It's a balmy summer night in the rural countryside near the North Carolina–South Carolina line. This guy Joey, or Jamie — I've forgotten his name — sits in the dark on the deck of his trailer, silhouetted against the flickering light of a TV that's blaring an old episode of Married with Children through the open door. I don't know him and he doesn't introduce himself or even get up from his chair when I approach, but I'm sure I'm in the right place because he doesn't seem surprised to see me. He just says, "Hey, how's it going?" like we're old friends. I pull up a plastic lawn chair and get out my notebook. As my eyes adjust, I notice he's got a shotgun cradled across his lap.
Until now we've spoken only by phone and our conversations have been brief and a bit cryptic, but he starts talking a blue streak before I've even pulled my pen from my pocket, and soon I'm blindly scrawling notes and don't have a chance to ask about the gun. Excited as he is, he's speaking so softly that he occasionally gets drowned out by the obnoxious laugh track on TV, like he's afraid of being overheard, though we're alone in the middle of nowhere. I'm tempted to ask him to turn down the volume because it's hard not to listen to Al Bundy's drivel, but I'm hesitant to interrupt.
I watch the red dot of his cigarette arc between the arm of his chair and his lips as he holds forth about a feared local businessman who's running for Congress. The red dot flares momentarily; he thumps his spent cigarette off the deck, then lights another. In the flick of his Bic I catch a glimpse of his face. He looks weary for his relatively young age. It appears that life has not been easy for him. I notice these things only in passing, because I'm not here to get to know the guy. I'm here to find out about the congressional candidate, and he supposedly has the goods.
My partner, Michael, and I do this for a living. We're opposition political researchers, which means we're hired by campaigns to compile potentially damning profiles of candidates. Our lives during the campaign season are a coast-to-coast series of behind-the-scenes interviews and paper chase sorties — clandestine missions that revolve around facts, truths, lies, surprises and dead ends, all bundled together with strands of strange situations, odd confrontations and the unique social scenery of the American landscape. One day we're in New Orleans, staring cross-eyed at court records in the hazy morning aftermath of a late night on Bourbon Street. The next we're in New York City, resolutely standing on the last nerve of a records clerk who frowns as she looks at the request I've just handed her.
The New York City clerk episode was typical of the way we approach our job and how our work is frequently perceived. In that case, the records clerk asked, "So, who did you say you're with?" knowing full well I hadn't said. For some reason, Michael and I live for these small moments, when someone, knowingly or not, throws the gauntlet down.
"I'm not with anybody," I replied, knowing that if the clerk had blinked, the questioning would end. But we were in New York City, where institutional blinking is rare.
"What do you mean, you're not with anybody?" she persisted.
"Well, technically, I work with him," I said, tilting my head toward Michael, who was leaning against a wall, texting someone and half listening to a conversation he'd heard a hundred times before. He glanced up just long enough to give her a little half-assed smile and a wave that actually looked more like he was dismissing her. She frowned again and turned back to me.
"So why do you want this?" she asked.
I just stared at her. All I was asking for were some straightforward tax documents, public records deposited in her office for anyone — for all — to see.
"I mean, what are you going to do with it?"
"It doesn't really matter, does it?" I said. Because it didn't, and she knew it. This is America. What we were looking for is part of the public record, and why we wanted it was nobody's business but our own.
Though Michael and I are, technically, with someone, in that we provide the information we compile to someone who, in most cases, is associated with the Democratic Party, that's largely immaterial to the completion of our work, and it's irrelevant to anyone else. We're essentially free agents, and how we go about doing our work is up to us. Our personal and professional ideologies are reflected only in who gets our reports. We want our guys to get elected, and achieving that involves more than uncovering damaging information about their opponents; it means doing it to our side, too. It's not only about discovering what's impolitic; it's about finding the truth.
Sometimes we focus on private clients, such as a business, but our forte is researching candidates for elective office, using documented records to flush them out into the open. People call it dirt digging, but the dirt is just one by-product of discovering what makes a candidate tick. The search also requires us to navigate the larger issues of the day — immigration, the death penalty, the outsourcing of collectible Snow Baby factories — at very close range. You think of politics as taking place in the seats of power — county courthouses; city halls; state capitals; Washington, DC — but important scenes also unfold at less obvious locales, such as mobile homes on lonely gravel roads where someone who lives on the fringes deigns to tell what he has seen and heard.
We've been doing this for the better part of two decades now, gathering political intel during a weird, extended road trip that no one else would ever take, through America's main streets and back roads. We're guided, more or less, by the conviction that no one is fit to lead unless proven otherwise. Though negative campaigning is often perceived as a bane of politics, we like to think of ourselves as seekers of the truth. In our view, documenting that truth is more crucial than ever, when today's news is prone to distortion, willful ignorance and lies; when untruths go viral in the blogosphere overnight and even conventional media sources give airtime and print space to erroneous claims and rumors; when the headline on the lead story on Yahoo! News about a descendant's account of a ship officer's experiences reads: TITANIC RELATIVE REVEALS "TRUTH" ABOUT SINKING. "Truth" is a word that should never be qualified. It's like pregnancy; it's yes or no. It is possible to inculcate the public with untruths or distortions, but as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reportedly once observed, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts."
Considering how blithely the truth is often regarded today, Michael and I sometimes feel like relics of a simpler era, gathering our old-timey facts while everyone else obsesses over imaginary death panels and whether the president is a Muslim — a bit of "news" that Obama, regardless of what you think of him, correctly characterized as part of "a network of misinformation that in a new media era can get churned out there constantly." Our primary aim, aside from earning a living, is to help guide the political debate through the real, documented world, where talking points are derived from actual facts rather than from voices emanating from a planet far, far away. We do listen to those voices now and then — you never know where clues will be found — but our work is utterly dependent on locating the documentation.
Unfortunately, that's not always the thread our own campaigns are looking for. Because we usually profile both our candidates and their opponents, to ensure that our side knows how we could be attacked and what we're up against, we get to see everyone naked, for better or worse. Sometimes our guys look good going in and turn out bad; in one case we found that our young, articulate candidate had numerous arrests in his record, including a DUI and throwing a pipe bomb at a high school homecoming parade float. And sometimes the opponent looks bad going in and turns out good. We don't pull any punches in the assessments we ultimately provide to our campaigns. We present our findings, based on the records, then abdicate control and move on.
The guy with the shotgun falls into the category of a deep background source because he professes only to have leads. He has no documentation to support his allegations, which is fine with me. We mostly work under the radar, for a lot of reasons, not least of which is that the truth can be painfully shy. Leads such as these are sometimes dead ends, but they're just as likely to point us in the right direction, toward the documented truth.
From We're with Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian. Copyright 2012 by Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian. Excerpted with permission of William Morrow Paperbacks.