Opposition Research Revealed

In politics, hubris abounds. It is truly amazing that politicians think they can keep secrets.

After reading, We're with Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics, by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian, there is no question--there are no secrets.

The scenarios of secrets revealed are played out in detail in this entertaining account of opposition research, sometimes called "oppo."

A good example of this arrogance is the story of a candidate who believed he could keep a secret from his own team. When presented with the services of Mr. Huffman and Rejebian to prepare the candidate for an upcoming congressional race, he balked.

"Why the hell do I need to hire you? What could you possibly tell me about myself that I don't already know?"

Such was the naïve lament of what turned out to be a failed campaign, and we get a front row seat to the shenanigans that go on behind the scenes of the campaign trail. For an outsider, watching these political antics is great entertainment.

Opposition research is a multimillion-dollar business. It is the practice of uncovering damaging background information of candidates that will compromise a run for elected office. It is also practiced for other situations, such as celebrities and business officials. It parallels the private investigative business, but opposition research stays close to the political arena.

The term may new, but the practice is as old as when two people wanted the same position of power. Opposition research is a practice with a long history. An article in Washingtonian magazine revealed this piece of history: "In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson's opponents unearthed his marriage records, seeking to imply that the hero of the Battle of New Orleans was an adulterer for marrying Rachel Robards in 1791 before she was legally divorced from her first husband."

We're with Nobody cleverly takes us through the detailed steps of performing opposition research. More often than not, the results are usually less than positive for either side of the political aisle. We see firsthand the gritty details and feel the frustration through stories about obstructionist clerks who are determined to keep public documents private.

The book is presented as a diary of sorts, each chapter alternating authors. The reader gets a glimpse of this work from both perspectives that add an interesting element to the subject.

The authors are highly credentialed and seasoned professionals. Mr. Huffman, a former journalist, is also a contributor to the New York Times and author of four books. Mr. Rejebian was a reporter in Texas, director of communications for the Office of the Mayor in Jackson, Miss., and political adviser to the Attorney General of Mississippi.

They team up on most assignments to make sure the research gets the best treatment from both perspectives.

Because Mr. Rejebian and Mr. Huffman exclude the names of their clients, they let us inside this murky and sometimes dangerous work. We get to go along for the ride, which is sometimes amusing as well as laborious, but always engaging.

There is no attempt to glamorize the world of opposition research. In fact, we see the strong component of tedium in the research process. There is enough monotony in investigation to discourage any would-be political junkie who doesn't possess the strongest commitment to unearth a nucleus of illicit activity under a candidate's rock.

A significant part of the book is spent describing the various methods used to pry files from self-styled gatekeepers of public information. The stories are amusing as well as instructive. Among the more comical situations, this one in particular stands out:

"Standing about five foot five, she's a manly woman, troll-like in many ways. And though she might very well reside under a bridge, she works in a local government office in Missouri. From the expression on her face, we can tell this is going to be unpleasant--a trip to the dentist and a prostate exam wrapped into one," wrote Mr. Rejebian.

In an instructive chapter, the authors give us 10 tips for how obtain the desired documents with grace and grit. Among them, Mr. Huffman suggests a confrontational approach for a particularly difficult clerk: "Listen, this isn't the CIA and I don't have time to stand here while you figure out ways not to do what you're paid to do. So here's a novel idea--just do it!"

We're with Nobody makes it clear that it takes more than mere dedication to the cause, clearly illustrated by assignments requiring the team wade through 20 years of financial reports.

Yet the descriptions of hours of laborious thumbing through paper are written with a very light hand. There is humor and personality in every paragraph of We're with Nobody. The writing is intelligent, detailed, and intimate. While the authors don't explain the personal cost of spending months on the road and what effect it had on their lives, they let us in on their highs and lows of the day-to-day tasks in such a way that I did not want the book to end. I wanted to know where we were going next.

This review originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books (www.nyjournalofbooks.com).

Reviewer Geri Spieler is the award-winning author of Taking Aim at the President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot at Gerald Ford (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). She is also a member of the National Books Critics Circle.