Transcription – John McConnell Interview

Q: You know, I was thinking that kind of the stereotype [00:35:00] that both George W. Bush and Dan Quayle had to overcome was that they were intellectual lightweights, and fair, not fair, that was out there.

MCCONNELL: Yes.

Q: You have dealt with that obviously, as a speechwriter for Vice President Quayle. Did that give you any sort of insights into how to deal with that when you’re writing for George W. Bush in 2000?

MCCONNELL: Not really, because the presidential level and vice presidential level are so different. Vice presidents get bursts of attention. Presidents and presidential nominees are just totally under the spotlight at all times. That doesn’t mean the whole country is watching at all times, and I actually think that the average person doesn’t spend a lot of time listening to the president. He just doesn’t. They’re busy. But [00:36:00] people watch a lot of TV, and they’re bombarded with little moments of the president tripping over his words or saying something that doesn’t come out quite the way he intended or making a funny gesture or a face that makes him look a little goofy if taken out of context. Those are the things that millions and millions of people are exposed to regularly and were in the Bush presidency. You know, they made a lot of fun of him, the comedians. But I think that got him reelected, in this sense.

Everybody also, at various points of the year, does get a chance to listen to the president. Maybe you’re trapped in your car in a traffic jam, and, you know, the president is having a news conference, or [00:37:00] you watch a major speech because something big has happened. Anyway, you’re exposed to the man in full. I just think for a lot of Americans, they thought, well, he actually is a very well spoken, well informed man. He knows what he’s doing. So in that sense I think it helped him, that people are exposed to these little snippets, throughout the first term, for example. Then he’s running for re-election, they pay a little more careful attention. They have these moments that everyone has where they listen to him for, you know, 10, 12, 20 minutes, and then they see him for what he is, and it improves their impression, their entire impression, of him.

Q: What was election night and its aftermath like for you and the other speechwriters in 2000?

MCCONNELL: In 2000 we spent election day [00:38:00] — we had a victory speech and a concession speech ready, and we just kind of waited it out. I remember Joe Allbaugh was the campaign manager, and Joe used to lead the staff meetings in — there was a room. Clinton and Gore had the war room, Bush and Cheney had the sunshine room. That was the room where we had all the meetings, and Joe was a great leader of the campaign staff. He’s a great big guy, with a crew cut, a tough looking guy. You know, it’s probably the only campaign you could ever think of where if you looked at the campaign manager you’d think, well, that man could go through this office and dismantle the place and take anybody half his age. Just a big strong looking character, and a fine guy, just a very fine leader of the staff and a joy to work with. Joe would have these meetings, and at the [00:39:00] end of the meetings he would say something like this, he would say, “Keep up the good work, and just remember, we’re working for George W. and Laura Bush, the next president and first lady of the United States.” It was also, he would always give us the number of days to the election. He would say, “Well, 212 days until George W. is elected president of the United States.” You know, he would remind us of this, of the nature of the enterprise we were in, and the countdown, and he would always tell us we were going to win. Anyway, election day there’s these dark rumors going around campaign headquarters. And, you know, here we are insiders, we don’t know what’s going on, but all these rumors are — and people are getting calls from their friends, they’re all, “Oh, I heard you’re losing,” you know. [00:40:00] Joe called a staff meeting that afternoon, and it was quiet. People were really quiet. Joe says, “I told you all we’re going to win,” (laughter) “and we are. But it’s not going to be an early night, so just hang in there.” And we did, and, you know, we all know how it turned out. But Bush was declared the winner, and then the drama began from there.

Q: So during those five weeks or so, what were the speechwriters doing?

MCCONNELL: We were very busy, and then we would do nothing. (laughter) During the Florida recount period, [00:41:00] both Bush and Gore addressed the nation, you know, together, one and then the other, I think four or five times. There would be some court decision, and then, OK, both of the candidates are going to speak tonight. So in those moments, Mike and Matthew and myself, we had very quick, very focused assignments, and we didn’t have much time to write them. But between those moments, I remember there were great stretches of not doing much of anything. I mean, we’re there and just sort of part of things, but really we weren’t terribly busy. But we surely knew that at any moment something could happen and suddenly we’re writing a speech that’s going to be viewed by sixty million people tonight. So that was kind of hanging over us at all times.