From the pages of

Unleash Hell On Al
by Martin Lewis
(First published November 05, 2000)

Every presidential election season has its secrets. New tactics and campaign strategies that evolve from the lessons of the previous cycle. The new ways in which the electorate have been manipulated don't usually become apparent until histories are published in books or seen on film, And that normally happens quite a while after the election in question.

Would it make any difference if the public knew just before an election exactly how it had been manipulated? Probably not. The electorate has ignored such revelations in the past.

Joe McGinniss' excellent 1968 book "The Selling Of The President" revealed the cynicism of the Madison Avenue execs and Disneyland alumni who skillfully repackaged what turned out to be the old unimproved Nixon as a born-again mature leader.

D.A. Pennebaker's "The War Room" documentary showed how the Clinton team had learned the the lessons of the ineffectual 1988 Dukakis effort and developed the Rapid Response team. Under the rapier leadership of James Carville, fires were extinguished and attacks were parried in hours rather than days. And in aggressive, assertive ways not previously associated with the Democrats.

However, the subsequent exposure of these tactics seemingly made no difference to the re-election of those two candidates in 1972 and 1996 respectively. Perhaps the public just doesn't care.

But for those who DO pay attention to the men behind the proverbial curtain - Britain's BBC has unveiled something of a first. A glimpse deep inside the 2000 campaigns that has been seen BEFORE the election. Last week the UK TV network premiered "Digging The Dirt" - an astonishing documentary which exposes the rough and tumble tactics of both the Bush and Gore campaigns. The program is a special in the network's flagship weekly news show "Panorama" - which has the stature in Britain of "60 Minutes." Of course the special aired just in Britain - where it could do no harm to either campaign.

In a way it is a PRE-mortem on the election.

The film delves into many aspects of this year's battles. We see inside closeups of how Bush decimated McCain by brutal push-poll phone calls; how Gore traduced Bradley by savage attacks on his health care proposals; how the New York Post went hell-for-leather in trumpeting a dubious anti-Semitic charge against Hillary Clinton.

But the overwhelming coup of the film is the insight it brings to the Republican version of Carville's War Room - the seething boiler room at RNC headquarters in D.C. where GOP Head of Research Barbara Comstock and Deputy-Head Tim Griffin ply a rough trade that has probably cost Gore the election.

The nasty secret of the 2000 elections is undoubtedly the enormous growth in the past four years of the people who "do oppo" the nickname for the innocuously titled "Opposition Research" departments in each campaign.

That both sides maintain teams dedicated to unearthing material on the other side is not new. What IS new is the intensity of the digging, the sheer breadth and depth of the search - and most of all the now seamless and instant deployment of the results through the spin meisters directly into the mass media.

In fact, the film reveals how much the media has come to depend on the Oppo research teams for material.

Where newspaper journalists and TV producers once conducted independent research of charges made by a campaign - that has now dwindled. That is because the media has become aware that the research offered by both sides is so intensively fact-checked and triple-checked that it can safely accept the word if offered by the oppo experts.

In the film we see RNC glee as AP accepts their oppo research on a Gore misstatement during the first debate . During their months of filming BBC producers also observed producers for NBC's Tim Russert among others calling to enquire if the team had any new material. This was apparently normal trading on both sides.

RNC researcher Griffin comments in the film: "It's an amazing thing when you have topline producers and reporters calling you and saying 'we trust you.... we need your stuff.'"

The instances where such research - by either side - has proven to be false are very few in number. The backfire effect on the campaign that issues the material would be far too devastating. It is this that presumably gives the media its comfort zone.

So one might say that if the oppo research of both sides is so accurate - where is the harm in them disseminating and the media accepting the information?

The problem lies not in the veracity of the information per se - but in the significance and disproportionate magnification that is then placed on the information - and how its disbursement reinforces other themes in the campaign gameplans.

This increasing dependence on the zeal and hard labors of the oppo teams has paid far richer dividends for George Bush than for Al Gore. And this is for two reasons. Firstly the Bush/RNC team has been far more assiduous and painstaking in its work. And secondly the fruits of its labors have been of considerably more value to its overall strategy.

One of the Gore/DNC campaign objectives has been to discredit Bush's Texas record - in much the same way that President Bush successfully trashed the Massachusetts Miracle that was Dukakis' intended trump card in 1988.

The Gore campaign has achieved its task in pure terms - there is certainly an awareness that Texas isn't quite the Garden of Eden that Bush has been portraying. But the Gore team has run into several difficulties that have diminished the power of this approach.

As part of its attack theme that Bush lacks the hands-on experience necessary to run a nation - earlier in the year Gore supporters hammered the inherent weakness of the Texan governorship. Highlighting the fact that the Texan legislature only meets for 4 months every 2 years makes the case well. But the corollary is that it has weakened the overall argument against Bush. No Texan Governor can be held that accountable for state failures if the gubnatorial power is that weak.

And even more tellingly, the skillful Bush strategy of lowering his expectations has meant that the flood of dismal statistics have left a jaded media and public shrugging its collective shoulders with a "so what?" Statistics are the play-doh of politics.

What has baffled the Gore team is that when confronted with the choice between an affable bumbler of doubtful intellect and limited experience versus a smartypants policy wonk with an earnest work ethic - nearly half of America would be quite satisfied with the former. The lesson of Reagan Vs Carter has NOT been well absorbed by the Gore team.

Conversely - the Bush/RNC team devised an election-winning strategy early on that has drawn deeply on the considerable skills of its oppo research team.

It was apparent early on to the Bush team that the election could not be won on what are traditionally described as the issues. As the polls continue to show - the majority of the issues favor Gore and the Democrats.

So the option was clear. Bush had to ensure that the election be about personality and likability. But it also had to subtly be about Clinton. And in particular about NOT being Bill Clinton. Or in any way LIKE Bill Clinton.

Bush's team hasn't needed to use the word "Clinton." It established the code phrase of "restoring honor and dignity to the White House" as a crowd-pleasing mantra that performed that task.

So the primary remaining task has been to color Gore not just as less likable than George Bush. There had to be a way of linking him to Bill Clinton so that Bush could run against Clinton.

Gore has done everything he can to dodge this tactic - principally the questionable tightrope act of distancing himself from the 8 year Clinton-Gore record however successful - on the grounds that he is his own man.

This left the Bush team with one key objective. To redefine the popular image of Al Gore.

If one looks back a couple of years - the prevailing conventional wisdom about Al Gore among non-partisans was not about lies, deceits, exaggerations and embellishments. It was the cliche of how wooden he was. Robo-Veep. Allowing Gore to make his oft-repeated self-deprecating quip that he was so boring that his Secret Service code name was Al Gore.

Yes there had been the Buddhist temple incident and the White House fundraising phone calls - but those seemed to be viewed as technical breaches of obscure laws rather than examples of outright mendacity.

His overall image was of a boringly earnest boy scout. His Rose Garden impeachment-day defense of Clinton - an act of over-zealous loyalty.

That was not enough to run against. With those clothes Gore could run as a dull Clark Kent - whose biggest sin would be his lumbering and pious integrity.

The Bush team HAD to find a way to make this uncharismatic cipher take on the hue of Clinton. In some ways Gore's chameleon-like approach to the campaign played into their hands.

As Gore has stumbled from alpha-male to Prozaked debater - like an over-the-hill teen pop star searching for a comeback image - the Bush team decided its plan. It would take all of Gore's perceived weaknesses and find a way to characterize them as all being part of the same character flaw. And the kicker was that it would be the self same defect that the public had detected in Clinton.

The Bush team had a willing accomplice in this. Gore has a long-identified habit of decorating his speeches with self-aggrandizing filigree. Such sophistry is a staple of over-achievers everywhere. Resume enhancement and slight career exaggerations are heard in the workplace everyday - and certainly in the workplaces of politicians. It is usually dismissed as the stuff of politics.

The Bush campaign's brilliant intuition was that if this unattractive trait could be vulcanized as being the CORE of Gore rather than just one of the many aspects - good and bad of a man - then they were made. How to do this? Simple. Establish a massive database of every utterance in Gore's 26 years in public service - and then pounce on any and every discrepancy - like a bulldog lawyer seeking to impeach a witness. It wouldn't matter how tiny the variance. Any deviation could be characterized as an embellishment... an exaggeration... an untruth... a dishonesty... and then finally the word that would superglue Gore to Clinton. A lie.

Nail Gore on sufficient discrepancies - AND be certain to trumpet each and every occurrence as yet another example of an established pattern - and the Gore goose would be cooked.

The BBC documentary shows how this worked in brilliant detail.

The program established its bona fides with the Bush campaign early in the year. Being a 'foreign' film crew from the impeccable BBC was the irresistible blandishment . Obviously without a dog in the race - the BBC were granted the sort of access that American journalists dream of.

But even more remarkable is the way the subjects react in front of the camera. They KNOW they're being filmed. They KNOW that what they're doing might appear sly and devious. And yet they can't resist the lens. Like a team of art thieves in the Louvre heisting the Mona Lisa. Even though the snap might be incriminating - they can't quite resist the lure of posing for a quick vacation Polaroid. "Me and Chuck heisting some old painting in Paris, France."

And so - on the night of the first debate - we see a pumped-up Tim Griffin (deputy head of RNC Research) barking orders to his large team of "oppos." Lehrer tosses Gore the question about him having cast doubt on whether Bush has sufficient experience to lead. Gore demurs and parses his response. Griffin leaps into loud action. Within minutes his team have tracked down an obscure Gore quote buried within the transcript of a lengthy speech. Gotcha! "It directly contradicts what he just said in the debate! He just lied!" crows Griffin. Seconds later Griffin has fed the contradiction to the Associated Press. This is beyond post-debate spin. This is play-by-play impeachment. And incredibly effective.

Moments later the topic is the Balkans. Gore speaks of how the First World War started there and says "my uncle was a victim of poison gas there." The RNC oppo staff giggles at this and Griffin bellows: "This family stuff is killing me... let's check his uncle! Let's see if it's Witt Lafont. He's under investigation for drug-trafficking..." There is a flurry of activity and history books being consulted - and then palpable disappointment that Gore's uncle really was a gas victim. "OK so that is not a lie..." Griffin grimaces and phones the bad news to a waiting colleague: "Hey... we confirmed the uncle tear-gas story...."

But when Gore makes what turns out to be his misstatement about visiting Texan fire sites with James Lee Witt (Director of FEMA) - Griffin senses blood. "Have Jeanette take a look at that!" he cries. And his hunch is right. Gore has transposed dates or people. And that gives Griffin another opportunity.

The BBC cameras catch him on the phone exulting to a colleague: "You know what this would be perfect for is... Get one of these AP reporters or somebody on it for the next few days and then we get a lie out of it... and roll a few days with a new lie!"

And "LIE" was what they got. The New York Post trumpets LIAR LIAR on its front page - and the post-debate spin cycle becomes about Gore's perceived chronic character flaw. And so it has gone every week since the debates. The image is enshrined.

Was the fact that Gore DID visit Texan firesites - but on that occasion with another FEMA executive relevant? Did it matter that he had made other visits to Texas with James Lee Witt? Were Gore's words a misstatement or a lie? What would have been the benefit in intentionally lying about such a trivial fact? Was it important either way?

To Griffin it is all very simple:

"If there's something really good that we can attack on then we will... Research is a fundamental point. We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war. Research digs up the ammunition.. We make the bullets."

The enduring legacy of the 1992 campaign was the large sign in Carville's War Room - bearing a phrase that subsequently entered the political lexicon. "It's the economy, stupid."

Behind Tim Griffin in the RNC Oppo Room, the BBC camera captures a large sign he has erected. "On my command - unleash hell on Al."

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