profit because a negative report hits an opponent harder if it comes from a source thought to be non-partisan.

Opposition Researchers have a lot of power in American elections. This is evidenced by the fact that Stephen Marks’ annual income is high in the six-figure range. But power and money aren’t enough in themselves to drive him in his work. He is convinced that he performs a service for society by educating the electorate: “The public has the right to know for whom they’re voting,” he says. “When they buy a used car they want to know its accident history.”

The work certainly isn’t totally morally ethical, as in the year 2000 when Marks worked for George W. Bush’s campaign. He came upon a film containing some of Al Sharpton’s words which, when torn from their context, could be understood as a call to kill police officers. That was politically charged because Sharpton was a prominent supporter of Bush’s opponent, Al Gore. From that film, Marks edited a television spot that, while certainly not the main cause of Gore’s defeat, certainly didn’t help him.

One who is intimately knowledgeable about Opposition Research is Bob Mulholland. In 1992 Mulholland, now chief spokesman for California’s Democratic party, worked for Barbara Boxer’s senatorial campaign as an Opposition Researcher. Boxer’s chances against the Republican Bruce Herschensohn were slim until four days before the election when Mulholland discovered that Herschensohn, whose campaign centerpiece was his moral steadfastness, was a regular customer at a strip club. “I sent two people out to that dump to see if they could get a photo,” he recalls. “The next day at a meeting I put the photo under his nose. The media went crazy.” Boxer won and still serves in the Senate to this day.

Dirt from the Internet

Opposition Research isn’t new, it has just become more professional, thanks to improvements in communications technology. E-mail and blogs have made the methods faster and more effective. The internet is a veritable treasure chest “Ten years ago, we had to go to city hall if we wanted access to documents,” Holland reports. “Now I can get everything online. You can even find things dating back to high school days.” His colleague Zilliox agrees. “There’s simply an incredible amount of information out there. And it’s getting harder and harder for politicians to hide it,” Zilliox says.

The three remaining presidential candidates are finding this out the hard way. New film clips circulate daily on YouTube that attack their credibility. Like McCain referring to Vladimir Putin as Germany’s president. Or Clinton stuttering Putin successor Dmitri Medvedev’s name into the microphone during a debate.

These may not be scandals that determine an election’s outcome, but an example of how dangerous YouTube can be was shown with the clips of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. Would-be film directors edited these aggressive sermon snippets into shocking “best of” shorts that were viewed hundreds of thousands of times. They played at least a part in forcing Obama to clarify his relationship with Wright in record time.

Because of that, Obama won’t be off the hook for quite some time, in researcher Marks’ opinion: “If he becomes the official candidate of the Democratic Party, that’s when the research will begin in earnest.” He himself has already cast a sharp look into Obama’s biography. Obama’s voting record in the Illinois state Senate is especially vulnerable. In 1999, Obama was the only senator to vote against a law that would have kept those convicted of sexual crimes from early release. “That alone shows how soft on crime he is. That will end up shadowing him.”

When it comes to crime fighting, leniency is a free lunch for Opposition Researchers. That was shown with former Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. Polls in 1998 showed him far out in front of his opponent George H. W. Bush until Bush’s team began rummaging through Dukakis’ initiatives as Governor of Massachusetts and discovered he had made furloughs for convicted prisoners possible.

Willie Horton got such a furlough and he raped a woman after being let out of prison. The Bush campaign brought out a video accusing Dukakis of being responsible for the rape. Dukakis was finished. “That was one of the most brutal research attacks ever mounted,” Marks recalls. “But it worked.”

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