Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: How did that provision about endorsing a marriage amendment to the Constitution get into that speech?

MCCONNELL: Well, I don’t know specifically how, but it was one of those things that came into the policy process. [01:07:00] It had come up in ’03 with the decision of the

Q: Massachusetts.

MCCONNELL: — the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and that’s how it kind of got onto the national agenda, because it became a question of what the judiciary was going to do, and was the status quo going to be upended state by state by state by judges. So the determination was made I guess that, as a matter of policy, there needed to be an amendment to prevent that from happening.

Q: I know Mary Cheney says in her book that that created a crisis for her in terms of her willingness to be involved in the re-elect. She decided to stay involved because of her support for the president on other things and because of her devotion to her father. But I wonder, was that a crisis, did that create a crisis for others in the White House?

MCCONNELL: No, I don’t think so. I think the important thing there [01:08:00] was the way the matter was handled and the tone of the debate, the tone of the discussion, as far as the president was concerned. You could look at that speech and you could look at other comments he made on the matter, and his tone was always a tone of respect and making very clear that both sides of this argument are occupied by people of good will and people of good faith and people of good intentions who want the best for the country, and that it should always proceed on that basis. He didn’t talk about it a lot. I think there were a couple of statements about the amendment, and that was it. But he was always very respectful of his tone. As I’ve always described it, [01:09:00] the debate, the national discussion in the political context, did not always have that spirit, but he always had that spirit. That was just the way he conducted himself.

Q: Do you think, I mean, let’s say the state supreme court ruling had come down in fall of ’02, do you think it would have been in the speech in ’03, or do you think it was an election-year-driven addition to the president’s agenda?

MCCONNELL: No, I don’t think it would. I think the answer to your question is yes. I think as a policy matter, if that was his view on it, I have no reason to think he wouldn’t have felt the same way a year before. I am quite – knowing him and knowing how that general discussion proceeded, I think the answer is yes, he would have talked about it a year before.

Q: OK. So for the whole of 2004, he’s president of the United States and he’s a candidate for re-election. [01:10:00] He didn’t have to fight to get re-nominated, but it’s a political year. How does that change the nature of the work you’re doing in 2004?

MCCONNELL: Well, you have a layer of activity that’s sort of laid upon, laid on top of the responsibilities you already have. In other words, the president is doing

everything he’s been doing for the last three years, but now he’s also traveling the country speaking to large political rallies. The speechwriters get involved in that. But really, in terms of just buzzing activity, campaign-style activity in the speechwriting office, really the drafting of the president’s acceptance speech in Madison Square Garden, that was a two or three- week proposition, [01:11:00] in total. I mean, we were working on other things, but in a two or three-week period we generated the first draft of the president’s acceptance speech. Now that was going to be an important speech, and that required a lot of time and effort. We did that exactly how we did the 2000 acceptance speech.

Then right after that it was — the basic stump speech was ready, and that was pretty much, I mean, we didn’t have to write whole new campaign speeches on a regular basis. I would use the most recent example of President Obama basically gave the same speech for that last couple of months of the campaign. That’s pretty much what the president does. You know, you’re involved, you know. [01:12:00] Obviously inserts need to be written here and there, but really the campaign stuff — the people in the campaign are the ones really, really totally absorbed in that enterprise. I mean, we were separate from it and didn’t really engage with the campaign. They were careful about that generally at the White House. They didn’t want the White House and the campaign staff to be just completely one unit. As I recall, there were people at the White House who were designated to have contact with the campaign, and everybody else basically shouldn’t, just stay out of it.

Q: Do you have any memories of that acceptance speech?

MCCONNELL: I remember it being very effective. [01:13:00] I remember there was an emotional section of the speech that the president had to really power through, when he was talking about meeting parents of members of the military who had been killed. I remember that. That’s the most vivid memory of the speech, just knowing how hard it was emotionally to talk about this in front of an audience. But most of my memories of that speech are impressionistic, just it was effective. It was a careful piece of work, set the tone of the campaign, and we just sort of proceeded from there. Two thousand four is interesting because I had conversations with two of the great political reporters of all time. [01:14:00] One was Walter Mears, who was retired at that point from the Associated Press. He’d covered campaigns going back to Kennedy, Kennedy versus Nixon. And then David Broder from the Washington Post. At a Christmas party in ’03 I remember saying to David Broder, we were just chatting about the upcoming campaign, I said, “The one thing that surprises me is the disappearance of John Kerry. I mean, you look at his credentials, you look at his standing within the Democratic Party, and he’s going nowhere!” Of course, it was in the Dean moment, right? Within a month of that or a month and a half of that, John Kerry was the man and that was it. That’s the first kind of mistaken impression I had in that campaign. [01:15:00]

And the second is with Walter Mears. We had lunch together early in ’04 I think, just a long lunch, talking about politics and his experiences and everything else. The lunch continued afterwards, and we walked, and we went back to my office and we just sat there and talked some more. And I said, just kind of offhandedly, “So, how’s President Bush looking in ’04?” And he said, “Boy, it’s going to be tough.” And that really surprised me. I guess I thought he would say, “Well, he’s in a really good spot for re-election,” because I thought he was. But this seasoned longtime reporter for the Associated Press, who’d covered these campaigns, all of them, you know, it was not how he saw it. And that got me thinking, well, gee, maybe this is going to be [01:16:00] a lot tougher than I had been expecting.