As I said six months ago, I try not to read books by people who are still active in politics because they tend to be too self-serving. I much prefer to read memoirs by people who have completed their political careers and thus aren’t running for anything else or looking for the next campaign to run.
The exception that proves the rule is the new book, “What a Party,” by former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe. He clearly is not through with politics (Ambassador to the Court of St. James if Sen. Hillary Clinton is elected president?), but the book is worth reading anyway.
At various times during the past 27 years, McAuliffe has served as a key fundraiser for President Jimmy Carter, former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, President Bill Clinton and the national Democratic Party. He currently is beating the drums for Hillary in her 2008 presidential campaign.
I have known Terry throughout his career in politics and have liked him and respected his work ethic. We haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on priorities but our differences have been relatively minor. His book is a delight.
What sets this book apart from many other political works is (1) it truly captures the personality of the author (politicians often try not to reveal their inner selves), (2) it is an accurate and unbiased (though often incomplete) view of some key times in recent Democratic Party history and (3) it told me things I didn’t know about Terry’s early history which actually explain a lot about why he is such a successful fundraiser.
In short, Terry has been a hustler (in the best sense of the word) since he was a kid growing up in Syracuse, N.Y. The tales of his early business ventures as a teen-ager explain quite a bit about why he has succeeded in political fundraising. Also, he is a soul mate of anyone who has ever succeeded in the rough and tumble world of raising money for candidates. People used to criticize me for being too much of a pest when soliciting campaign cash. I couldn’t hold a candle to Terry in that regard.
I never would have had the nerve to agree to a three-minute wrestling match with an alligator to get a big check from a donor like Terry did.
Terry’s visceral commitment to the Democratic Party (learned at the knee of his father, a local Democratic operative in New York state) and his loyalty to the people he worked for are traits not everyone in politics these days shares. Both of these aspects come shining through in the book.
No book is perfect and, as Terry readily admits, he worked to make himself look good. I’m willing to forgive his sunny approach because the stories he tells are so entertaining. I went to a book party for Terry recently in Washington, D.C., and it is clear there are a lot of people in this town who feel the same way about him. The place was mobbed.
There were some exaggerations and omissions in the book which I will note in passing. First, Terry continues to state that, as DNC Chair, he committed $10 million to redistricting in 2001 and 2002. I headed the Congressional redistricting effort and we received about $3 million from the DNC. I don’t know where the rest went but the $3 million we did get was considerably more than any previous Democratic Party leader had ever invested in this subject.
Secondly, he is largely silent about the Monica Lewinsky affair. He did note the discord that it created in the Clintons’ marriage but he didn’t pass judgment or dwell on that sad chapter in Bill Clinton’s presidency. In this regard, he remained loyal to both Clintons.
Third, it would have been interesting to read more about what went wrong with the John Kerry presidential campaign which occurred while he was DNC Chair. Terry made it clear he had real differences with the way the campaign was conducted but he left the reader wanting more details as he did on other occasions during the book.
Terry’s greatest legacy is the work he undertook to bring the national Democratic Party into the 21st century. He raised the money necessary to rebuild and modernize the national party headquarters. He was particularly successful in making certain that the Democratic Party had the technology necessary to match the Republicans in grass roots organizing. If Terry McAuliffe does nothing else in his political career, he should be remembered as the person who brought Democrats out of the dark ages.
The book that first interested me in politics was Theodore White’s “Making of the President 1960” about the successful presidential campaign of John F. Kennedy. Terry McAuliffe’s new book, “What a Party” is not in that league. It is, however, a fun read for anyone who wants to better understand American politics in the last part of the 20th century and who wants to be entertained by an Irishman full of the blarney and rich political experience.
Martin Frost served in Congress from 1979 to 2005, representing a diverse district in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He served two terms as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the third-ranking leadership position for House Democrats, and two terms as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Frost serves as a regular contributor to FOX News Channel and is a partner at the law firm of Polsinelli, Shalton, Flanigan and Suelthaus. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri and a law degree from the Georgetown Law Center.