Whose Party Is It Anyway; Buyer Beware

Original Publication Date
Author of Book
Terry McAuliffe, with Steve Kettmann
Author of Review
Carol White

What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, And Other Wild Animals by Terry McAuliffe, with Steve Kettmann (New York, Thomas Dunne Books; St. Martin's Press 2007)

On the cover of the book, McAuliffe makes a claim to readers:

"If you're in the market for a cautious, impartial, under-stated, pedantic --and boring! look at American politics, put this book down right now".I've been passionate about politics and the Democratic Party my whole life, from the time I was a boy in Syracuse, New York, and I've always taken the view that if you are going to get in the arena and fight for what you believe, you might as well have fun doing it. You've got to keep people laughing, even when you're also hoping to make them think --and to inspire them to action. I've done my best to present all the stories in this book in as accurate a light as possible. These are serious topics to me. But I've also got to tell you: I am an Irish story teller"."

He definitely keeps his promise and his book is definitely a good read. But none of this is what the book is really about.

Like the purloined letter in Edgar Allen Poe's famous tale, which is overlooked by searchers because it is hidden in plain sight, McAuliffe gives us a hundred reasons to read the book, but never mentions what is crucial. He is presently chairman of the Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign committee. What a Party! should be seen in that light. 

His theme is simple really: Hillary is Bill Clinton take two. The only way to straighten out the mess this country is now in, is to put the Clintons back in the White House. 

He never says this straight out. In fact, the book ends with the Democratic sweep in the November 2006 midterm elections. Instead, throughout the book he makes a series of comparisons between the U.S. today and the glory days from 1992 to 2000 when Bill was president.

Open the book and you will be taken to meetings with top contributors and party bigwigs. You will be led into their homes and onto the golf course. And you will be gaining insight into the process of how the big bucks are raised by top fundraisers like McAuliffe.

Nuggets like the following abound: when you are fundraising, never, ever refuse a drink. As long as the target and the fundraiser do not get incapacitated, this is the best way to loosen things up, and it’s a great way to have a party at the same time.

He described how in a meeting with Skip Hayward, the chairman of the Connecticut based Mashantucket Pequot Indian tribe, he raised a million dollars.

[The Pequot Indian tribe] operated Foxwoods Casino and were raking in the money, reportedly a million bucks a day, so I thought they could write us a check for half a million. Laura [his assistant] and I flew up to meet Skip and he sent out a high white limo to meet us on the tarmac, and I think it was even longer than the private plane the Pequots had sent to fly us up from Washington. ... He offered Laura and me drinks, and that was just fine with me. One thing I always teach young fund-raisers is: Never say no when someone offers you a drink. [Just] don't let them drink so much that they later forget their commitment.

McAuliffe describes how he rose from a small town boy -- he comes from Syracuse, N.Y. -- to the highest echelons of the Democratic Party, including chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 2000 to 2004; and how in the process, he became a close friend of both Hillary and Bill Clinton. Time and again there are references to how he and his wife spent holidays with the Clintons; how over time he became not only President Clinton’s top fundraiser but a policy adviser as well.

We see candid shots of Clinton and McAuliffe competing on the golf course and numerous all-night card games, Hillary in the pond playing Mermaid with McAuliffe's young daughter. And even how, after the Newt Gingrich congressional coup, it was Terry who rescued Bill from the depths of despondency.

McAuliffe quotes Hillary Clinton on the subject. "Bill and Terry have a great relationship, and they have a real friendship. It's almost like a classical friendship," he reports her saying.

Don't get me wrong; the book is by no means primarily about fun and games; nor about McAuliffe's rise to the up reaches of power-brokering in the Democratic Party. The book begins with McAuliffe's contention that John Kerry refused to take his advice on how to run his campaign and consistently pulled his punches.

McAuliffe claims that Kerry's campaign censored his speech to the 2004 Democratic convention and muzzled his supporters throughout the campaign. But, he mainly attributes the Democratic election defeats in 2002 and 2004 to the fact that Bush held the trump card -- the threat of terrorism. He faults Gore, four years earlier, for distancing himself from Clinton, even though Gore won the popular vote and despite the fact that most people believe that the Republicans stole election.

McAuliffe is at his best when he takes aim at the Bush Administration. He makes the irrefutable case of their criminal irresponsibility and ineptitude. No one reading this book should doubt that this country needs a Democratic victory in 2008.

McAuliffe also gives a spirited account of his putative achievements as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Key among these is the major project of building a new headquarters -- something according to his account, he forced through against considerable opposition.

He also describes himself, questionably in my opinion, as the voice for unity in the party and thus introduces the second important theme in the book: Where does the future of the Democratic Party lie? Will the Party continue to be controlled by the group of which McAuliffe is a leading member, or will it regain its historic connection with its grass roots base?

At present there is an important debate going on about how the Democratic Party will shape America's future. Whether it will follow the path laid out by Bill Clinton or look further back to its New Deal roots. I believe that McAuliffe's book is a useful insight into the direction that McAuliffe and his associates want to take the Party.

After I finished reading What a Party!, I re-read Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga’s presentation of the other side of the debate in their important 2006 book, Crashing the Gate, Netroots, Grassroots, and the Rise of People-Powered Politics that was favorably reviewed on this website by Aaron Barlow. I recommend their book as a necessary corrective to McAuliffe's one-sided account of the 2006 election victory, and his implicit justification of the Democratic Party establishment.

McAuliffe does not mention the role of the web in helping to foster a new mass movement and raising significant amount of money to support Democratic candidates, in any of the 400 pages of his book. Nor does he describe the strong-armed methods the establishment uses to keep control of the Party.

To learn about these classic tactics, it is useful read Armstrong and Zuniga's account about how the Kerry and Gephardt campaigns joined forces right before the Iowa Caucus to trash then front-runner Howard Dean. They ran a series of advertisements in Iowa (that foreshadowed the infamous Republican speed boat ads that ironically undermined Kerry), juxtaposing pictures of Dean's face with that of Osama bin Laden.

Read the book by all means, but Buyer Beware!

ePluribus Contributors: aaron barlow, vivian, cho, standingup, roxy