Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: Was a very good election, and one in which the president played an unusually active role for a president. I mean, he did more fundraising events, might have done more campaign appearances. You all were involved. And by the way, your job in the White House…

MEHLMAN: I was the Political Director in the first — or in the 2002 midterm.

Q: You all were involved in [06:00] recruiting more —


Q: — Republican candidates. Two thousand two, can you talk about that?

MEHLMAN: Well, sure. Look, the president, when he ran for office, said his goal was to avoid a lonely victory — the first time. And he felt the same way in 2004. Our goal wasn’t just it would be cool to be president, it’d be fun to have (laughs) Air Force One, the White House is a nice, you know, residence. His theory was he wanted to accomplish some pretty important things, whether it was education reform, whether it was tax changes that would spur more economic growth. He had a pretty robust platform. And if you’re going to do that, then electing likeminded men and women is quite important. And so, throughout his presidency, he worked to try to do that.

Q: That’s very unusual, isn’t it, I mean —

MEHLMAN: Well, I think…

Q: — especially for a president running for reelection?

MEHLMAN: Yeah, I mean, different presidents have done it different ways. I think we had also the benefit, in 2002, of the fact that the president, in that cycle, was very popular. So people wanted him to come in and help them. So that was also helpful to us. I think most presidents [07:00] would like to do that. It’s a question of how helpful they are or not. There are cycles where presidents are more helpful and there are cycles where they’re less helpful.

Q: The Breakfast Club.


Q: Can you talk about that?

MEHLMAN: Sure. In addition to being a good movie —

Q: (laughs)

MEHLMAN: — it was a — it was a group of us that would get together, usually for brunch — it was like late morning, early afternoon on Sundays — at Karl Rove’s house, during the 2003, 2004 period, leading up to the 2004 election, and really do some, kind of, long-term planning. So if you think about a presidential campaign, you can’t control almost anything. Right?

Q: Mm-hmm.

MEHLMAN: There are, every day, crazy things that come up. So the way I believe you deal with an environment like that… And again, this is a great lesson not just for politics but for business. If you’re going to live in a volatile world, as many things as you can take off the table and plan away beforehand, you want to do. So the theory was let’s, together, figure out, think about, and resolve issues we know [08:00] are going to come up in the next week or two weeks or three weeks, so that we can spend all of our mental energy and have command focus on those things that are unexpected, that come up. And it served us very well.

Q: So who was part of this group?

MEHLMAN: The group was a broad group. It included, in addition to Karl, myself… Karen Hughes was often a part of it. Ed Gillespie was part of it. Nicolle Wallace was part of it. Marc Racicot was often a participant in the effort. Dan Bartlett was part of it. And others would come in and leave as necessary. Steve Schmidt was often part of it. Sara Taylor was often part of it. Matthew Dowd was part of it. But the goal was, again… Terry Nelson often a part of it. Mark Wallace participated often in it. But the goal was, in all of these situations, to bring as many smart people as you could together, to resolve these issues you knew were going to come up, don’t wait, so you can spend all your energy in reacting —

Q: So wha

MEHLMAN: — and thinking about the best way to react.

Q: — so what were the issues that you thought you could anticipate or…?

MEHLMAN: Well, every week there were things we knew th We knew when employment numbers would come out. We didn’t know what [09:00] they would be. But we knew when unemployment numbers would come out, for example. We knew when key announcements would happen. We knew when the debates were going to be. We knew when we would announce how much we had raised in the previous several weeks. And we knew when the Democratic primaries were. So plan a — develop a plan of action around those now. And then you can spend all your time and all your energy on these other questions.

Q: This group was a combination of White House people and —

MEHLMAN: It was.

Q: — RNC and other political people.


Q: How — what’s the relationship, for a president running for reelection, between —

MEHLMAN: It’s a huge question.

Q: — the White House…?

MEHLMAN: And, in fact, if you look, historically — we studied this — one of the biggest lessons from previous reelection campaigns, is the typical dysfunction between the White House and the reelection campaign. Usually, everybody in the reelection campaign thinks that the people in the White House are slow idiots —

Q: (laughs)

MEHLMAN: — they could do their job better. And vice versa, between the White House — toward the presidential campaign. And we thought, “How do we avoid that challenge?” And one way is those kind of planning sessions. Another way was that we made very clear that, while there’d [10:00] be a whole lot of different conversations going on, in terms of real decisions, the decision-making was between Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman, as campaign manager and as Senior Advisor to the President. And so, while other may have ideas… And they could communicate it. It wasn’t like you only talked through us. That would be ridiculous. But in terms of when you have the authority of the White House talking, it’d be the two of us talking.