As voters turn their attention toward the coming presidential election, an abiding question from the previous one frustrates Democrats: How is it, they wonder, that Al Gore told small fibs and was branded a liar while George W. Bush told big ones and was elected President? Gore's many exaggerations may have been foolish—that he had somehow invented the Internet, that he grew up on a Tennessee farm, and so on. But surely, this line of thinking goes, they paled alongside Bush's audacious claim that he could cut taxes by $1.3 trillion, effortlessly privatize Social Security, and still balance the budget.
A large part of the answer can be found in a BBC documentary titled Digging the Dirt, which was filmed during the 2000 campaign and never aired in the United States. The film centers on a team of Republican opposition researchers —a species that has existed in politics for eons but had recently undergone an evolutionary leap. From deep within the Republican National Committee headquarters the BBC tracked the efforts of this team, whose job it was to discredit and destroy Al Gore.
Political campaigns always attempt to diminish their opponents, of course. 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."