Transcription – Ken Mehlman Interview

Q: So specifically, what did — what were you — what themes were you trying to reinforce?

MEHLMAN: Leadership, strength, at a time of war, the fact that the economy, which was in a recession [39:00] the time President Bush was elected, or was going into one, had improved and had come back, had gotten better, and what we tried to do in his second term, from keeping Americans safe to having more retirement options for people, for more retirement security, to continuing to build on the progress we made with respect to education reform, to the Freedom Agenda, which was spreading freedom around the world, to places where today — or back then, as well, there wasn’t the kind of freedom we wanted, as Americans.

Q: You know, the Democrats will say that President Bush showed up to debate a caricature of Senator Kerry. They thought it would longwinded. Hence, the red light.

MEHLMAN: No, Ker– Senator Kerry, I thought, was very able in the debates. And we didn’t think that. Because we had watched previous debates that he had engaged in and he had been quite effective.

Q: And did President Bush prepare as thoroughly for the debates…?

MEHLMAN: Yeah. I mean, look, the first debate was certainly not a very good debate by President Bush. I think he would tell you the same thing. But I think he prepared [40:00] and was ready. And I felt the other two debates did well.

Q: What did you think came out of the debates, as a whole?

MEHLMAN: I’m not sure the debates fundamentally changed the race. The first debate had the potential to. But because, the second and third, the two candidates were more even or even President Bush, was stronger, I think that it really didn’t fundamentally change the election.

Q: What occurs to me is that, debate by debate, you could argue that Kerry won all three but that what came out of the debates, in terms of memorable things, were global test —


Q: — and Mary Cheney —


Q: — which were — which would — which worked for you.

MEHLMAN: Yeah. Interesting.

Q: So I guess what I wonder is do you f your approach to the debates, was it sort of…?

MEHLMAN: It’s an interesting point. If you think historically, there’s an — you know, there’s the famous, “There you go again” (laughs) —

Q: Yeah.

MEHLMAN: — or in 1984 when President Reagan says, “I will not use my opponent’s age and inexperience against them.”

Q: Yeah.

MEHLMAN: And he had been killed in the first debate. And even the second one was only OK. But that line made such a difference. Or when President Bush, 41, was looking at his watch not because he was tired but because he wanted to make sure [41:00] he was keeping time. Or when President Clinton went out… It’s a really good point that… You know, it reinforces that theory I said about Blink. The public doesn’t look and pay attention the way you or I might. They have a few things they remember. And those were certainly things, that you identified, that they would have remembered.

Q: It’s not just the public. I mean, you all, as a campaign, seized on those moments and brought them to the — to the center of national attention.

MEHLMAN: You know, campaigns do that sometimes but the truth is it’s really whether the public thinks they’re important or not, I think, as much as anything. I mean, global test was important because it reinforced a certain… I remember, the week bef of our convention, President Bush was on The Today Show, I believe it was. And President Bush was asked about the War on Terror. And he gave a — an answer that wasn’t as smooth as he might have and he basically said, “We’re not going to win this War on Terror.” And I remember there was a whole effort by a number of our opponents to really seize on that and say, “Ah, see what he’s saying?” I remember thinking, “People aren’t going to buy this,” because it’s not in character [42:00] of who he is. And people know how zealous he is in prosecuting this war. And the challenge with global test, I thought, was that it reinforced in a concern a lot of people had about the kind of foreign policy that then Senator Kerry would have.