The ethics of opposition research and campaign smears from the holiest of our political giants.
As an Orthodox Jew and as a rabbi, my actions are dictated by a sense of “What does the Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses), the Oral Torah (i.e., the Talmud), and the Rabbinic Tradition demand of me?” In a somewhat comparable vein, many of my dearest friends among Christian pastors have told me that, in conducting their daily lives, they ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”
The news on Monday, October 30, 2017 was replete with reports that Robert Mueller: Special Investigator Man had handed down an indictment aimed at a low-level political operative, unpaid volunteer George Papadopoulos, who apparently had hoped that some Russians would help him “dig up dirt” on Hillary Clinton — a task akin to asking someone to help find sand at a beach. The implication behind much of the liberal media hectoring throughout that day was that only the lowest of Trump-aligned Republicans would conduct opposition research. Imagine: Jared Kushner, George Papadopoulos, and all these others going to meetings with Russians to find dirt on Hillary Clinton! Amid the echo chamber of talking heads on CNN — they even pulled out disgraced John Dean, disbarred felon and supervising purveyor of “hush money” to Watergate burglars — to pontificate on the evils of dirt digging. One could almost hear soft echoes of Joseph Welch confronting Senator Joseph McCarthy: At long last, have they left no sense of decency?
We all know that, in the contemporary American liberal Democrat pantheon, Barack Obama is messianic, the transcendent Lightworker. (It is a polytheistic pantheon because liberal Democrats are not monotheists; Harvey Weinstein, too, has been publicly worshipped by them as God.) If the great moral-ethical challenge of our political day, now being proclaimed by liberal Democrats and their mainstream-media echo chamber of talking-head stooges, is whether political operatives in our regretfully messy democracy should be endeavoring to “dig up political dirt” on their opponents, what better spiritual lesson can be found for teaching their children than by asking “What would Jesus Obama do?” And so, let us turn our hymnals to page 666 as we ask: “Digging up dirt on political opponents? Benefactor of schmutz? What indeed would Jesus Obama do?”
With the 2004 elections on the horizon, Illinois State Senator Barack Obama the Lightworker, he of the vote “Present,” sought his state’s Democrat Party’s nomination to run for United States Senator. He first had to overcome the unenviable task of defeating a powerhouse candidate, multi-millionaire securities trader Blair Hull, a profoundly successful businessman, investor, and philanthropist. Hull had founded a trading company that was so successful, trading on 28 exchanges in nine different countries, that he sold it to Goldman Sachs for more than half a billion dollars. On political issues, there could not be a more committed and focused liberal agreeable to the full gamut of political and social platform policies advocated by the Democrat faithful: A former union member. Active in NARAL for abortion on demand, Emily’s List, and Planned Parenthood. Endowed the first chair in Women’s Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. On Gay rights, advocated repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the military and repeal of DOMA (the federal law that had defended marriage in its traditional notion as between a man and a woman until its Section 3 core later was struck down in 2013 by the United States Supreme Court in United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675). Promised to act for universal healthcare. He even managed — without winking or giggling — to oppose “corporate special interests” in Washington. Joshua Green, writing in the Atlantic, observed: “As a former high school teacher, union worker, and board member of NARAL, [Hull] appeals to important Democratic constituencies; as the lone veteran in the field, he can oppose the war in Iraq unquestioned. His unusual life story, too, sets Hull apart from the drab lawyers, state representatives, and political scions who normally pursue office in Illinois.”
Obama initially was a distinct underdog in that primary field of eight candidates, outclassed particularly by Hull. Hull, who would spend $29 million of his own money in the campaign, breaking all kinds of records, led formidably in the polls. And then, unexpectedly, the news — dirt— mysteriously broke in the news media: Hull’s wife, whom he had married and divorced, and soon thereafter remarried and re-divorced, filed divorce papers the second time around alleging that this man whom she had married twice and now was divorcing twice in four years — her husband, Obama’s opponent — often beat the Hull out of her, engaging in intense domestic abuse. She claimed that he was an extremely violent man. The claims were amazingly riveting and lurid. In one allegation, she charged that he had “hung on the canopy bar of my bed, leered at me and stated, ‘Do you want to die? I am going to kill you.…’” (Previous to this quadrennial drama, a veritable marriage Olympiad, Hull had been married to his first wife for 29 years. Although unclear whether that prior matrimonial bond had been a bowl of cherries, it was not marked by any canopies.…)
Lurid allegations in divorce proceedings often are hard to verify, and sometimes they can be wildly false and defamatory, though protected from legal defamation liability by the “litigation privilege” that affords complete immunity to all writings and oral representations communicated in furtherance of a litigation. It may be that Hull really was as bad as all that. Maybe even worse. At the same time, it also is somewhat commonplace for divorcing spouses to level the most intense of fabricated and exaggerated accusations in sealed court papers, hoping to leverage those claims to negotiate issues of alimony, child support, property division, custody and visitation issues. Often, a prominent accused spouse — possibly accused truthfully, possibly accused falsely — will cave in completely to divorce negotiations rather than risk having those secret court papers released to the public. The problem of false abuse accusations in divorce proceedings is so pernicious and widespread that many states even have laws that specifically penalize any divorcing spouse who falsely claims that the other engaged in child abuse. Consider the Hull case: The divorcing wife went to court, beseeching the judge for a protective order to guard her from this allegedly dangerous and violent man who had her fearing for her life. Then, after the divorce settled for $3 million and half the value of the couple’s home, she affirmatively in open court allowed the protective order to expire and even moved into a home a block away from Hull and resumed accompanying him for bicycle riding.
But back to Jesus Obama. The claims and accusations against Hull were contained in secret court filings. They never were supposed to see the light of day. But Obama is a Lightworker. Somehow these secret court filings ended up splashed across the Chicago newspapers, eradicating Hull’s electoral support overnight. Hull denied and denied, but his reputation briefly was ruined, just long enough to sink his campaign. Obama backed into his party’s candidacy, nominated virtually by default to run against the enormously popular Republican candidate, Jack Ryan.
Jack Ryan was so clean and easy to adore. (And what a name!) He actually had walked away from a lucrative partnership position at Goldman Sachs, a position that brings annual income of tens of millions of dollars and more, to… — get this! — to teach kids at an inner-city Roman Catholic high school. Who does that? How can you not love such a guy? But there’s more: His wife was Jeri Ryan, patriotic daughter of a military family, 1989 Miss Illinois, and third runner-up for Miss America, and the fabulous “Borg Seven of Nine” on Star Trek: Voyager. When she joined the TV show, its ratings exploded by sixty percent. Although the couple eventually divorced, regretfully explaining to the public that their marriage had been fatally damaged by their frequent needs to travel apart long distances professionally, Jack Ryan remained the perfect Republican U.S. Senate candidate for Illinois. He had studied at both Harvard Law School and at Harvard Business School. The initial polls pitting him against the undistinguished Obama had Ryan well in the lead.
What kind of dirt possibly could be dug out about such a person?
Well, if there had been a divorce, and if both members of the couple were famous and wildly successful, then there must have been secret sealed divorce papers. Chicago Democrats salivated. Both Jack and Jeri hastened to court, agreeing that their general divorce papers could be released but begging — if only for the sake of their special-needs child — that the nasty and contentious documents they had filed in their earlier custody battle be maintained as sealed, as they both always had agreed. That custody fight had been nasty, as so many are. Jack had accused Jeri of engaging in an extra-marital affair that destroyed their marriage, and she predictably had come back with her own counter-accusations.
The two political parties had held their primaries on March 16, 2004. It had begun with fifteen and more contenders — and now there were two: Barack Obama vs. Jack Ryan. Only thirteen days later, on March 29, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, appointed by disgraced and recalled former California Democrat Governor Gray Davis, a family judge whose professional biography boasts that he has made famous court rulings in celebrity divorces involving the likes of Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, and Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin, began opening media access to the — dirt — contained in the sealed papers. The same judge opened even more files on June 22. As the media feeding frenzy began, it emerged that the pristine Jack Ryan, the guy who gave up hundreds of millions at Goldman Sachs for the dream of tilling in the Lord’s pastures, allegedly had forced his wife, during their years of marriage, to engage in certain sexually aberrant behaviors such as bringing her to sex clubs around the world — she alleged that one was “a bizarre club with cages, whips, and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling” — and compelling her to engage in sex in front of strangers. Or so had alleged his divorcing wife, she accused of extra-marital infidelity. Candidate Ryan vehemently denied the claims to anyone who would listen — but he now was sunk. He withdrew his candidacy on July 29. Obama — perpetual benefactor of schmutz — backed into the United States Senate.
Four years later in 2008, Obama would run for President, contending against both Hillary Clinton and John Kerry’s former Vice Presidential candidate, John Edwards. As between impeding the contending front-runners, the insurgent Edwards was seen as drawing far more votes from fellow insurgent Barack Obama than from the party’s establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton. But Edwards never got to impede Obama nor to clear Hillary’s way. A sex scandal erupted in the media — remember Rielle Hunter? — and, dirt exposed, Edwards’s political career was kaput. Obama had leveraged more schmutz. Next, in the general election that followed soon thereafter, a pathetically lame attempt unfolded by Obama’s liberal media hatchet people to try portraying Sen. John McCain as having engaged in an extramarital affair. The effort to dig up dirt was so lacking that the New York Times essentially withdrew the scandal allegation — but only after Obama’s election. Four years later, as Obama geared up for his reelection effort in 2012, the Republican faithful started flirting with Herman Cain, a fascinating African-American conservative entrepreneur, who was emerging from the pack early in the presidential debates. Yet, once again, with fingerprints stretching back to Obama’s seedy Chicago hatch hole, a series of sexual allegations erupted, sinking Cain’s ship. The primary accuser, one Sharon Bialek of Chicago, lived at 505 North Lake Shore Drive in the Windy City. Another person who just-so-happened to be living under that same roof, whom she knew from the building’s gym, was one David Axelrod — Obama’s campaign chief strategist. As Newt Gingrich next emerged as the leading Republican candidate, the liberal media raced to interview his former wife, Marianne Ginther Gingrich, whose bitterness in having been replaced by Newt’s next wife, Callista, was manifest as she embarrassed herself by feeding Newt schmutz to her interviewer. In no time, CNN’s John King was opening a Republican presidential debate by asking Newt about that pathetic interview. When the GOP finally nominated as their presidential candidate the ultimate squeaky-clean family man, Mitt Romney, there were no divorce papers to uncover. So the Democrats instead resorted to digging up dirt on the way the Romneys traveled with their family dog and how young Mitt clowned around in high school.
Is it ethical to engage in digging up dirt on a political opponent? It seems impossible for any ethicist, theologian, or just-plain-decent person to justify it. Americans always tell pollsters that they hate the mud-slinging. And yet our democracy is a rough-and-tumble affair, and always has been. Jefferson accused Washington of treason after the Jay Treaty. Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s first Vice President, shot to death the guy on the ten-dollar bill and the most coveted Broadway playbill. Andrew Jackson, in a duel with a guy who accused his wife of bigamy, shot that guy to death. Andrew Johnson was impeached and survived removal by one vote for taking an administrative action that has been declared legal. Grover Cleveland’s opponents dug up the dirt that he had fathered an illegitimate child out of marriage. Harding’s presidency was pocked by the Teapot Dome scandal and all his personal corruption. Although the Democrat John Kennedy never was confronted in the media with Judith Exner and Marilyn Monroe, and Democrats Ted Kennedy and John Kerry never had their divorce papers opened to the public, Democrats even dug up stories about young George W. Bush once driving under the influence, even as Dan Rather later buried himself by sinking to descend one scandal too low.
So it goes in our democracy. But is it ethically and morally right? We know what Jesus Obama would do.