DARK ARTS

05.07.13

In Virginia, Terry McAuliffe’s Memoir Comes Back to Haunt Him

The Virginia gubernatorial candidate almost missed the birth of one daughter to attend a bold-faced D.C. party—according to his own memoir. David Freedlander reports on his self-Borking book.

In the dark arts of political campaigns known as oppo research, the most basic tools of the trade include campaign finance reports, arrest records, lawsuits, old newspaper clips.

In Virginia, though, it seems as if all it takes to embarrass the opposing campaign is a working library card.

Over the past week, Republican operatives have been barely able to contain their glee as they email out select passages from What a Party!: My Life Among Democrats, Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, And Other Wild Animals, the memoir by Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, top fundraiser and ally of Bill and Hillary Clinton, and now the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia.

Among the revelations—if “revelations” is even the proper word for something readily available on Google Books —McAuliffe offers about himself is that he almost missed the birth of his daughter to attend a bold-faced-name party in honor of then Washington Post gossip columnist (and current Daily Beast editor at large) Lloyd Grove; that in another instance he left his wife and their newborn son in the car on the way back from the hospital so that he could he attend a Democratic Party fundraiser; and that he was kicked out of the delivery room for another son because he was getting too loud with the anesthesiologist over President Clinton’s health-care reform plan

On Wednesday, a Republican operative passed along yet another doozy, this one from a collection by the late Vanity Fair writer Marjorie Wiliams. In it, McAuliffe tells Williams, whom he considered a friend, that his wife doesn’t know how much money the couple has. “She’s got a great life. Listen, her credit cards are paid and all that. She knows I do very well. But she has no idea. Myself and my accountants are the only people who know.’”

“It’s his self-Borking book,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, referring to the former nominee to the Supreme Court whose nomination was scuttled after writings of his came to light. “He wrote it himself so it’s hard to blame anybody for that, but wasn’t there a political adviser around to read the damn thing and say, ‘Hey, you might want to take that out’?”

McAuliffe published What a Party! in 2007, back when he was practically professionally known as a “Friend of Bill,” and thought of as a likely cabinet appointee or ambassador in a future Hillary Clinton administration. At the time, the book was well received as the lively account of a Democratic loyalist who seemed to be willing to do anything to help the party, even as it was mocked for McAuliffe’s penchant for name-dropping—Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Tony Blair, Sophia Loren, Julio Iglesias, Lenny Kravitz all come up for mention, as do, with much frequency, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

McAuliffe hasn’t walked away from What A Party! When he first ran for governor in 2009, he had his campaign staff carry around boxes of the book around the state in order to introduce the candidate to voters.

Mo Elleithee, a top Democratic strategist who worked on that campaign, recalled listening to the book on his iPod while he worked out, and stressed that the book should not be read as the totality of McAuliffe’s career, but rather as a series of vignettes from an aspect of his life that was meant to show Democratic Party activists what their chairman was  doing for them.

“There were some moments when I would roll my eyes and say, ‘This is clearly not written by someone who is planning to run for office, but these are hilarious, hyperbolic stories. It did occur to me that we were going to have to show people the real Terry McAuliffe.”

“He wrote it himself so it’s hard to blame anybody for that, but wasn’t there a political adviser around to read the damn thing and say, ‘Hey, you might want to take that out’?”

If Republicans wanted to talk books, Elleithee said, the McAuliffe campaign should be happy to oblige.  That’s because the Republican candidate in the race, attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, had his own troubles vis á vis the publishing industry, and his may be even harder to explain away. In The Last Line of Defense: The New Fight for American Liberty, released earlier their year, Cuccinelli calls the Obama administration “the biggest set of lawbreakers in America,” and says that social safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security are part of a scheme by politicians to increase their own power.

“If you compare the two guys’ books, I would much rather be an operative selling the McAuliffe book than one selling the Cuccinelli book,” said Elleithee, who is not working on McAuliffe’s campaign this year. “The Cuccinelli book is devastating in Virginia. Absolutely devastating.”

While the McAuliffe excerpts have been churned over in the blogosphere and on Twitter, so far they do not seem to be penetrating the campaign in Virginia. The Daily Beast couldn’t find a single mention of them in any of the Commonwealth’s major newspapers, and McAuliffe campaign hasn’t yet felt the need to trot out the candidate’s wife to vouch for his bedside manner (they have five children, so there surely must be more positive material out there).

The concerted close read of the memoir does speak though to the rise of SuperPACS and other outside spending groups. The national Republican Party released a web ad mocking McAuliffe’s book, but the Cuccinelli campaign has avoided the topic.

Asked for reaction to the excerpts that have recently come to light, a Cuccinelli spokesperson declined to comment.

“We are focused on jobs, the economy, and creating opportunity for Virginians.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Mo Elleithee as saying he'd "rather be an operative selling the Cuccinelli book." It has since been updated.