Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: Was Dole disappointed in ’96 that Kemp didn’t take on that role with greater enthusiasm?

MCCONNELL: I never had that conversation with him.
Q: I wonder, comparing — in ’92 the ticket you were working for was pretty much running behind throughout the entire campaign. In 2000, when you start writing for — did you write for Cheney in 2000 as well as Bush?

MCCONNELL: Yes. In 2000 the campaign speechwriters were Mike Gerson, Matthew Scully, and myself, and Mike was the chief speechwriter. We had been colleagues in Dole, and Scully and I had been colleagues in Quayle, at the White House in the early ’90s. In 2000 Mike indicated to Matthew and me at some point in the late spring, [00:14:00] when the vice presidential nominee was selected, you know, we got to help that person. We got to make sure that person has a statement at the announcement and then an acceptance speech. So the three of us did, I remember, we did a draft for Cheney. None of us had ever met him, I don’t think, but we had a draft ready for him to look at.

Q: Was this a generic draft or was it written for Cheney?
MCCONNELL: Well, it was written for him, because the announcement came. It was a little bit of a surprise even to us in the headquarters. It’s not like we had some kind of inside information. We found out watching MSNBC I think it was, and Lisa Myers called — what’s that county? Is it Jackson County, Wyoming?

Q: Where Cheney —
MCCONNELL: Oh, Teton County. Lisa Myers [00:15:00] from NBC called the Teton County registrar and said, “Do you have a Richard Cheney registered to vote in Jackson?” and she said, “Well, yes, we do. He just registered the other day,” or something like that. Then it was, oh, OK, so Cheney is not a Texas voter anymore, and there had been these — you know, there had been I guess some rumors and speculation, but none of this was known to us. Anyway, so we knew it was Cheney. It was sort of sudden when we did this thing. Then I remember Matthew Scully and I meeting the Cheneys for the first time at the Governor’s residence, in this dining room in the back of the Governor’s Mansion. It was sort of a large dining room. It’s the room where John Connally recuperated from the shooting in Dallas. A little sidebar there. But we met the Cheneys, and the Governor [00:16:00] introduced us and said, “They’re going to be helping you on your acceptance speech,” which was, at this point, about eight days away. Cheney said, “How fast do you gentlemen work?” And we said, “Well, we’ll have her for you tomorrow.” We turned it around fast.

Q: Something his daughter, Mary Cheney, points out in her book was that because he had been in business for the past several years he didn’t really have a political staff at the time. He didn’t have a speechwriter at the time he became the nominee in 2000.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, I guess that’s right. But he was great to work with. So we did, Matthew Scully and I did help with Cheney’s speeches the rest of the campaign, and Kasey Pipes, who was on the campaign staff, did a lot of writing for Cheney as well.

Q: So from that point on [00:17:00] — well, let’s talk about the acceptance speech at the convention. Because in a convention that was generally sort of — touchy-feely would not be the right word — but emphasizing the compassionate side of George W. Bush’s conservatism, Cheney gave a different kind of speech.

MCCONNELL: Yeah, I remember the Wall Street Journal or somebody said, “Cheney rolled onto the floor like an Abrams tank.” (laughter) It was a tough speech, and what it did was it tied Clinton and Gore together. Here Gore was presenting himself — it’s his first time nominated for president. He’s new. This is his first go at it. He’d run, you know, unsuccessfully in 1988, and now here’s his big chance and he’s the man. He’s the standard bearer. [00:18:00] And the Cheney speech was they had been there for eight years, this crowd, and here they go again. You’re getting the same thing, and what have we gotten for eight years? We’ve gotten, you know, this political environment and a very negative tone, just really kind of – he said it as a package deal. You know, they came in together, now let us see them off together. We’ll never see the one without thinking of the other. It was not Gore, it was Clinton-Gore. I remember hearing someone, right after the speech — I watched the speech not in the convention, I watched it in the hotel bar. There was nobody there, just a big screen. I wanted to hear the commentary afterward. I remember somebody saying, you know, [00:19:00] “He can’t tie Clinton and Gore together like that. That’s just not going to work.” And I thought, well, not only can he, he just did. (laughter)

But also I think a lot of people didn’t believe Cheney had it in him to really get a convention audience as fired up as he did. And he had this refrain, “The wheel has turned, and it is time for them to go.” And “It’s time for them to go” was a refrain that Gore had used about Bush and Quayle in ’92, and Mrs. Cheney had suggested to us that maybe we could work with that, “It’s time for them to go.” That fit in perfectly with the notion that it was a speech reminding people that Gore is part of this same crowd, and the country was, you know, definitely open to a change at that point. But there were also people — I don’t remember anyone saying this to me [00:20:00] inside the campaign, but I know there were people in the political world who thought, fine, keep bringing up Clinton, you know. I know there were people who thought that Clinton should have had a bigger role in that campaign, and that it didn’t help Bush and Cheney to talk about Clinton. And I don’t think Bush really did talk about Clinton. The Cheney speech was probably the high water mark in talking about, mentioning President Clinton, because he really was not as big a player in that election as some think he might have been.