Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: He was maybe in part from a generation and also from a Hill career that really didn’t think too much of rhetoric — am I right about that — sort of lofty oratory.

MCCONNELL: Well, that could be. I think, you know, when I went to work for Bob Dole this was a guy who had been in an elected position every day of his life since I think 1950 or ’52, I think, when he was elected county attorney in Kansas. [00:08:00] He just really, I mean, you think about it, he spent decades in politics before he ever had a speechwriter of his own. So maybe that was part of it. He was so comfortable and so fluent with audiences that maybe he resisted the scripted nature of a lot of events. That might be part of it as well.

Q: Back to Dan Quayle. You wrote for him as a candidate for vice president, for re-election I guess, in ’92?

MCCONNELL: For re-election, yes.
Q: And prior to that you’d written for him as a vice president in office.

Q: Is there a difference between writing for someone between elections and writing for them during a campaign?

MCCONNELL: Yeah. Yeah. For the office holder, the president or vice president, or even a senator, in non-campaign conditions it’s a very different kind of [00:09:00] proposition. There’s the work of governing, there’s the work of policy, there’s the work of building coalitions, governing coalitions. There’s the work of reaching out, and there’s the work of getting the country that has elected you to the position to support and understand what it is you’re trying to advance. In the campaign, it’s all of those things, plus the choice. Choice involves contrast, and so the writing then becomes more about what are the issues before the American people, what are the issues that are going to be decided on election day, what is the direction of the country going to be if you elect me, [00:10:00] and isn’t it going to be terrible if you elect that other person. It’s all about contrast and choice, but also striking the right balance. You want to be the happy warrior. You want to be the person with the upper hand, and you don’t want to be small minded in your presentation of the choice either. You want to have set a good tone and take the high ground.

Q: Although traditionally the vice president sort of carries the attack to the opposition, so that the presidential candidate can fly at a higher level.

MCCONNELL: Yes. I remember ’92, working with Vice President Quayle. He was a fighter. He was a fighter. It’s interesting. He didn’t say much about Gore. I don’t think he said — he was running against Gore, of course. He didn’t say anything about Gore. They had their debate, and I think there was maybe [00:11:00] an exchange. There was an exchange in the Quayle-Gore debate, an exchange about Gore’s book on the environment and something about a BTU tax or a carbon tax. I’m not remembering exactly what it was, but it was something, and Gore said, “Well, it’s not in there,” and Quayle gave the page number. But my point is for the rest of the debate Quayle went full bore after Clinton. Just forget Gore. It was my first campaign as a participant, and it was an education for me. The vice president, he knew that this election was going to be about George Bush versus Bill Clinton. It wasn’t going to be about Dan Quayle versus Al Gore. There were going to be a lot of people voting who just — maybe most people — just did not think about, well, who’s going to be vice president? [00:12:00] They were voting for president, and so Quayle brought everything back to the question of whether Bill Clinton has the character or the integrity to be president of the United States. That was kind of the theme in the debate.

Going to your question, a lot of vice presidential candidates do that. They’re the fighter. They’re the real — starting at the convention, they say good things. The way I always describe it is the vice presidential nominee praises the presidential nominee in ways he couldn’t praise himself, and he goes after the adversary in ways you don’t want the presidential nominee to have to do. They don’t all do it this way. Jack Kemp with Bob Dole, he didn’t fight like, for example, Bob Dole did when he was Gerald Ford’s running mate. I mean, it’s a matter of record, Bob Dole really, really fought hard for Gerald Ford [00:13:00] and really, really went after Jimmy Carter hard.