Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: You joined the campaign, I guess, went on the campaign for the last couple of weeks.


Q: How did that come about, and what was that like?

MCCONNELL: I was with the president for the last — it was some number of days — in that final stretch of the campaign. Mike Gerson also was there for part of that, as I recall. He may have left just — no, no, I think he left just before the election and came back to Washington. But I remember being there all the way through election day when the president voted in Crawford, and we had all stayed at the hotel in Waco. Anyway, those days, I just remember it as a blur. I think in that final five days, [01:17:00] four of them involved trips to Ohio, including election day. I remember the president voted, and then I believe the question was whether he goes to Ohio or Florida, but he couldn’t do both. There was just no way to do it, and so the decision was made to stop in Ohio. I remember that. So there was a lot of Ohio, and now that I think of it there was a stop in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Mexico. New Mexico was the last full blown — Albuquerque, the last full blown campaign speech the president gave as a candidate in his life, and it was outdoor, it was cold. That crowd was so big that they were lining the road leading up to the venue, and I just remember allowing myself to think that [01:18:00] — on the night before the election — that we’re not going to have a 2000 experience here. It just had a different feel to it, is all I can say. Having been on a presidential campaign plane with Bob Dole up through the election and with Quayle on Air Force Two up to the election, this one just really feels different, a different –

Q: You mean it feels like you’re going to win?

MCCONNELL: When you win it feels different from how it does when you think the alternative is the more likely outcome. But anyway, the president gave that last speech, and then we flew back to Texas that night, and he had one more rally in Dallas. I think it was at SMU, wasn’t it? I’m trying to remember. Anyway, it was in Dallas, and then we got on helicopters to Crawford. I remember Karl Rove saying [01:19:00] — it was about midnight at this point, and I was in a staff car with Karl going over to the helicopters, and he said, “We’re going to win.” I remember sleeping very well that night. (laughter) And election day, the president and Mrs. Bush voted, and everybody piled onto the plane and headed first to Ohio and then back to Washington. Well, I was sitting back — there was a conference room on Air Force One close to the president’s cabin, and then behind there is a senior staff cabin, and then there’s a general staff area. I was around there. There’s a little office there on the plane, and I remember being in there on the computer. [01:20:00] But up in the conference room, Karl and Dan Bartlett and the rest were going over early numbers, and they were not encouraging.

Q: These are the exit polls?

MCCONNELL: I guess they would be the exit poll numbers, and they were not encouraging. Well, I knew nothing of this. I remember the plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base, and I went out the back door, and there were some cars waiting to take anyone who was going back to the White House directly there. The president got on Marine One. I got into a car, and it just happened to be one, and no other staffers got into it. The only other people who got into it were two nurses from the medical unit, [01:21:00] so they weren’t involved in the election at all, right. So I get into this car with them. And I don’t know that they’ve been looking at these terrible numbers or anything. I don’t know this. So I’m in my happy zone (laughter) thinking I’m glad this is over. We got back to the White House, and I remember Karen Hughes looking a little more serious as she stepped out of the car she’d been riding in, looking a little more serious than she had in the morning, and then wondering has she heard something that makes her question things.

Anyway, I went into my office, and then a very short time after that I heard that the exit polls were terrible. So it was a matter of waiting it out. I can honestly say that I believed the president would get more votes than John Kerry. [01:22:00] I believed it, I said it, contemporaneously I said it to other people on the staff, I said, “I think he’s going to win, and I know he’s going to get more votes than Kerry.” How could I know that? It was just my hunch. That’s how I felt about the election throughout, not that he was a shoo-in or anything else. Walter Mears had disabused me of that early in the year. But I was pretty confident, and I just never doubted that Bush would get the most votes. There was nothing I saw and certainly nothing that I could, no experience that I could compare to others, that made me think otherwise.

Of course, that turned out to be a very long night, too. I remember there was an election night event over at the Reagan Building a few blocks from the White House, and I went back to the White House, and I came through [01:23:00] the East Gate, and then I walked on the north side of the mansion. There’s a kind of a moat-like area in front of the mansion where you can walk from one side to the other, and I walked there. I remember looking up at the windows, and there were still lights on, because a lot of the president’s family were staying there. I remember thinking, I wonder if they’re still up, if they’re still up wondering what’s going on. I was sure the president probably went to sleep, because he knew that it was going to take a while, and he’d feel better if he got some sleep. But I remember it was very late, it was the wee hours of the morning, and seeing those lights on. Then I went home and slept for a few hours. Then it wasn’t until midday that the thing was resolved. I think Kerry called the president around [01:24:00] 11:00 or 12:00 and conceded at 1:00 or 2:00.