Terry McAuliffe, The Man Who Put the Pep in Rally
By Mark Leibovich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; Page C01
BOSTON, July 27
There are times when Terry McAuliffe can get a tad carried away. These occur about 20 times an hour, or 80 times an hour during the Democratic National Convention, a frequency that suggests that McAuliffe does not "get" carried away but was born carried away.
"Bill Richardson is the greatest governor in the country today, maybe in the history of America," McAuliffe says to the governor of New Mexico. McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is bounding between state delegation breakfasts at the Marriott Long Wharf hotel. In McAuliffe's daily romp, this is a routine greeting.
He conveys it again four minutes later when he runs into Janet Napolitano, the governor of Arizona and "certainly the best governor serving in the United States," McAuliffe says.
Except Richardson, and the 20 other Democratic governors currently serving, which includes the man who is standing about 30 feet from Napolitano.
"Tom Vilsack!" McAuliffe says to the governor of Iowa. "Have you met Tom Vilsack? He is easily, easily, the best governor we have today."
"Aww shucks, Terry," Vilsack says. "I'll bet you say that to all the Democratic governors."
It would be understating things to say that McAuliffe is prone to overstating things. To deprive him of hyperbole and exaggeration would be like depriving a mathematician of numbers. In the course of a typical McAuliffe day -- which begins at 5:30 a.m. Monday and concludes at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday -- he will encounter at least five of the greatest state party chairmen in history, six of the greatest members of Congress, 12 of the greatest senators and two of our greatest former presidents (Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).
As he will every night this week, McAuliffe will subsist on two hours of sleep. But it will be, in his words, "the greatest two hours of sleep in the history of sleep." He will also introduce, at a luncheon, "the greatest international president of any international president in the AFL-CIO" (AFSCME's Gerald McEntee). He will take "the best elevator ride of his life" with a group of delegates at the FleetCenter ("I gotta get me one of those cheese hats!"), will suck on "the greatest throat lozenge ever" and consume "the most fabulous lobster roll ever" before giving a speech welcoming delegates to the FleetCenter -- a speech that will no doubt go down as the greatest speech in the history of political oratory, if not the pinnacle of all human achievement.
"Amazing," McAuliffe says after his speech as he bounds off the podium and heads down a backstage hallway. "I'm so pumped up.
"YOU," he says, pointing to a group of young volunteers. "Are you pumped up?"
He speaks in a boom, everything in capital letters and with exclamation points. He simulates the motion of a lasso over his head. He claps his hands three times -- always three times -- with a loud popping sound. Before the volunteers can answer, McAuliffe is passing a trio of female senators who are preparing to take the stage -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, who are, naturally, three of the best senators ever to grace the hallowed halls of the U.S Senate, if not any legislative body in the history of democratic government.
"Light 'em up, light 'em up, senators," McAuliffe says, three-clapping. "C'mon, let's go." They all smile, say "Hi, Terry!" and accept his hugs. And then McAuliffe turns the corner and extracts a similar assurance from Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, a light-'em-up kind of guy if ever there was one.
And then he meets House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi outside a freight elevator. She congratulates him on his great speech and the following exchange ensues:
McAuliffe: "This is great."
Pelosi: "Are you excited?"
McAuliffe: "It's perfect."
Pelosi: "It is perfect."
McAuliffe: "We're gonna win!"
Pelosi: "We are gonna win. It's just really perfect."
McAuliffe: "We're a new party today."
And so ends the greatest conversation in the history of conversations.
There is a tendency to watch Terry McAuliffe from afar and assume he's just a little, you know, full of it.
And then there's a tendency to watch him from closer range and conclude that yes, he is absolutely a LOT full of it. He is someone your mother might describe as being "a bit much."
But then you spend some time in the orbit of "the Macker" (as he is known). You see how people react to him, very important people like former presidents and everyday people like off-duty Boston cops (who are serving as drivers of his two-SUV entourage this week). You see how McAuliffe infects those who inhabit, or who are caught up in, his roving weather system. After a few hours you find it hard not to get drawn in yourself.
People backstage mimic his buoyancy ("You fired up, Macker?!") and people he works with start to echo his hyperbole. McAuliffe, who has had a part in raising an estimated $800 million for assorted Democratic entities since the Carter-Mondale reelection campaign of 1980, has been dubbed "the greatest fundraiser in the history of the universe" by Al Gore. This is a person who owned his own snow blowing business at age 14, growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. His sister recalls the sight of young Terry pressing his dollar bills on an ironing board before taking them to the bank.
He went on to attend Catholic University and Georgetown University Law School, and make a small fortune in a run of banking, insurance, marketing and real estate ventures.
When introducing McAuliffe at an Iowa delegation breakfast Monday, state Democratic Chairman Gordon Fisher declares, "There is an argument to be made that Terry McAuliffe is not just the best party chairman, but that he might be the best chairman of any organization, anywhere."
At the very least, Terry McAuliffe is a full-on, over-caffeinated piece-o'-work, the kind that's sadly becoming rare in the world. He is a careening, booming, hyperactive antidote to the on-message drudgery that infects so many political types.
Not that McAuliffe is ever anything but on-message himself. He is comically repetitious and relentless in his themes and sound bites (This party has never been more unified. . . . We're gonna send George Bush back to Crawford, Texas. . . . John Kerry has a vision . . .). But his message is less potent for what he says than for the sheer force of his exuberance when he says it. His bearing is nothing but positive for a party -- the political kind of party, or the funny-hat and fat-cat kind of party. McAuliffe says the working title of the book he may or may not write is "What a Party."
He is the ultimate carnival barker at the party convention, the ultimate political carnival.
"I have a different role in this party and that is to always be positive and optimistic," McAuliffe says. "I am the chief cheerleader. That is my job." He will leave the statesmanship and measured elocutions to the party's statesmen and measured elocutionists. He concludes with a striking morsel of understatement.
"You're never going to find me not upbeat," he says.
At a Sunday breakfast meeting with a group of reporters, McAuliffe was asked about a recent prediction he made that John Kerry will receive an 8-to-10-point "bounce" coming out of the convention. Yes, he did say that, McAuliffe acknowledged, laughing. "But remember, I'm also the guy who said we were going to win all 50 states."
By objective measures, McAuliffe's chairmanship of the Democratic Party -- which ends in early 2005 -- has been a great success. He came in four years ago, when the party was outgunned financially and demoralized after a bitter presidential election defeat. There were calls for McAuliffe to resign after the Democrats lost disastrously in the 2002 midterm elections.
But as McAuliffe's tenure nears its end, the party has an astounding $70 million on hand, revamped mailing lists and grass-roots organizations, a new headquarters on the south side of Capitol Hill and a sense of unity that some have called unrivaled in the party's fractious history. The unity stems largely from common disgust for George W. Bush, but it's also a product of McAuliffe's push to front-load the primary calendar to ensure the early selection of a nominee (and to allow that nominee, Kerry, to focus early on fundraising -- bringing in more than $200 million).
It is also a product of McAuliffe's relentless commitment to "pumping up," "lighting up" and "firing up" everything that comes within his bounding biosphere.
McAuliffe looks morning-fresh at 5:30 Monday in the lobby of the Boston Harbor Hotel, which is home to many of the 28 members of McAuliffe's extended family who are in Boston this week (including his wife, Dorothy, and three of his five children). His navy blue suit is pressed, his donkey-shaped cuff links are shined and his red tie -- embroidered with donkeys -- is straight. His voice is way too rollicking for this hour ("ARE YOU EXCITED?!" he asks his bleary-eyed press secretary, Elizabeth Alexander). He has never taken a nap in his life and admonishes staffers for yawning. His personal motto is, "You can sleep when you're dead."
A little bit after 6 a.m., McAuliffe is walking through a commuter rail station in the basement of the FleetCenter that's been transformed this week by large rows of tables for live radio broadcasts. One of the oddities of this space -- besides the sight of blabmeisters working under TV screens listing train arrivals and departures -- is that pigeons keep getting inside through large glass doors. Pigeons keep whizzing past McAuliffe's big head of hair as he darts past radio hosts and producers bidding at him like commodities traders ("How about two minutes for us, Terry?"), past yet another of the greatest senators ever (Carl Levin of Michigan), a greatest civil rights leader (Jesse Jackson), a greatest anchor (Dan Rather) and a greatest Fox talking head (Tony Snow).
McAuliffe sits for four or five radio hits of about three or four minutes each. They blend into a disjointed, early-morning hum of sound bites (John Kerry . . . lifetime commitment to service . . . Vietnam . . . Swift boat . . . party has never been more unified . . . ahead in the polls . . . most important election of our lifetimes . . . get this country moving again . . . send George W. Bush back to Crawford, Texas). As he bolts radio row en route to an interview with MSNBC at Faneuil Hall, McAuliffe stops to hug the greatest former campaign manager for Al Gore (Donna Brazile) and poses with her for a picture. A pigeon flies past, missing their heads by about two feet.
A bit later, as McAuliffe waits next to the MSNBC set at Faneuil Hall, a producer walks up to Elizabeth Alexander, who is standing next to McAuliffe.
"Are you Terry?"
"No, I'm Elizabeth, this is Terry."
McAuliffe shakes the producer's hand. He then turns to a group of locals and tourists who have gathered around the set to watch.
"Are all of you gonna light it up for John Kerry or what?!" McAuliffe asks them.
No one answers.
The day proceeds in a cinematic blur, a recurring sensation -- the blur -- to all who inhabit Macker-land for extended periods. He tells delegates he meets from New Jersey and Delaware and Missouri that he loves their states, that they are his favorites, in a 50-way tie for first. He will jump out of his SUV in the middle of traffic and yell, "Hey, how's New Hampshire?" to a man he recognizes across the street, Bob Baines, the mayor of Manchester.
"Frank Lautenberg, you're the greatest senator in U.S. history," McAuliffe says, hugging the New Jersey senator in the lobby of the Sheraton. "And thanks for that nice check."
McAuliffe will resist a constant pelting of people asking him for credentials ("This one guy asked me for 25 credentials"), which is why this is the one week out of the year that McAuliffe is not carrying his BlackBerry.
At 4 p.m., just after McAuliffe officially calls the convention to order, he is seen dancing on the podium, looking up at a video screen that's playing a pulsating tribute to none other than Terry McAuliffe.
Later, backstage, McAuliffe tells the woman who steams the wrinkles out of his suit that she is, indeed, "the greatest steamer ever." He will thank Jimmy Carter for "really lighting it up" with his speech, and he will hug Bill Clinton and whisper something in his ear that might be the only thing McAuliffe says today that is inaudible to anyone within 20 feet of him.
When the program ends just after 11, McAuliffe hits a mad rush of receptions and parties. At one -- a Time Warner-sponsored tribute to Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill -- at the Ritz-Carlton -- McAuliffe runs into Paul Kirk, one of his predecessors as DNC chairman.
"This is the greatest chairman in the history of the Democratic Party," McAuliffe says, patting Kirk on both shoulders.
"You mean, Terry, the greatest chairman you've ever met tonight at the Ritz-Carlton, right?"
McAuliffe grins and mentions that earlier in the evening he saw another former chairman, Don Fowler.
"Gee, Terry," Kirk says. "I bet I know what you told him."
When a reporter who had been following him all day asks McAuliffe if he can beg off from the last late-late night events and go to bed -- at 1:15 a.m. -- McAuliffe smirks and shakes his head and expounds on the reporter's lameness.
And McAuliffe, of course, will remain at the party -- for young Democratic activists -- at a downtown nightclub. When last seen, he will be dancing on a bar with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up, screaming to the sweaty throng of young Dems that they are really, really, really lighting things up. There is no better way to end the best day in the history of political conventions.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company