Non-Fiction – Alan Huffman & Michael Rejebian: We’re With Nobody: Two Insiders Reveal the Dark Side of American Politics (Wm Morrow 2012)

We’re opposition political researchers, which means we’re hired by campaigns to compile potentially damning profiles of candidates. Our lives during the campaign season are a coast-to-coast series of behind-the-scenes interviews and paper chase sorties – clandestine missions that revolve around facts, truths, lies, surprises, and dead ends…. One day we’re in New Orleans, staring cross-eyed at court records in the hazy morning aftermath of a late night on Bourbon Street. The next we’re in New York City, resolutely standing on the last nerve of a records clerk who frowns as she looks at the request I’ve just handed her.

I chose to read this book after watching Jon Stewart interview the authors on The Daily Show. I was looking forward to it: two former journalists – writers – doing a job I’m somewhat aware of, and an overall topic that interests me: how candidates market themselves (and get derailed). Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped.

Right off the bat, I’ll confess: I didn’t read the last two chapters of this book. I gave up. That isn’t to say there aren’t some “good parts” to the book – there are, definitely. I think this would’ve been a terrific article. A longish article, perhaps, maybe even a two-parter, but really great. Trouble is, it’s a 187-page book. A book written by two people. Two authors, that’s always trouble for the writers, but when the authors alternate chapters with less coordination than I would have expected, the trouble is passed on to the reader.

For example: the mainstay of their job is checking public records in courthouses, municipal offices, etc. Which means they frequently have to ask government clerks to pull files. Not all government workers are charming and helpful; we’ve all been to the DMV, we know how it is. But it seemed to be mentioned so many times over the course of the first half of the book, I began to feel sorry for these clerks, and get pretty defensive on their behalf. Just in time, one of them acknowledges the clerks are not well paid, have tedious jobs, and have work to do other than pulling records, but by that time I saw these guys as ogres picking on defenseless middle-aged women who have to pay the rent just like everyone else. Did they really need to repeat that annoyance so many times?

The assignments related feel muddled and, sometimes, incomplete. There seems to be some confusion of gossipy news coverage – which opposition research has nothing to do with – with misuse of “oppo” (as they call it). Accounts of assignments are spread out with so much intervening material, it’s hard to realize that the mayoral candidate they’re talking about at the end of a chapter is the same one who was featured at the beginning. This may sound like a reading problem. And, I’ll admit, it could be. But I’m a pretty careful reader. I think that’s documented pretty well throughout this blog, in fact. And I found the individual adventures difficult to follow and a lot less interesting than they could have been, had they been presented more sequentially.

Maybe the problem is that they can’t reveal too much in the way of detail. I’m not talking about names, of course – there are none, this isn’t a tell-all, and I wasn’t expecting it to be – but there’s a murkiness to this that really makes it less readable than it could be.

I think another problem is that their job ends when they turn over their report to the campaign that hired them:

While we objectively investigate and report on the subjects of our research, what separates us from full-time journalists that we never directly publish our political work…As a result we have little control over how it’s eventually presented to you…

Maybe I’m reading the wrong book. Maybe the book I want to read is the one about the campaign manager who takes the report and ignores it, or distorts it. How a campaign decides what’s worth disclosing, and what will just make them look bad. How they disclose it, and when. The strategy side of things, rather than the process. If so – my bad. But I still think this would make a great article if edited down.

My favorite section was the self-research chapter. A campaign manager wanted to hire them to do research on his candidate, to see what the other side’s oppo would turn up; the candidate refused, quite angrily, insisting it wasn’t his first campaign and there was nothing to find (not that hadn’t been found before, at any rate). And of course something was uncovered and he went down in flames. Read Chapter 12, for sure, it’s a good one. Chapter 13, on the other hand, is a travelogue about different places they’ve been (though it’s Chapter 9 that contains an interesting observation: “It may be useful to talk country in rural areas, or no-nonsense in Chicago, or to present yourself as a charming curiosity, which, in our case, may mean laying on the Southern charm in Idaho. It is also sometimes useful to flirt with the person, whether male or female, depending on your gut feeling”), and chapter 14 is full of general observations about deadlines, with little specific material at all.

They do make several valuable points along the way, such as:

But it’s distressing to see how political lies have adapted to public scrutiny….The purveyors have become increasingly effective despite increasing access to the facts, in part because of the successful use of dazzle camouflage – whereby complicated imagery is superimposed on the truth to fool the eye.

While I agree heartily with this sentiment, it’s rather tenuously connected to their job, since, as we’ve already seen, they don’t publish anything. If incidents when this happened to them, when their research was used poorly, were included, I might feel differently, but either they always work for Good Guys, or they couldn’t include specifics for other, perhaps legal, reasons.

The title of the book is one of their often-repeated lines of dialogue: every time they go anywhere to request information, someone will ask, “Who are you with?” “We’re with nobody” is how they avoid answering. They never, ever say who they’re working for.

If you like atmosphere, the book starts with them talking to a guy sitting on his porch holding a gun, squinting at a pickup truck rolling by. There’s an investigation in New Jersey which includes thuggish undercover police hanging around for no discernible reason. And there’s an interview with a potential opponent’s ex-wife (ex-wives will talk, police won’t) which results in the discovery that the candidate may have a domestic violence arrest:

…one thing polls show is that voters will tolerate and even accept an awful lot of misgivings by politicians. They have tolerated cheating spouses, dalliances with prostitutes, the occasional DUI, college drug use, and even cocksucking in the White House. But they will never condone domestic violence. Slapping a woman around is a political killer.

What’s sad is what is tolerated. We’ve come a long way from when a simple divorce was a scandal, I guess. In this case the potential candidate was convinced, through undisclosed back channels, not to run.

Now that’s the book I wish I’d read.