Digging The Dirt

by digby

Following up on my post below and Dennis Hartley's DVD wish list from last night, I would like to add "Digging The Dirt", the BBC documentary about the Bush oppo shop of the 2000 election, to my list. It should be required viewing for the House and Senate Judiciary Committees so they can better understand the kind of people Bush installed in the Justice Department.

The link above has a couple of clips (Josh Marshall features a bit more, here) and a transcript, so it's at least possible to get a sense of the show.

Here's an interesting excerpt, featuring both Tim Griffin, the recently installed US Attorney in Arkansas and Mark Corallo the spokesman who replaced Barbara Comstock at the DOJ. (Monica Goodling is in the film but doesn't speak):

Tim Griffin and his colleagues do oppo - opposition research. It means they look for any slip by the enemy - Al Gore.

Research is a fundamental point. We think of ourselves as the creators of the ammunition in a war. Research digs up the ammunition.

You make the bullets.

That's right, we make the bullets.

I'm ready to just respond to anything that Gore says.

And they feed their anti-Gore research to the American press and TV.

It's an amazing thing when you have top line producers and reporters calling you and saying "We trust you, we need your stuff."

It's actually not really amazing at all. The Bush hit squad knew the media were openly hostile to Gore from early on in the campaign:

To read the major newspapers and to watch the TV pundit shows, one can't avoid the impression that many in the national press corps have decided that Vice President Al Gore is unfit to be elected the next president of the United States.

Across the board -- from The Washington Post to The Washington Times, from The New York Times to the New York Post, from NBC's cable networks to the traveling campaign press corps -- journalists don't even bother to disguise their contempt for Gore anymore.


From the media’s hostile tone, one might conclude that reporters have reached a collective decision that Gore should be disqualified from the campaign.

At times, the media has jettisoned any pretext of objectivity. According to various accounts of the first Democratic debate in Hanover, N.H., reporters openly mocked Gore as they sat in a nearby press room and watched the debate on television.

Several journalists later described the incident, but without overt criticism of their colleagues. As The Daily Howler observed, Time's Eric Pooley cited the reporters' reaction only to underscore how Gore was failing in his "frenzied attempt to connect."

"The ache was unmistakable -- and even touching -- but the 300 media types watching in the press room at Dartmouth were, to use the appropriate technical term, totally grossed out by it," Pooley wrote. "Whenever Gore came on too strong, the room erupted in a collective jeer, like a gang of 15-year-old Heathers cutting down some hapless nerd."

Hotline's Howard Mortman described the same behavior as the reporters "groaned, laughed and howled" at Gore's comments.

Later, during an appearance on C-SPAN's Washington Journal, Salon's Jake Tapper cited the Hanover incident, too. "I can tell you that the only media bias I have detected in terms of a group media bias was, at the first debate between Bill Bradley and Al Gore, there was hissing for Gore in the media room up at Dartmouth College. The reporters were hissing Gore, and that's the only time I've ever heard the press room boo or hiss any candidate of any party at any event."

You can understand why the Republican dirty tricksters seemed so confident about their ability to get members of the press corps to do their bidding. They had the same agenda. This November 2000 review of the film by Martin Lewis in TIME magazine shows the media were all too eager to help the Republicans advance their campaign narrative --- a narrative that I believe was at least partially devised because they knew the media's pre-existing loathing of Gore would make it irresistable. A loathing, by the way, that could be traced to the far too cozy relationships the press developed with the rightwing character assassins during the Lewinsky scandal when they were among that small minority of Americans who believed that Clinton should be driven from office over that ridiculous, trumped up sideshow:

The Bush campaign's brilliant intuition was that if this unattractive trait [embellishing his accomplishments] 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.

Lewis also noted:

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.

He claims it happened on both sides, but there is little doubt that the GOP narrative about Gore was hugely favored by the press during the election; they treated Bush as if he were a living example of "honor and integrity" and therefore "the better man" than the lying Al Gore. (They also liked Bush better because his campaign served lobster and Dove bars on the plane instead of those granola bars that icky old Al Gore served. And they wonder why we call them mediawhores...)

The Daily Howler has chronicled this story in more detail than I would even attempt to distill here. But after revisiting those archives and seeing how many of the assassination squad are involved, it's obvious to me that the ethical squalor of the Bush oppo-research crew of the 2000 campaign has played a role in these Justice Department scandals. As I wrote below, alarm bells should have been clanging all over Washington when Bush gave important jobs in the Federal Police agencies to these political hatchet-people. Even Nixon didn't install G. Gordon Liddy as a senior advisor to John Mitchell.

And given that, I have a question. Tim Russert and many members of the DC press corps clearly had relationships with Comstock, Griffin, Carollo and Goodling in their capacity as dirt delivery people in 2000. So why hasn't even one of them brought it up? Are they "protecting their sources" again?

How much do they know that they aren't telling us about this one do you suppose?

Update: Thisarticle by Josh Green in The Atlantic (subscriber only --- sorry) also discusses the film and how Tim Griffin, our new US Attorney was promoted from his assistant Prosecutor job in 2004 to return to the Bush campaign to head it's dirty tricks division. That's quite the unusual revolving door, don't you think? And it sure does make the appointment to Arkansas US Attorney in advance of the 2008 election all the more suspicious.

What was remarkable about the 2000 effort was the degree to which the process advanced beyond what Barbara Comstock, who headed the RNC research team, calls "votes and quotes"—the standard campaign practice of leaving the job of scouting the target to very junior staff members, who tend to dig up little more than a rival's legislative record and public statements. Comstock's taking over the research team marked a significant change. She was a lawyer and a ten-year veteran of Capitol Hill who had been one of Representative Dan Burton's top congressional investigators during the Clinton scandals that dominated the 1990s: Filegate, Travelgate, assorted campaign-finance imbroglios, and Whitewater. Rather than amass the usual bunch of college kids, Comstock put together a group of seasoned attorneys and former colleagues from the Burton Committee, including her deputy, Tim Griffin. "The team we had from 2000," she told me recently, to show the degree of ratcheted-up professionalism, "were veteran investigators from the Clinton years. We had a core group of people, and that core was attorneys."

Comstock combined a prosecutor's mentality with an investigator's ability to hunt through public records and other potentially incriminating documents. More important, she and her team understood how to use opposition research in the service of a larger goal: not simply to embarrass Gore with hard-to-explain votes or awkward statements but to craft over the course of the campaign a negative "storyline" about him that would eventually take hold in the public mind. "A campaign is a lot like a trial," Comstock explained. "You want people aggressively arguing their case."

Update II:
Thanks to my favorite tipster BB, I'm reminded of this bizarre tale about Comstock from Blinded By The Right:

One night in the winter of 1995, as the scandal over the firings of workers in the White house travel office reached a crescendo on the Hill [think about that ---d] I received a late night telephone call from one of Ted's colleagues on an investigative committee, Barbara Comstock. Around the committee, the two Barbaras [Comstock and Olsen] were known s "the Barbarellas," a reference to the 1968 movie starring Jane Fonda as a space-age vixen whose cosmic adventures take her to bizarre planets via rocket ships. Late night calls from Barbara Comstock were not unusual. She often telephoned with the latest tid-bit she had dig up in the thousands of pages of administration records she pored through frantically, as if she were looking for a winning lootery ticket she had somehow mislaid. A plain woman with tousled reddish brown hair, she once dropped by my house to watch the rerun of a dreadfully dull Whitewater hearing she had sat through all day. Comstock sat on the edge of her chair shaking, screaming over and over again, "Liars!" As Comstock's leads failed to pan out and she was unable to catch anyone in a lie, the Republican aid confided that the Clinton scandals were driving her to distraction, to the unfortunate point that she was ignoring the needs of her own family. A very smart lawyer by training and the main breadwinner for her charismatic, happy-go-lucky husband and kids, Comstock remarked that maybe she couldn't get Hillary's sins off her brain "because Hillary reminds me of me. I am Hillary." In this admission a vivid illustration of a much wider "Hillary" phenomenon can be seen. Comstock knew nothing about Hillary Clinton. Comstock's "Hillary" was imaginary, a construction composed entirely of the negative points in her own life.

Comstock invited me to go along on an expedition to the Washington home of senior White House aid David Watkins, the central figure in the travel scandal Olsen and Comstock were probing. A short time later, Republican lawyers Comstock, Olson, and other congressional investigators, including David Bossie, and Whitewater investigator Christopher Bartomolucci, pulled up outside my house in an SUV. Though I wasn't sure what the group hoped to accomplish --- they were visibly frustrated with their inability so far to incriminate Watkins --- I went along for the ride. Olsen explained that Congressman Sonny Bono had cleared us into the privated, gated community where both Bono and Watkins lived, in the northwest section of Georgetown. When we arrived at our destination, Olsen giddily leapt from the truck, trespassed onto Watkins's property, and hopped down a steep cliff that abutted his home. Barbara peered into Watkins's window where she observed him --- watching television. No crime there. (Blinded by The Right by David Brock, p 208,209.)

(Keep in mind that this is the same Comstock who is defending Scooter Libby despite his conviction of perjury and obstruction.) What an excellent choice to have in the United States Justice Department.

And it's just great to have Tim Griffin, Barbara "I am Hillary" Comstock's little errand boy down in Arkansas with the full force of the federal government behind him, too.