Fifty-eight years ago, with a newly minted doctorate in Philosophy from Harvard University, I began my career teaching European History at that august institution. Inasmuch as my only previous contact with the subject was Mr. Wepner’s sophomore course at Forest Hills High School, you may well wonder why on earth Harvard asked me to lecture on the history of Europe “from Caesar to Napoleon.” It is a long story, told in detail in my Autobiography. As I feverishly plowed through scores of works of historiography so as not entirely to disgrace myself, I was struck by one very interesting contrast between the work of medievalists like Pirenne, Ganshof, and Bloch and that of historians of the French revolution, such as Greer, Cobban, and Lefebvre. The medievalists, who had much less in the way of primary sources than they would have liked, were forced to reconstruct entire centuries from bits and snatches of data, whereas the historians of the French Revolution, who had so much more primary material than they could possibly use, faced the challenge of what selection to make from it all.
This observation from the very start of my long career occurred to me this morning as I reflected on the events of the past two weeks. All well-run, well-staffed political campaigns devote time and resources to digging up bad things about their opponent that they can use to cast him or her in an unflattering light. This effort is known as “opposition research,” or oppo, as it has come to be called. Conventional wisdom has it that the release of oppo should be staged and timed for maximum effectiveness. The very best oppo appears in the public space without seeming to have come from the campaign, thus lending it greater credibility.
Say what you will about Hillary Clinton [and I have had my say here in past posts], she is running a high-powered professional campaign, and I am absolutely sure that somewhere in the bowels of the Brooklyn office is an unmarked room filled with beady-eyed oppo pros who have, for a year now, been searching out every possible negative thing that can be said about Donald J. Trump. They are, in the world of opposition research, like those historians of the French Revolution who were so swamped with data that they were constantly forced to pick and choose.
Now think about recent revelations: First, the trap set for Trump by Clinton and sprung in the first debate, concerning Alicia Machado, the former Miss Universe; then the mysterious appearance of pages from the 1995 state tax returns filed by Trump. And now the video of his 1995 conversation with Billy Bush. On the record, only the first of these was a product of Clinton campaign opposition research, but with no evidence at all, I am absolutely convinced that all three issued from that unmarked room at Clinton headquarters, carefully timed for maximum effectiveness.
I don’t like Clinton, although I am doing everything I can to help her carry North Carolina, but there is enough of Niccolo Machiavelli in me to feel a surge of admiration for a skillfully administered hatchet job. My guess is that Trump doesn’t know what has hit him.