Comments about technological history, system fractures, and human resilience from James R. Chiles, the author of Inviting Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology (HarperBusiness 2001; paperback 2002) and The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks, the Story of the Helicopter (Random House, 2007, paperback 2008)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sidebar on Origins of the Oppo Team

A post of political history, in honor of the primaries yesterday.

Before Karl Rove, before Lee Atwater, before Dick Morris, there was Quigley. That's Walter E. Quigley of Minneapolis: born in 1890, died in 1962. Quigley was the first to make a business out of opposition research for political campaigns. Think of oppo teams as low-profile tacticians who dig up the mud for others to sling. He opened shop during the Minnesota governor's race of 1930. His profile escalated greatly in 1946, after he helped defeat the renomination attempt of Republican Sen. Burton K. Wheeler in Montana. Quigley called his work "political dynamiting" for its sudden, shattering effect. According to a political scientist who profiled him in 1957, Frank Jonas, some incumbents paid Quigley to stay out of their states entirely.
Today the people carrying on Quigley's kind of demolition are called opposition research teams, or "oppo teams." An oppo team scans thousands of articles and columns bearing opinions attributable to the opponent. It videotapes his ads and speeches. It puts together searchable databases of the enemy's actions, from pardons to personal investments to roll-call votes to entries in the Congressional Record. Anything that might split off large chunks from the opponent's base is of interest. It's why today's candidates do everything they can to seal records before they run for high office. Television producers depend heavily on oppo teams since they are cheaper than their own stable of researchers, as shown in a BBC documentary about the 2000 election, Digging the Dirt.
Grossly unfair attacks on candidates are as old as colonial politics. The earliest came as anonymous handbills, and were followed by newspaper editorials such as those drafted by Stephen Simpson in the Jackson campaign of 1824. The plausible, late-arriving attack later known generically as the roorback appeared in 1844. (It was a long letter in the pro-abolitionist Ithaca Journal, and claimed to cite an 1836 book by Baron Von Roorback, who wrote that slaveowner and presidential candidate James K. Polk had once marked forty of his slaves with a red-hot branding iron. There was no such book and no such baron, as voters learned just in time to save the race for Polk. ) Traditional roorbacks went underground in the twentieth century, and still surface in the form of whispering campaigns. For use in public settings, something more durable was needed, which led to the brisk market for oppo workers.
Quigley was a one-man oppo team. He began a job by spending weeks at newspaper morgues, state archives, city libraries, and the Library of Congress. He was looking for short excerpts that could be linked to some currently inflammatory subject. For that, Quigley usually leaned on the old reliables: labor vs. business, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Communism, and allegiance to whatever war the U.S. was pursuing at the time.
Quigley used the worst of the blandishments to paste up a four-page newspaper that fairly shouted with banner headlines, heavy type, and vicious cartoons. His paper was timed to arrive in voters‚ mailboxes six to eight weeks before the primary or general election. During the 1950 U.S. Senate race in Utah, it was a newspaper-like publication called United States Senate News that targeted three-time Democratic Sen. Elbert D. Thomas, a Mormon and statesman who had been viewed previously by most Utahns as a patriot fully in tune with the majority. But the Senate News convinced enough voters that Thomas was a dupe of Communist "pinks." To devestating effect, Quigley highlighted Thomas' ill-selling The Four Fears (1944).
In 1957, Quigley offered this advice to young dynamiters: high-profile politicians and opinion makers are more vulnerable than newcomers because they have left a trail. One of the men he had in mind was Theodore Christianson, a Republican primary candidate in Minnesota. As part of his successful attack on Christianson in 1930, Quigley harvested quotes from hundreds of reactionary editorials that Christianson had written for his family-owned newspaper. These were enough to alienate thousands of Catholics.
Though called a "Republican Party cheap-shot artist" by a Utah paper in 2005, Quigley was blind to principle. Quigley took money from progressives, monopolists, red-baiters, machine Democrats, war-hawks, and isolationists from California to New York. Four years before his attack on Sen. Thomas as a Communist sympathizer, Quigley had attacked the nomination campaign of Republican Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, but from the opposite direction. According to Quigley's Montana News, Wheeler's speeches showed him to be dangerously hostile to the Red Army, which had so nobly resisted the Nazis and paved the way for Allied victory.
Further casting doubt on the Republican tag, Quigley was a radical long before he turned mercenary. He began his career as an agitator and recruiter for the Farmers Nonpartisan League, which was passionately socialist and so effective (at first) that the League took control of North Dakota's state government in the 1916 election. But resistance grew. The establishment saw the League as pro-German, and some League gatherings in Minnesota triggered attacks over the next two years. One of the most outspoken champions of the League was former congressman Charles A. Lindbergh, who had its backing while running for the Minnesota Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1918. Quigley was a key campaign worker for Lindbergh (father of the flier) and therefore was the target of violence by anti-League forces.
It was during Lindbergh's run for Minnesota governor that Quigley learned about the power of excerpt-driven attacks. Students of that election attribute Lindbergh's defeat to two periodicals circulated by anti-League forces. Both publications drew on snippets from Lindbergh's congressional speeches and his anti-war book, Why Is Your Country At War? That 220-page book was so inflammatory that Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer had the FBI track down all known copies and lock them away as dangerous to the war effort.

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