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Life of the party: McAuliffe and the Democrats

In his new memoir, the Democratic strategist recounts his political successes and powerful friendships. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

For more than 25 years, Terry McAuliffe has been at the epicenter of American politics. He is the most successful fundraiser in political history, and has established himself as a heavyweight Democratic strategist and leader. “What a Party!” is a look at his life, from wrestling an alligator to running the Democratic National Committee to his friendship with President Clinton. Here's an excerpt:

Chapter OneI remember walking home from Bellevue Country Club in Syracuse late one afternoon when I was fourteen years old, and with each step I was more depressed. I had just spent five hours caddying, lugging two heavy golf bags up and down hills for a grand total of eight bucks. I didn’t mind the work. I’ve never minded the work. No, what had me distraught was the math. No matter how I turned it around in my head, it was clear I had already thrown my life away. I was going to have to face the cold, hard truth that I was a failure. What else could I call myself? There I was wasting my time, working for a measly two bucks an hour. I was never going to put any capital together at that rate!

“I’ve got to start my own business,” I announced to myself as I walked the mile home from the golf course.

I was aware there were certain obstacles to starting a business at age fourteen. I could not open my own legal practice just yet, most likely, and I probably couldn’t sell insurance either. I kept asking myself: What would people hire a young kid to do? One answer was house painting, but that just wasn’t me. I’d leave that to other guys my age. Then, as I turned onto Dundee Road toward home, I saw an older guy in front of his house sealing his driveway. He was all sweaty and irritated-looking, but he was stuck out there. The winters in Syracuse are so brutal that everyone has to seal their driveways often by putting down a layer of hot tar emulsion liquid, which is dirty, nasty work.

“You know what?” I said out loud, walking faster now. “They’ll hire a kid to do that. Nobody wants to do it himself and get that hot black tar all over you.”

I didn’t waste any time acting on my idea. I hurried home and typed up a letter announcing my new McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance business to all our neighbors. The next morning I handed those out all over the neighborhood, and by the end of that first day I had six jobs.

“Mom, can we go to Kmart?” I shouted across the house. “I’ve got to buy five-gallon buckets of tar!”

If you’ve never sealed a driveway, let me tell you, there’s not much to it. You take a broom and sweep away any dust or debris, then dump the hot tar onto the driveway and smooth it out with a squeegee. I had a little red wagon to wheel the bucket of tar from job to job. I hired friends to help me and mulled over my biggest problem — tar. It didn’t make sense to keep buying five-gallon containers at Kmart. The next step was Agway, a huge agricultural collective where I could buy fifty-gallon drums of concentrated tar. You had to dilute it, four gallons of water for every gallon of tar, so it went four times as far and you could increase your profit fourfold. The trouble was, those fifty-gallon drums were huge — and heavy. I was going to have to come up with a way to transport them.

“Hi, Uncle Billy,” I said over the phone. “Listen, I need help.”

Billy Byrne, my uncle, ran Byrne Dairy.

“I’ve got to start buying wholesale,” I told him. “This retail is killing me. I need to move a lot more tar around. Do you have any old dairy trucks? Can I buy one?”

Uncle Billy was having a hard time keeping up with all this.

“Well, we’ve got that truck graveyard out there in Cicero,” he said. “We’ll talk about it and see what you want.”

Billy said to call him back later, but I couldn’t wait. My buddy Joey Hartnett drove me up old Highway 11 to Cicero, just north of Syracuse, and we found Uncle Billy’s fleet of more than fifty old Byrne Dairy milk trucks all lined up and rusting with the keys in them. I had come prepared: I had a battery, a can of gas, spark plugs, and quarts of oil. We found a truck we liked and I put in a battery, replaced the spark plugs, added oil, and emptied some gas into its old tank.

“Keep your fingers crossed, Joey,” I said.

I turned the key and the old dairy truck actually started. To this day I can still hear the rumbling of that big old engine and feel the hum of that big steering wheel vibrating in my hands. Man, the excitement was unbelievable. I was in business! This was the start of everything for me. The next morning, when my parents woke up, they saw that old Byrne Dairy milk truck sitting out front in the driveway. They were almost as surprised as my uncle was when I called him later that morning.

“I found a truck I liked,” I said.

“We’ll talk about it, Terry,” he said. “Why don’t you come down next week?”

“Uncle Billy, you don’t understand,” I told him. “I have the truck here at the house.”

He was speechless. It had never dawned on him that I would head out to the lot on my own. There were liability issues, title issues — all kinds of things to think about. I just blew through all that. Uncle Billy was taken aback, but I think he respected that I was a young hustler. I got the title and license plates and we found some old brown house paint to slap on the truck. We put lettering on there, too, so anyone who saw us coming would know we were mcauliffe driveway maintenance.

Eventually I decided driveways were not enough.

“Excuse me, I’m here to see Mr. Higgins,” I told the secretary at the Syracuse Savings Bank.

Tom Higgins was the president of the bank, and his parking lots were in bad shape.

“I’m sorry, Mr. ... ?” the secretary asked me, trying not to laugh. “Do you have an appointment?”

I was sixteen years old, a skinny kid wearing one of my older brother’s hand-me-down dress shirts with a big, ridiculous tie.

“No, I don’t,” I said. “I need to see him. This is very important. This is life or death for his business.”

I was so serious, the secretary finally did laugh — and then she ushered me in to see the bank president.

“Mr. Higgins, let me tell you something,” I said, not wasting any time. “You’re a prominent businessman in this city. I want to show you what your business looks like.”

He was ready to shoo me out of there in nothing flat, but I’d brought one of those cheesy photo albums with me and I think I’d piqued his curiosity. I’d prepared a nice portfolio of the potholes, cracks, and ruts in his parking lots.

“This reflects on your company, sir,” I told Mr. Higgins as he flipped through the pictures.

Then he got to the second half and saw all the shots of smooth, dark, picture-perfect parking lots.

“This is what’s happening with other banks,” I told Mr. Higgins. “They are better looking. Your competitors are gaining a competitive edge against you.”

I got the job. We repaved all the Syracuse Savings Bank parking lots. Then I went after fire stations and we started repaving them, too. The business just kept growing. Our phone at home rang at all hours, with people wanting their driveways sealed.

“McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance,” my mother would say every time she answered our phone, like she was in an office.

One time my mother, Millie, was riding along with me in the passenger’s seat when the rotted floor of the truck gave out and all four legs of her chair poked through and scraped the road as we drove along. You should have seen the look on Millie’s face as she bounced up and down driving along the highway! Another time the old clutch gave out coming up a steep hill and I hit the brake, which sent the rear doors of the truck flying open. A freshly loaded fifty-gallon drum bounced out the back and accelerated downhill fast, flinging superthick black tar all over the place.

“I’ve got a big crisis,” I told my dad from the first pay phone I could find.

He heard me out, and then surprised me.

“Terry, it’s your business,” he said. “You get all the profits. That means you deal with any issues that come up. Like this.”

I couldn’t believe how much thick, gooey tar was oozing down the hill. I put down cones to block off traffic, whipped out my trusty squeegee and spent a couple hours smoothing out the tar across the street and getting as much of the excess into the sewer as I could. It was miserable work, but every time I drove past that street I could smile to myself at how good it looked and get a reminder that when you start your own business, you have to clean up your own messes. No one else can do that for you.

My sister-in-law Patty, Tommy’s wife, still laughs at the first impression I made on her. I took some of the money I made with McAuliffe Driveway Maintenance and invested in a snowblower and started my winter business. I would get up at four o’clock in the morning during the darkest, coldest days of winter and blow snow off driveways and sidewalks. I’d usually get paid with single dollar bills, which I’d jam into my pockets, and by the time I got home they would be a wet, crumpled mess. I would have been embarrassed to show up at my new bank, Syracuse Savings, to deposit money looking that bad. So instead I ironed each and every bill, spraying on a little starch for good measure. By the time I was done, those bills looked like they had just been wheeled out of the U.S. Treasury’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The first time Patty met me, I was in the middle of ironing a big load of dollar bills and she just burst out laughing.

I always loved selling. The year I turned twelve I got a great idea for Valentine’s Day. I went to see my mother at Quinlan’s Florist, where she worked as a salesperson, and arranged to buy a thousand red roses at wholesale. Then, through my Dad, I was able to set up in the lobby of the big MONY office building, and spent the day selling single red roses for five bucks apiece. By the end of the day I’d sold all one thousand, bringing in five thousand dollars for flowers that had cost me a few hundred. That worked out so well that on St. Patrick’s Day I did the same thing with green carnations.

If it involved talking, I usually did just fine. For the life of me I can’t tell you how I talked my way into a job emceeing the summer concert series they had in Syracuse’s parks, but it was one of the greatest gigs ever. The city parks department paid me for forty hours a week, even though it was only an hour or two per evening. They didn’t seem to mind that I was not what you would call a musical expert — I have never so much as picked up a musical instrument, and I know as little about music as anybody you’ll ever meet.

One time in the late 1980s, I was at a dinner party at Pamela Harriman’s Georgetown house, standing there in the living room with Illinois senator Paul Simon — the one with the bow tie — talking about his run for President. Pamela came over and said she wanted to introduce me to someone, so I followed her across the room.

“Terry, I want to introduce you to Paul Simon,” Pamela announced.

I thought she might be yanking my chain.

“Great, great,” I said, shaking the man’s hand, acting just as thrilled as can be that I was finally meeting him, whoever he was.

“Are you Senator Simon’s son?” I asked.

He did a double take to see if I was messing with him, but could see I wasn’t.

“No, not at all,” he said.

We both stood there looking around the room. He seemed friendly enough, so I kept the conversation going.

“Well, what do you do?” I asked him.

“I’m a singer,” he said.

“Really, a singer? Have you ever had a hit?”

“Have you heard of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Simon and Garfunkel?”

“Oh yeah,” I said. “My wife loves their stuff.”

“Well, that’s me,” he said. “I’m Paul Simon.”

That was how much I knew about music. For years my executive assistant, Justin Paschal, and my staff at the DNC tried to make me somewhat musically literate, arranging meetings for me with P. Diddy, Beyonce, and the Black Eyed Peas, but eventually Justin and the others just gave up. I never had any idea who they were talking about. I’m still like that. But back in Syracuse, emceeing those evening concerts, I didn’t need to know much, just enough to step up to the mike at the portable bandstand and read from the list of big band classics they gave me, like Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” The crowd was mostly blue-haired older ladies, and I loved to dance with the older gals. I’ve been told my singing sounds like a sick dog howling, but I was the Lawrence Welk of Syracuse.

I always planned on getting my law degree and becoming a businessman, but my father was so passionate about politics, it rubbed off on me. He and I talked about politics from the time I was just a little squirt tagging along to local political events with him. My father, Jack, gave me a unique perspective on politics that has always stuck with me. He was treasurer of the Onondaga County Democratic Party for more than ten years and taught me about fund-raising from an early age. If you want to organize, if you want to put posters up all over town, you have to first raise the money to pay for it. Jack taught me young that money in politics was neither evil nor good: Money in politics was like gas in the tank, it was what you needed to get where you were going. If you had big plans to help people and to make a difference, you needed money to organize and to get people excited about your message.

Excerpted from “What a Party! My Life Among Democrats: Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators and Other Wild Animals,” by Terry McAuliffe with Steve Kettmann. Copyright © 2007 Terry McAuliffe with Steve Kettmann. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.