Inside the mind, and apartment, of an opposition researcher.
Confessions of A Political Hitman: My Secret Life of Scandal,
Corruption, Hypocrisy, and Dirty Attacks That Decide Who Gets
Elected (And Who Doesn’t)
By Stephen Marks
(Sourcebooks, 416 pages, $23.95)
In January 2001, I flew from Boston to Washington, D.C. to meet a college friend and his fiance at George W. Bush’s first inaugural. It was a weekend of conviviality, camaraderie, and compassionate conservatism, with a good time had by all. My most vivid memories are not of the wonder-working powers of Bush’s inaugural address, however, but our unorthodox accommodations.
We camped out in a cramped apartment somewhere in the D.C. area, warmed by a space heater. It wasn’t the Ritz but the price was unbeatable and I was still at the age when a friend’s couch seemed Zagat-worthy. Our host graciously slept on a mattress on the bathroom floor to maximize space and privacy. He was generous, courteous, witty, and — how to put this — more than a little odd. He was always dressed in a dark suit, dark shirt, and dark tie like some kind of Beltway Johnny Cash. Rather than burst into a rousing chorus of “Ring of Fire,” he would instead come and go at all hours. One minute he was there and then the next he would vanish.
All these memories came flooding back when this fellow’s book, Confessions of a Political Hit Man, arrived last week at The American Spectator’s offices. I knew him as Stephen Marks. I learned that he was really “Oppo Man,” “a strange-looking character, half librarian and half James Bond.” Marks dreamed of putting on a ski mask with a hole for only one eye, informing politicians, “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Suddenly, it all clicked. Not wanting to be a third wheel at one of the inaugural balls, I had spent an evening eating take-out Chinese and drinking Miller Lite at Oppo Man’s pad. Sometimes, he was my companion. Other times, he would disappear into the ether. All this was as puzzling to me as how my beer could both be less filling and taste great. Now I understand: whenever duty and dirt-digging called, Oppo Man had no choice but to answer.
ACTUALLY, I KNEW something about Marks’s history as an opposition researcher before reading Confessions of a Political Hitman. Over the years, our mutual friend would send me videos Marks put together for attack ads. I saw footage of Al Sharpton in full pompadour screaming, “Off the pigs!” I heard about John Kerry’s role in securing the parole of career criminal and attempted cop-killer George Reissfelder, who Marks was convinced would be the Willie Horton of 2004 (Reissfelder was white; Kerry had been his lawyer in 1982). I read Marks’s Penthouse expose on Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaigns, motivated by his undiminished hatred of the candidate’s sister Bay, which a friend copied for me so I wouldn’t have to receive a porno magazine in the mail — my friend read Penthouse solely for the articles, I swear.
These sordid tales and many more make it into the book, but with a new twist: Oppo Man is no more. Stephen Marks saw the light, like so many people do, while having sexual intercourse with a woman in the Texas comptroller’s office while on an assignment. “In retrospect, this incident was not only indicative of what I had become,” Marks wrote, “but was also one of the signs at that time that I had no business doing this type of work anymore.”
Whether you find his conversion story convincing or not, his book is an entertaining and engaging trip down mudslinging lane. Marks began as an idealistic young Republican who got crushed in 1982 when he tried to stand between Chuck Schumer and a congressional seat. There’s no dirt here; just a failure to realize that Brooklyn wasn’t a bastion of Reagan Republicanism.
Marks became an opposition researcher in the run-up to the 1994 Republican revolution. “When Clinton became president, I was still in too much shock to think straight,” he writes. “All I could think of was one thing: I would now commit my life to doing anything in my power to stop Bill Clinton and those ‘evil’ Democrats, who now controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.” He pored through the records of Democrats across the country in an effort to elect the first GOP-controlled Congress in forty years. He would do work in some of the biggest races of the 1990s: Jesse Helms versus Harvey Gantt, Jeb Bush versus Lawton Chiles, Buchanan versus Bob Dole, and Bill Weld versus John Kerry.
The best stories involve the more obscure contests. Marks mentions his work on a city council race in which a serious candidate, who only ended up losing by 60 votes, didn’t even bother to shut down his pornographic website for the duration of his campaign. He recounts how he helped one Jimmy Stewart to victory in a race for the Ohio state legislature over an alleged deadbeat dad named Jim Pancake. From Tom DeLay and Ronnie Earle to his digging on Dick Gephardt, Marks provides a fascinating look at the inner workings of the political underworld.
When Marks turns his observations into Big Ideas about the political process, he can get a bit tedious. He repeats the usual lines about Republican hypocrisy, the value of the political center, and his strange new respect for the 42nd president he once hated. But he still dishes dirt with the best of them. Instead of apologizing for negativity in American politics, he writes, “Armed with the facts, the public can generally figure out which are relevant and which are not.”
Oppo Man may be a changed man. But here’s betting my former host has a few files hidden in that one-eyed ski mask that are relevant to this year’s campaign.