'Hitman' Shares Secrets of Negative Campaigning When political campaigns decide to use negative ads, they turn to "opposition researchers." Stephen Marks, who spent more than a decade as an opposition researcher, has written a book about his experiences, Confessions of a Political Hitman.
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'Hitman' Shares Secrets of Negative Campaigning

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'Hitman' Shares Secrets of Negative Campaigning

'Hitman' Shares Secrets of Negative Campaigning

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

It hasn't quite gotten as bad as it did in 2004 yet, but political attack ads have already begun. Negative spin was key to President Bush's victory over Democratic nominee John Kerry left go around.

(Soundbite of a political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

Unidentified Man #2: He is lying about his record.

Unidentified Man #3: I know John Kerry is lying about his first purple heart because I treated him for that injury.

SEABROOK: That ad even popularized a new verb - to swift vote. As in, wow, the opposition really swift voted that guy. Well, a lot of the damaging information in those ads is dredged up by a campaign team often called the opposition research department.

Stephen Marks spent more than a decade in those departments, from 1994 until recently, and he's written a tell-all book. It's called "Confessions of a Political Hitman." Marks describes his role in creating the powerful brand of family values Republicans. And it was ultimately the financial and sexual shenanigans of the same family values Republicans that led to Marks' disillusionment.

I asked Stephen Marks to explain what exactly a political hitman does when researching a rival Democrat.

Mr. STEPHEN MARKS (Author, "Confessions of a Political Hitman"): The first element is going to the courthouses of wherever they live, where they have done business and see if there's any lawsuits against them - leans, late property taxes, see if he's ever been arrested any criminal thing. And then as the second aspect, which is going through newspaper searches. In those days, Nexus was kind of in its infancy, so we've actually go through the microfilm in the libraries.


Mr. MARKS: Any kind of quote where they said something stupid, anything where they took a position that was political bad in that particular district, like for instance in the South being pro-choice and abortion or being from welfare spending or higher taxes, and then of course, we go through their vote as congressman. And…

SEABROOK: Anything you could use against them.

Mr. MARKS: Anything, anything as long as it really is true, anything that we believe the voters have the right to know about.

SEABROOK: A lot of people say that it has damaged the Democratic process. Now you assert in your book that it actually improved the Democratic process. Tell me about your position there.

Mr. MARKS: No one would begrudge a car buyer, a used car buyer going to car facts to look at the history of that car before they purchased it - accidents, any kind of repairs much the same way. If a voter is going to make an educated, intelligent vote, wouldn't they also have the right to know the background of that person they're voting for, and there may be stuff in there that's negative that's not relevant but the voter has the right to sift through at the (unintelligible) trail, which were not relevant. We need opposition research. It's a necessary evil. Without it, it's the voters that are really in the shadows.

SEABROOK: There are a lot of stories about negative campaigns winning the data in your book. But the most baffling might be the attacks against Democrat Max Cleland who lost the use of three limbs and service to his country, and he was accused of being unpatriotic.

Mr. MARKS: He was elected in 1996 and defeated in 2002. And Cleland made a number of votes. I think it was 10 or 12 votes against military spending, against the creation of Homeland Security. At that time, you've got to remember, it was right after 9/11. Bush was still very popular. And any kind of vote against military spending to fight terrorism was considered to be soft on terrorism. And the voters had the right to know that he made those votes and you can say that the voters were wrong to vote him out on those issues, but you have to remember the context of what year it was.

SEABROOK: But how can you question…

Mr. MARKS: And nobody is questioning - nobody questioned his patriotism, Andrea. They're questioning his judgment as a senator in making those what people considered bad votes.

SEABROOK: But it did come off as questioning his patriotism, didn't it?

Mr. MARKS: I - well, you know, you can look at it that way but you have to separate what we considered a (unintelligible) national security and his patriotism serving in Vietnam are two separate - completely separate things. One happened in the 1960s, one happened in the 1990s or early 2000. It was - again, it wasn't the fact that you're questioning his patriotism in Vietnam - he was a patriot - we're questioning his judgment when he made votes as a senator 30 years later.

SEABROOK: Now, the title of your book is "Confessions of a Political Hitman," and the word confession kind of suggests regret. Do you have any regrets?

Mr. MARKS: I don't have regrets that I did. I'm glad that I did because at least it was an educational experience for me to learn of how the process really works. Sometimes, I thought I was working for the good guys and then I find out years later I'm really working for the bad guys. Its kind of, like, the song by the Who "We Don't Get Fooled Again" where there's this, like, revolution and then at the end, it says meet the new boss, same as the old boss. In other words, you had Democrats running Congress for 50 years and then Republicans took over, and I thought we were going to be different, we were going to be better, we were going to - but you know what, the trappings of power - maybe I agree with their views a little more but personally and professionally and ethically and morally, they were no different and no better than the Democrats. It was meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

SEABROOK: Stephen Marks is the author of "Confessions of a Political Hitman."

Thanks very much, Stephen Marks.

Mr. MARKS: Okay. Thank you.

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