Over the past year, America’s political waters have been roiled by a host of investigations and revelations aimed at influencing the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Republicans fired the opening shots by launching a congressional investigation of Hillary Clinton’s role in the deaths of U.S. embassy officials in Benghazi, Libya and another investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server to handle official State Department correspondence. Neither investigation led to the bringing of formal charges against Clinton but both convinced many Americans that the former Secretary of State was dishonest and untrustworthy. Republicans, indeed, charged that Clinton was spared prosecution only because her allies in the Department of Justice moved to protect her.
For their part, Democrats had no difficulty finding and revealing information damaging to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. In October, 2016, with only weeks before the November election, a video surfaced showing Trump making lewd comments about unnamed women. Democrats and many Republicans declared that the video showed Trump to be unfit to hold high public office. The national news media predictably decried what they described as a dangerous and vicious turn in American politics. Rather than focus on the many issues facing the nation politics, they said, had sunk to a new low of mudslinging and personal attack.
Like it or not, however, from the earliest years of the Republic, mud has been an important weapon in the arsenals of competing political forces in America. The Jeffersonian press, for example, made much of Alexander Hamilton’s illegitimate birth and the papers allied with Hamilton raised many questions about Thomas Jefferson’s parentage and alleged sexual peccadillos. Modern-day politics is an extension of these practices, rather than some aberration.
In recent years, at least since the Watergate investigation of the 1970s that drove President Richard Nixon form office, each political party has made use of heavily publicized investigations to harass and embarrass its foes in the other party. Thus, for example, in the 1980s Democrats launched the Iran-Contra investigations that damaged the Reagan administration. In the 1990s, Republicans did enormous political damage to President Bill Clinton with the Whitewater investigations. In 2003, Democrats investigated charges that top Bush administration officials had leaked the identity of a covert CIA operative whose husband was critical of the president’s policies in Iraq. Senior GOP official Lewis “Scooter” Libby was convicted of lying to investigators but his prison sentence was commuted by President Bush.
It is, of course, true that many of these investigations revealed evidence of serious wrong-doing in high places. In most instances, however, the actual purpose of the investigation was to publicly humiliate a political opponent by publicizing sensational charges of official and/or private misconduct. Often, the charges simply involved embarrassing or inappropriate behavior, or minor infractions that hardly presented threats to the safety of the Republic. Thus, during his confirmation hearings. Justice Clarence Thomas was accused, amid much fanfare, of engaging in inappropriate sexual banter with a former subordinate while Judge Douglas Ginsburg was compelled to withdraw his name from consideration for the Supreme Court seat to which he had been nominated when it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana in college. Several Republican and Democratic cabinet nominations had to be withdrawn when it was revealed that the nominees had neglected to pay the so-called “nanny tax” for former household employees. And, of course, President Bill Clinton was humiliated by revelations of sexual escapades in the Oval Office. Other nominees, staffers and officials were embarrassed by charges that they had made inappropriate comments, engaged in improper dalliances or, worst of all, received poor grades at Yale.
In a number of instances, these stories were based upon leaks from disgruntled staffers or information that emerged during the routine course of news gathering. Many of the most embarrassing revelations, however, were uncovered by investigators employed by politicians specifically for the purpose of ferreting out potentially damaging information about their opponents. Each political party makes extensive use of experts in what has come to be called “opposition research.” Some opposition research is done on a part-time basis by congressional staffers and political consultants. In the city of Washington, alone, however there are dozens of firms that specialize in this art. For a fee, opposition researchers will conduct computer searches, interview subjects’ acquaintances, conduct surveillance and read subjects’ books, articles and speeches to search for material that can be used against them.
One famous opposition researcher, Washington detective Terry Lenzner, specializes in searching subjects’ trash–a practice known as “dumpster diving.” Indeed, Lenzner wrote a magazine article on dumpster diving, which he characterized as a “very creative” means of securing information. Lenzner first attracted attention during the Clinton impeachment battles in the 1990s, when he was employed by the president’s allies to obtain information that might be used to discredit the various women who were making allegations of sexual improprieties against the president. Later, Lenzner was retained by the Oracle corporation to collect information about Microsoft that might be useful in Oracle’s legal and political struggles against its giant rival. Microsoft charged that Lenzner twice approached the night cleaning crews who serviced an office building used by one of its lobbying arms and offered to purchase its trash.
And, while the media decry mud slinging, the effectiveness of dumpster diving and other forms of opposition research depends, in part, upon the willingness of the news media to publicize the information that is uncovered. Generally speaking, liberal newspapers, periodicals and television networks are very happy to report the misdeeds of conservative politicians while conservative papers, periodicals and broadcasters are delighted to devote time and attention to allegations of misconduct on the part of liberals. Thus, liberal publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post were the first to publicize accusations of misconduct on the part of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay and other conservative politicians, most recently including Donald Trump. In a similar vein, revelations of sexual improprieties on the part of Bill Clinton were initially publicized by the American Spectator, a conservative news magazine, and were given enormous play by Fox Network News and scores of conservative “talk radio” programs. Once a story has gained momentum, however, ideological factors seem to diminish in importance. Rather like piranha fish sensing blood in the water, media of all ideological stripes revel in the struggles and, especially, the death throes of the unfortunate subject of a campaign of revelations. Reporters never tire of these political dramas and, hence, contending political forces work to provide the media with a steady stream of new dirt with which to discredit their opponents. Dumpster diving is definitely a profession with a promising future.
This post originally appeared on Ginsberg on Government. Reproduced by permission.
Benjamin Ginsberg is the David Bernstein Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and chairof the Hopkins Center for Advanced Governmental Studies. He is the co-author of American Government: Power and Purpose, among other titles. He lives in Potomac, MD.