Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: And the attribute you were…?

MEHLMAN: Was essentially leadership and strength in the face of this kind of challenge. And obviously, look, Senator Kerry had an incredible record of obvious strength in the face of challenge, by his service to our country. But we thought that this Iraq War vote for funding, which was much more relevant to the American people’s minds at the time, was an important issue, where you saw constancy versus inconstancy.

Q: Back to your really interesting description [30:00] of yourself as a CEO of a large organization. I’m thinking, if — you know, if a corporation finds that there — that there are other corporations out there making clones of their product, that’s not necessarily something they want.

MEHLMAN: Right! (laughs)

Q: Weren’t 527 groups —


Q: — in effect, other people trying to do the same thing you were doing, at least in an advertising way? And you can’t connect with them.

MEHLMAN: You can’t and you don’t. And you just know it’s a reality. There’s nothing you can do about it. Loo I mean, the danger of… Obviously, if you ran Louis Vuitton, then you’ve got people that are making bags that look just like the bags that you make, for less money — that are identical in appearance and they’re essentially cannibalizing your customers. The people involved in 527s, in both sides, aren’t cannibalizing your customers, although they might be cannibalizing your fundraisers — your donors. But that’s the difference. That’s a real difference in the…

Q: Well, when the Swift Boat ads starting running, in August, [31:00] I guess that was really the first, sort of, 527 effort that really got a lot of attention. Did you feel like, “This is helping us,” or, “This is not helping us”?

MEHLMAN: It wasn’t clear. I mean, it was something I couldn’t control, so it wasn’t as — I wasn’t as focused on it. I’m not sure that the Swift Boat effort, per se… You know, it certainly highlighted an issue that was an issue of controversy. I think that often in a situation, though, particularly in the world we live in today — and it’s more true today but it was even true then — again, people aren’t paying attention to a particular ad. They’re paying attention to a larger conversation, a larger narrative. So what was more important and interesting was how it fit into the larger narrative.

Q: Was there any candidate who Kerry could have chosen for vice president who would have been particularly helpful?

MEHLMAN: I think that’s hard to know. The reality is that, in my opinion, when it comes to choosing a vice president, there are two things that are really important. One is what you choose reveals more about the president than it does about the vice president. So when President Clinton chose Al Gore, [32:00] it reinforced what he wanted the public to understand about him, new Democrat, moderate, kind of a new approach. S and I think, when President Bush chose Vice President Cheney, then, at the time, an executive in Texas but with deep experience — he was Secretary Cheney then — it said, “This guy’s serious about governing.” I think generally, as a rule, though, vice presidential choices, while important and — a lot of media attention, don’t make that big of a difference. And I think that, in the case of Senator Edwards, it’s not clear to me that it fundamentally shook up the campaign or changed the campaign. Could he have chosen someone that would have made a huge difference? Hard to know — and hard to — hard to recognize. There were some people that were saying, “Chose a Wesley Clark. It reinforces the military credentials.” But that was something that Senator Kerry already had — and it was a strength he already had. If he had chosen, for example, Dick Gephardt… I always thought Dick Gephardt would have been a very strong opponent, because of his appeal to middle-class voters.

Q: In the presidential? [33:00]

MEHLMAN: Or vice presidential.

Q: Or vice presidential.

MEHLMAN: I always thought one of the issues that we had potential vulnerability on was, while the economy was better, without question, there was still an uncertainty with respect to the economy. And there were a lot of folks, I felt like, who necessarily didn’t agree that the economy, in their own lives, had improved. And I thought there was an economic argument that could have been made that wasn’t made as much, perhaps, that I thought could have made us more vulnerable. And whether Dick Gephardt — Congressman Gephardt would have made that more effectively, I don’t know the answer to.

Q: What did you think the choice of Edwards revealed about Senator Kerry?

MEHLMAN: I think it was a fairly conventional choice, I think, a fellow senator, somebody who clearly he thought would be very effective out there campaigning and would have appeal, and appeal to suburban voters. That’s probably what they thought. I’ll be interested to hear what Bob Shrum, who’s a good guy and a friend, has to say about that.