Paul Begala Transcript
Taped February 18, 2015
Table of Contents
KRISTOL: Welcome back to CONVERSATIONS. I’m Bill Kristol and I’m very happy to have with me my friend, Paul Begala, a prominent political operative, a thinker about politics, a commentator on television, and I first met you I think when you were a key operative in the Bill Clinton 1992 Presidential campaign, and I was going down with the ship on the Bush/Quayle campaigns.
BEGALA: That was not your fault. I mean, we can’t pin that one on you, Bill.
KRISTOL: You said the right thing there and that was appreciated. Well, let’s begin with that. I mean, that was exciting to be part of a winning Presidential campaign. How did you get involved, how does it all happen? I mean, people, afterwards, people become well-known, and they think, oh, you were there forever and you and Carville and Clinton.
BEGALA: It’s kind of like anything, though. A lot of it’s just word of mouth and it’s luck and actually one of my beliefs in life – and I teach at Georgetown and I tell my students this – careers are mostly about attitude and timing. You have to have the right attitude. You have to be willing to move to Kentucky or New Jersey or Georgia or Pennsylvania or all these places I moved to work for very little money. That was the attitude. But then if you’re lucky, the timing comes around. Sometimes the timing is wrong. For me, the timing was perfect. My partner and I, James Carville, had a done a run at a campaign for Zell Miller and he won, he was elected governor of Georgia.
KRISTOL: And that was in 1990 –
BEGALA: 1990. Zell was very close friends with Bill Clinton. I had never met him. I didn’t know the guy from Adam.
KRISTOL: Been in politics for how long at that point?
BEGALA: I had been – I graduated college in ’83. So this is ’90, this is 7 years. I was still kind of early in my career. I had, I’d worked on the Hill a little bit and done campaigns all around the country and in between was getting a law degree. But Zell was pals with Clinton. So we had helped elect him and then we left. You know, we didn’t want to work in state government in Atlanta. I was not qualified. So off doing the next thing. And Governor Clinton was going around the country seeing his friends and saying – this is 1991 – you know, “I’m thinking about running, I’m going to run.” Laying the groundwork as these guys do. He spent the night in the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta with Zell, and they stayed up all night plotting and planning.
And Miller told me the story. He said that, he said, “I’ll endorse you,” which will help but I’ll move my primary up because they were both Southern governors, they wanted the South to have a larger voice than the Democratic Party, so I’ll move the primary up. So you’ll have a beachhead in case you don’t work out in Iowa and New Hampshire. And as kind of an aside, he said you ought to talk to these boys that ran my campaign. James Carville and Paul Begala. Clinton said, “I never heard of them.” And Zell said – to his credit – “Maybe that’s the problem, maybe that’s the good thing is that we should get some new blood.” Back then, you know, now I’m an old war horse but back then we were new blood. And just on Zell’s recommendation, Clinton called us and we went and met with him and just love at first sight.
KRISTOL: Is that right? So many of the winning campaigns – and I’m struck by this – are people who have come off successful statewide campaigns but are not on their fourth Presidential campaign. In fact, I’d say most of the cases we can think of in both parties where people did their third and fourth campaigns, it was sort of applying 10-year or 20 year-old recipes. You know, there is something about being fresh, isn’t there?
BEGALA: Absolutely. That’s a problem. People say, people like me, I’ve got 30 years experience in politics. Well, you know, I’ve got like two repeated, 15 times is a real risk. I think the far better course is – I mean, it’s what I did – is to go out in America, you know, work in places particularly that are either swing states or really tough for your folks. You know, Kentucky is a very purple state, probably more red than blue, I loved working there, I learned a lot. Georgia, the same way.
Other people, they want to come to Washington and you know I’m all for it, I love it here, but they want to start as the intern at the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, work their way up to one of the committees and this committee and that. I just don’t think that’s the better way.
I think what you learn is how impossibly vast and diverse this country is, and it’s really good to have that in your mind when you’re sitting in an office building in Washington, DC that well actually there’s somebody in Paducah, Kentucky, who’s going to take this a very different way, and let’s think about her.
KRISTOL: Yeah. So, Bill Clinton meets – did you guys fly down to Little Rock to meet him or did you meet him somewhere?
BEGALA: No, he happened to be in DC and we were at the same time. So we went and had a glass of ice tea and sat. It’s the only time in my life, I think, I ever had seriously love at first sight with a politician because – and this is so ingenious – he did not treat us like strategists, he did not talk strategy with us. He didn’t say, you know, my wife’s from Illinois, it’s kind of an early primary, we could do well there and Miller is going to move the southern primary up. I still remember it. I could tell you where we were sitting.
KRISTOL: Yeah, so, where was this?
BEGALA: We were sitting – it was, they keep changing the names of these hotels, it was a hotel on New Jersey Avenue, and it was then, I think, called like the Palace Court or something like that.
KRISTOL: Yeah, that one’s changed about 20 times. Yeah, right, I know. On Capitol Hill.
BEGALA: The Washington Court Hotel I think it’s called now.
KRISTOL: Not the classiest hotel in Washington.
BEGALA: You know, we were not very well off, and we met him there. And I remember to this day, he talked about his daughter who then was about 12, maybe 11. Talked about how in the far-off future you’d have the turn of the century, what kind of a world would she inherit? And he talked to us, like, as if we were citizens actually who loved our country.
And let me tell you, that’s a great strategy. If you want a really good strategist, actually treat them like a patriot and a citizen, which no one had ever done before. We probably would have signed on just because of his talent anyway as hacks. But boy, we fell in love because that’s all he wanted to talk about was his set of ideas. And I remember we walked out there and Carville said, “My only concern is this guy too good to be true.”
KRISTOL: Is that right?
BEGALA: And we actually later heard that in focus groups with lots of voters, too, because he was just impressive at first sight. It’s hard to remember back to those days but the guy was clearly the class of the field even then.
KRISTOL: And had this New Democrat message, which was different from the Democrats of ’84 and ’88 Presumably the Mondale-Dukakis Democrats.
BEGALA: I had worked for Zell Miller, who’s of course a very conservative Democrat. I worked for Bob Casey who was the Governor of Pennsylvania, his son is now a Senator from Pennsylvania. I had worked for a number of more moderate conservative Democrats. Dick Gephardt who was then a pretty moderate Democratic leader. And one of the things I loved about Clinton is he was very much a part of the movement to remake the Democratic Party.
We used to go to these conferences, and Democrats would sit there and they would, they would first off they’d blame the voters – well, they’re just too stupid. You know, the Democratic candidate is always so much smarter than everyone, which is nuts. So they would attack the voters because the voters were stupid – how could they vote for Reagan? Well, you know, 49 states did, and there’s only 50 of them so the guy had something on the ball. And then the second thing they would do is attack you guys. Oh, the Republicans are too mean. Like you’re supposed to throw the game? Okay.
And then finally Clinton came along with Miller, Bentsen, Gore, a lot of really influential Democrats – Sam Nunn – and they said actually the problem is us, we’ve gotten out of step. Here’s where I saw it. I was working for Dick Gephardt in his Presidential campaign in 1988, went out to Iowa. And I love Iowa and I love the caucuses but they do tend to bring the most committed people out. And there was a group back then called Star*Pac, which was a very, very liberal, really a disarmament group, not even just antiwar.
And I was working for Gephardt, but Al Gore got up there and someone challenged him in the audience and they said, “You voted for the flight testing of ballistic missiles.” And Gore said, “Well, of course, I did, we have to have them, I mean, we’re a super power, we have to have missiles, and so, of course, we have to test them, we have to make sure they work, God forbid we need them, we don’t want our soldiers with missiles that don’t” – they booed him off the stage. And I thought there’s something really wrong with my party. I mean, I’m all for peace, okay, but when you can’t even vote to test missiles – they booed him off the stage. And I thought boy, there’s something. And Clinton really spoke to that, the need to bring the Party back to the center. And it’s really as a political legacy, a really important part of what he did.
KRISTOL: So in ’91, how does it work? You went down at some point to Little Rock? You have to be willing to pick up and move places when you’re –
BEGALA: Yes, well, we cut a deal. Clinton obviously wanted to base the camp in Little Rock, which was genius. Mostly because his daughter was there but also he didn’t want to be trapped in the New York-Washington establishment.
KRISTOL: And he was governor, right?
BEGALA: And he was governor, he had to run the state, and so it made perfect sense. We were about to have a baby and so my wife did not want to give birth in Little Rock, she wanted to give birth where her doc was here in Northern Virginia. So I got on the plane.
Carville, Stephanopoulos, the whole campaign moved to Little Rock, you had to live in Little Rock. And I was one of the rare exceptions because I travelled with the candidate, and that’s kind of how we divided it up. Carville ran the war room, I was the body guy on the plane working with the governor to keep him on message. And I had the way better deal. I know they made a movie about the war room, and Carville and Stephanopoulos got rich and famous. I highly – if you ever get a chance to spend a year of your life sitting next to Bill Clinton on an airplane and traveling a million miles to 48 states, I highly recommend it. He’s the most amazing guy –
KRISTOL: And so you start off you don’t have your own plane to start with, right?
BEGALA: We started out on Delta Airlines carrying our own bags, yeah. And then these things snowball and it really goes very quickly.
KRISTOL: And when did you think – were there moments you thought you weren’t going to make it, when did you think you were going to make it? Did you think you were sort of the favorite from the beginning? I sort of can’t remember. Clinton launched in the fall. It was later in those days, right? He waited till –
BEGALA: October of 1991, remarkably late. But that’s because President Bush was so popular. You know, he had prosecuted a war successfully. It was the first time since with Vietnam. And so it was, I mean, young people don’t remember, you were in the White House then. We had parades.
And I remember when the war ended. I was working on the Hill for the Democratic Majority Leader, and the President was going to come and give a speech about how we won the war. And my cousin fought in that war. I mean, I really like most Americans was really deeply proud of our country. And the only argument we’re having is well, we have bigger flags to wave. Literally, the Democrats, like, were looking for flags to wave on the floor where the Republicans waved flags that were bigger. In that sense, it was a great time. But it was a partisan matter –
KRISTOL: And Gephardt and Gore who had run in ’88 and done adequately well – they lost to Dukakis – didn’t run in ’92, I guess, partly because –
BEGALA: Because of Bush. They were too –
KRISTOL: They thought Bush would, yeah.
BEGALA: And even Lloyd Bentsen who was, you know, a real powerhouse in my party and you’re right, Gore and Dick Gephardt and Jay Rockefeller who really could have, I think, made quite a good run, they all stood down. And the thought in ’91 was well, somebody’s going to be a sacrificial lamb.
And Clinton’s gift was to be able to see around corners. And you can go back to that announcement speech – which I had nothing to do with, he actually announced before Carville and I joined so I don’t say this with pride of authorship – go back to that announcement speech and you see the whole animating vision of his presidency. More domestic than foreign, more populist, middle-class-based economics, but also a deep skepticism of too much bureaucracy, too much deficit. I mean, it was really exactly what he believed in, which is kind of nice to look back – it wasn’t just a stunt, it was his actual vision.
KRISTOL: And he was associated with the Democrat message. I mean, that was pretty – he had done that as Governor and head of that Democratic Leadership Council and –
BEGALA: It was really a big part of him. We went back during the campaign all the way to ’74, his first run for office outside of student government, I guess, and he ran for the House against John Paul Hammerschmidt and lost.
But we found – and again you had a populist thing where he was attacking oil companies but you also had a thing where a message there where he was worried and skeptical of bureaucracy. It was – so the guy has had – you know, everybody ticks and tacks and zigs and zags over their career. But for a remarkably long period of time, he’s had pretty much the same basic approach to things and that’s something I admire.
You obviously see the same thing in Reagan. Reagan started life as an FDR liberal but once he entered public life, you can go back to his – the speech in 1964 all the way to his final speech as President and there’s a real consistency. Yes, he raised taxes here, zigged and zagged there, but in the main, he was the same guy.
KRISTOL: Right. Well, I remember vividly being in the White House, and I’ll tell the story and then you’ll tell me what it looked it from the Clinton campaign side.
And it was the December, the middle of December, and Mario Cuomo, will he get in, that was the huge story and he was a major figure obviously after the ’84 convention speech and at that point, what a three-term governor? Beginning his third term as governor of New York.
And I remember he didn’t – you know, the plane famously didn’t take off from Albany to New Hampshire on the filing deadline date, December 15th or something like that. And I remember there was a little meeting in the White House that evening and great exhilaration. This was in Sam Skinner, the Chief of Staff’s office. Well, if Cuomo’s out, now it’s really going to be fine because we have a bunch of nobodies running against us. And I will say, to my credit, I said, “I don’t know, you know, in a way, I think Cuomo would have been easier to beat because he’s a New York liberal, a familiar type. Dukakis. And I’m a little worried about Clinton, that New Democrat stuff, he’s a very clever politician.” “Oh, no, Bill.”
This was classic – we’ve been through three or four of these Presidential campaigns, there’s no way there’s going to elect Clinton over President Bush who won the war and all this. Now, from your point-of-view, Cuomo, were you guys very worried about that or –
BEGALA: Enormously. You know, but it’s like before a fight. We were – oh, we’re going to beat him, we’re going to, you know. But everybody can look at the tapes – enormously talented orator and thinker. Clinton had enormous respect. You know, Clinton is, I think, a very bright guy, too, so he really admired the combination that Cuomo brought of heart and head. When he didn’t run, there was this huge exhale.
And I will say here is the analog in our campaign. The guy Carville worried about the most was Doug Wilder. The only one in the race, in the potential race, right, who had the kind of same base among southern African Americans that Clinton had –
KRISTOL: And Doug Wilder was the Governor –
BEGALA: The Governor of Virginia, first African American governor of Virginia history. He had been elected in 1989. Virginia, then a very Republican state. So not only a Democrat but an African American Democrat.
KRISTOL: But sort of a moderate African American –
BEGALA: A moderate and just, what a gifted politician. And Carville was the one who always kept saying – we were scared to death of Cuomo, okay – but he said, “We can’t win if Wilder gets in the race,” because that was really our base, was trying to put together a black/white coalition, but our base began with African American voters who were concentrated in the South in the Democratic Party. And if Wilder had gotten in the race with his talent, with the platform of being governor of frankly a much bigger state much closer to the media center as well – Wilder was really intimidating, too. And that was something we didn’t talk to the press a lot about. But those were the two moments, I think, when it became apparent to us, at least we had a clear path to the nomination.
KRISTOL: And there were some bumps on the path. And famously in the Clinton ’92 campaign, I don’t know, what was it like, anything, any particular memorable moments? You were pretty much with then Governor Clinton – on the road.
BEGALA: It was mostly with Governor Clinton. These ups and downs and a lounge singer came out and said she’d had an affair with him and it was – it taught me a lot. One of the things it taught me is something Clinton said then – if we make it about their life, not mine, we’ll both be better off. Don’t allow yourself to become focused on yourself. You know, like, I love country music, and these new artists come out, and they write about truth and beauty and love and momma and whatever. But by their third album, they’re writing about life on the road and how hard it is to bounce around in a $200,000 bus. And like you know, dude, that’s actually not something I can relate to.
Politicians get that way. They get in a campaign and the only questions they’re asked are about themselves and they start only thinking about themselves. And what that taught me is Clinton decided to make it about you not me, as he always said. And because he came into the race steeped in a bunch of ideas, he didn’t have to create stuff on the fly, there was a kind of staying power to his ideas. And that’s what he clung to, that was our life raft. And that’s what got us through it and then we would start to hear voters say that. It was, like, okay he’s had his problems but a lot of people blamed the media, they did and I think fairly. But they also said he’s kind of a young guy with a head full of good ideas that actually cares about me, you know, let’s take a chance.
KRISTOL: He’s such a charismatic guy, Clinton, and such a good candidate. People forget – I think I was struck by this on the other side – what a policy-heavy campaign it was. And I don’t think politicians subsequently have quite picked up on that, which fits with not just that you care about people but that you actually have a very concrete set of proposals to help them.
BEGALA: It’s so important. You cannot think from the moment you announce to election night, there’s just no time to like really think through how do I want to restructure Social Security – you just can’t.
So he had already thought all that stuff through before he began. I think that’s really important. We always viewed him as, you know, this great block of marble that we would have to chip stuff away from rather than an empty vessel into which we would pour content. He always had too much content. I used to tease him about that – you have three solutions for every problem.
It was so bad – this is how – the guy is so smart – we were doing a town hall meeting in New Hampshire. He’s the Governor of Arkansas. We had no business being up there and, you know, they talk funny and it’s freezing cold. And he loved it, and he kept saying, you know, Arkansas is just like New Hampshire and here’s why. And some woman got up in a town hall meeting and she said – as I recall, memory is an unreliable thing – she said, “Why did they stop the passenger train line from Portsmouth to Manchester?” And the answer is, “Who cares, lady? I’m running for President” – he knew, he actually knew and he started explaining – well, when the (INAUDIBLE), going through.
I remember I actually went up to him, and I was like can you just pretend once in a while you don’t know something just, like, so we can relate to you. That you can’t coach, that does not come from a political consultant. You know, and you do see this with some of these folks, that can sustain you, too, when you get in trouble and that’s a wonderful thing.
KRISTOL: Did he take advice easily or resist it like a lot of these guys do or –
BEGALA: He, you know it’s interesting, Clinton actually didn’t like yes-men. He wanted to win people over, that’s why he always tried to, you know like Reagan Democrats, Clinton Republicans. So if you were too much – oh, you’re so great, you’re so great, he’d stop listening to you. He would want advice, very often more in the White House than in the campaign, he would take the devil’s advocate. You know, he’s really want – because I think he was very worried about the kind of yes-person, yes-man syndrome. But he did.
You know, my job was so easy because all we would do, the people on the plane and we had good people on the plane, it wasn’t just me – Dee-Dee Myers, we had Bruce Reed, we had Rodney Slater. We had a really talented team on the plane. And we would just write, like, a paragraph a day, not a speech. He would have his stump speech but he could interlineate so well and modify for different regions so well that all we had to was, like, here’s the hit we want today, you know, here’s the sound bite, frankly, and deliver this on unemployment or whatever the issue was that day. And he could do all the rest. So we were kind of spoiled that way.
KRISTOL: So you won the nomination after Cuomo didn’t run and Wilder, and you had a few challengers but none of them was quite up to it ultimately, I guess, right, I mean?
BEGALA: I think they just none of the rest of them were able to put it together in the same way but you know Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey won the Medal of Honor. Those were the two people actually Carville and I interviewed with as well to work for. Very impressive guys. And, you know, Carville is a Marine, really loved Senator Kerrey, Bob Kerrey because of his war record and just is a remarkable guy.
And then it actually turned out, I guess the ones who nagged us the most were the ones that we didn’t begin to think, I didn’t think he would be the most – Tsongas, Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown. But you’re right. It wasn’t the strongest field the Democrats ever produced. And I think it’s because the President was so intimidating.
KRISTOL: Yeah. Isn’t that an irony? And then he ended up getting the lowest re-elected President since Hoover, I guess.
BEGALA: Yeah, amazing.
KRISTOL: It’s a good lesson.
BEGALA: It’s a fickle business.
KRISTOL: It is. People who look a year and a half out and think they have some sense of what the country’s mood is going to be or where people – it’s crazy.
BEGALA: Well, this I think is something pundits should learn. It’s why I like – seriously, I like listening to you – most of these people here in Washington, they think tomorrow will be just like today only more so. Okay, so now we’re sitting down, it’s February and it’s bitter cold. So obviously by July, it will be like 20 below.
No, actually, tomorrow will not – the one lesson in life is tomorrow will not be like today. Now, it’s guesswork as to which way it will be different. And that’s kind of the art of this thing. But these people who always think oh, you know, you’re up by 10, thereby next week, you’ll be up by 20 and then you’ll get 400% of the vote by the election.
KRISTOL: Did you guys always think you had a pretty good – once you were in ’92, though and Bush had taken the hits of the Buchanan challenge and the recession and looking out of touch and all that. And then Perot, I guess. Did you guys think you had a good chance, pretty good chance, sort of –
BEGALA: We thought we had a pretty good chance because Clinton could contest states that had not – I think it really did help a lot that he was a Southerner. It helped enormously, and so he obviously was going to carry his home state. You know, everything changed around the convention. That was only about a 10-day period.
KRISTOL: Yeah, I remember.
BEGALA: Ross Perot got out of the race in the middle of the Democratic convention.
KRISTOL: And was that coordinated? Were you always – Really? How did you hear about it? You just heard about it – Is that right?
BEGALA: Somebody called Stephanopoulos, some news person said that Perot is having a press conference minutes. We were like, quick, turn on the television.
KRISTOL: That was literally like the first day of the convention.
BEGALA: Yes and he said, he actually said as if we’d scripted. I could see why you’d think – he said, “The Democratic Party has its act together.” He couldn’t have given us a better message because we were the hapless Democrats. We’d lost something, like, five out of the last Presidential elections. And so he got out of the race. Gore joined the ticket.
KRISTOL: Were you involved in that?
BEGALA: A bit.
KRISTOL: Tell us about that.
BEGALA: It was not for Gore. I don’t think he knows that, so hopefully he won’t watch –
KRISTOL: We’ll send it to him.
BEGALA: I was for Harris Wofford. The most important qualification is he’s a client of mine.
KRISTOL: Right, but you helped him, Senator from Pennsylvania, a big upset in November ’91 in a special election.
BEGALA: Right but also from my – I think wrong but very conventional analysis. Clinton was young, Harris was older. Clinton was a Baptist, Wofford was a Catholic. Clinton was a Southener, Wofford was a Northeasterner. Clinton was a New Democrat moderate. Wofford had worked for both Dr. King and President Kennedy from the liberal wing of the party. So it just matched up perfectly.
KRISTOL: And he was an impressive guy, Wofford –
BEGALA: President of two colleges –
KRISTOL: Yeah, sort of older, statesman type.
BEGALA: Yes, and really brought a gravitas.
And, you know, Clinton interviewed him and loved him, thought he was great. As soon as he interviewed Gore, he said that. He said – it was amazing. And I stupidly said, “He hasn’t even endorsed you,” which he hadn’t, Gore wanted nothing to do with our campaign in the primaries. And Clinton said, you know, I think if I pick him for the ticket, he will. I said, “Okay, good point.”
And I said, “Well, what does he bring? He’s the same religion, he’s the same region, he’s the same age, he’s the same philosophy.” And he said, “I might die.” And I thought, oh my God. You know, that’s when you start – it is the first Presidential decision they make. And, you know, I was never a fan of George W. Bush but I don’t doubt at all that he picked Cheney for the right reasons. I don’t think he was the right man but he picked him for the right reasons. I don’t think he needed Wyoming’s electoral votes or Cheney’s charisma, he thought, “God forbid if something happened, I need someone who could step in on day one.”
And that is, I think, a really telling thing about Presidential characters. The first time these people have to make a decision with that kind of weight and consequence. And so I was really proud of Clinton actually that he overruled me. He rolled right over me. He didn’t –
KRISTOL: Take a long time to ponder your –
BEGALA: It’s interesting. Just as soon as he met Gore.
KRISTOL: And it turned out to work politically too, the two young guys, the bus tour. I remember this well, of course.
BEGALA: Right. It was the su – the whole was greater than the sum of the parts because – and we had this nagging problem that Carville identified the first time we met Clinton – is he too good to be true, does he really believe – is he too slick?
Well, when you pick a guy who’s just the same, it actually tells people, hey, this really matters to me because if God forbid, something happens to me, you’re going to get a carbon copy, that’s how deeply I believe in these ideas, it’s not just like a trick to get your vote. And I had not thought of that but I think that was part of it, too, is it gave Clinton a sense of authenticity, not just popularity.
KRISTOL: Any moments in the general election campaign where you thought oh, my God, this might be going south or Perot –
BEGALA: The primary campaign was so awful. But in the general, it went better. Perot got back in but –
KRISTOL: And was in the debates.
BEGALA: It was in the debates that Clinton sealed the deal. I remember, again if memory serves, it was Mickey Kantor negotiating with James Baker. And I love Mickey but – and he’s negotiated many great – but James Baker is like the greatest negotiator, diplomat of my time.
And somehow the Bush campaign agreed to debates. And Clinton had done thousands of debates and town hall meetings. That’s all he’d been doing. He didn’t have a country to run. He had a state but fewer people in his state than the city of Houston so, like, he could manage the state pretty easily. And the President had all this stuff going on. Plus, he hated debates.
KRISTOL: But he couldn’t of not – do you think he could have not agreed to debates at that point, I guess there had been debates in ’80 –
BEGALA: Since ’76. Ford and Carter began the modern tradition after Kennedy. I guess not.
KRISTOL: It’s an interesting question though whether he could have or maybe limited it to one or –
BEGALA: He agreed to three, and then he agreed to the thing we wanted most, which was astonishing, which was a town hall format. Clinton was so empathetic, and the presidency does isolate you, you know, and I remember getting the word.
My memory is we were in Wisconsin campaigning. And Mickey called and said we’ve got three debates and one is going to be a town hall. And I said, “Are you kidding me?” because we knew and there was that famous moment. A woman in the debate in Richmond.
KRISTOL: Which was the town hall one.
BEGALA: It was a town hall debate.
KRISTOL: The second debate, I think.
BEGALA: And I believe the woman’s name was Marissa. And she said, “How does the national debt affect you?” It was kind of (INAUDIBLE) question, actually. You know, what does that mean – the national debt? And so President Bush gave kind of an answer like that. He was like, “I don’t really get what you’re saying,” and I think he used a phrase like that, “I don’t really get it” or “I don’t see what you mean.” And he said, “Just because a person has means, it doesn’t mean that they don’t care.” And you know, he was just floundering around in part because the question was not framed by a professional questioner or a journalist.
And it was like not a fair fight. Clinton sprang out of his chair, walked over to her. Before he answered, he asked her a bunch of questions. “Do you know people who have been laid off, have you got friends? Well, I run this small state and when a factory closes, there’s a very good chance I know the people who have lost their job and it really has an impact on me, here’s the impact.” I was just in our little holding room, we were like throwing the towel – this is just.
KRISTOL: I remember that so well because – I can’t remember what the sequence was but was that after the vice Presidential debate because my little, my bit piece in history was negotiating the vice Presidential debate with Jack Quinn, I guess who was running Gore’s kind of side of the campaign. And we had a very quick, we didn’t – ours was actually very loosely structured, which was good for Quayle and did okay, I thought.
He just carried Gore’s book out there or tried to carry Gore’s book out, which was against the rules. But it kind of like – and they just quoted from Gore’s book where he attacked the automobile or whatever – what was it? – Earth in the Balance, Earth in the Balance. The internal combustion engine is one of the terrible things that’s happened for mankind – we figured that probably wasn’t going to play too well.
So we did our best. But, you know, I may have my memory, too, but I think there was, we went after the first Presidential debate and did okay, and it looked like there was sort of an outside shot, and I think the town hall was then the next debate.
BEGALA: I think that’s right. It was the second –
KRISTOL: And I watched with Vice President Quayle who was smart, underrated in many ways by the media, but one thing, he’s a very shrewd political, you know, analyst, and he just, I remember, he was so loyal to President Bush he wasn’t going to say anything but I remember just him shaking his head as he watched Clinton do that.
Was that the same debate that Bush looked at his watch? Right, which was innocent in a way, right, he just thought like –
BEGALA: And then to his eternal credit – there’s no more gracious man God ever made than George H. W. Bush – and when they dedicated the Clinton Library, bitter cold, freezing rain. Now, his son had just been re-elected so he was in a good mood. But this is 2004 and President Bush, Sr., stood up there and spoke and he told that story. He said, “You know why I looked at my watch? I kept thinking how long do I have to be debating this guy?” He was so gracious.
KRISTOL: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
BEGALA: But you have to – this is a lesson I took from this as a strategist – you have to work with what you have and who you have, you can’t pretend. If your guy doesn’t like debates – or your woman – you can’t force her into it, can’t force them into it. Either take the hit for not doing them or manage it so careful that it becomes almost like a joint press conference. Put three or four journalists up there, long answers. You know, there would have been ways to mitigate that. But if you let Bill Clinton get a chance to directly interact with voters in front of 50 million people, you’re not going to win.
KRISTOL: And Bush didn’t win and Bill Clinton did. So that was congratulations almost.
BEGALA: Well, again, it was not me. I always tell people that sports reporters are so much smarter than political reporters because sports reporters say Secretariat won the race, they don’t say Ron Turcotte – I’ve actually memorized the name of the guy who was the jockey because no sports reporter said, “Ron Turcotte wins the Triple Crown,” right? They understand.
And these things as you know, you rise and fall with your candidate, you do. Now, sometimes there’s larger forces that even the best candidate can’t overcome. John McCain was never going to win no matter what, had nothing to do with Senator McCain, it was the country was sick of Bush, we’re in a terrible crisis of economic collapse. So that was not won but usually if you win, it’s not because the strategist. You know, and the President had James Baker, there’s nobody I admire more. He had had Lee Atwater and Lee passed and that was a terrible loss. But he had Mary Matalin, he had quite a good team.
KRISTOL: Oh, he had a good team, it wasn’t the problem. Twelve years and the recession and said – and I think Clinton really saw – I was in that Bush White House, I do think President Bush thought till near the end that he would win and that because in the America he had lived in, being a competent Commander in Chief, which he was, winning the war, ending the Cold War successfully and building on what Reagan had done, that would get you re-elected. I mean, that was sort of the test of a President.
And Clinton did see that we were at a post-Cold War moment and that you needed to talk, not just could talk but you needed to talk about education and health care and the like. He did also make sure that he covered himself enough on foreign policy that he didn’t look – you know, he knew a lot and he chose Gore who was a Senator and a foreign policy kind of expert type senator.
BEGALA: And from sort of the hawkish wing of his party.
KRISTOL: Right, so he sort of covered himself on that. But he saw that you could have a domestic policy election, which you really couldn’t have quite in the Cold War years.
BEGALA: That’s exactly right. He chose not to run in 1988, which was, we didn’t know it then but it was coming to the end of the Cold War. But I don’t think he could have had the same success in 1988, frankly. He might have won, he might not have. But the moment and the man came together. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the fact that President Bush handled it so masterfully with Baker and Scowcroft, ironically. But of course the Brits fired Churchill as soon as the Second World War was over.
And internally – we didn’t say this in public a lot, we tried not to because it’s disrespectful – but we would talk about him as yesterday’s man and having a gold watch strategy. He’s of the past and a heroic past and good for him, let’s give him a gold watch, but now we have to fix health care and create jobs and that’s for a different generation, a different mindset. And I think that’s how we approached it strategically, and it could not have been possible without the collapse of the Soviet Union.
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