Presidential Oral Histories

Peter Knight Oral History, Deputy Director for the Presidential Transition; Chairman of Clinton-Gore 1996 Reelection Committee

About this Interview

Peter Knight reflects on entering political life, 1992 presidential transition, campaign fundraising, and the 1996 campaign.

Presidential Oral Histories |

Peter Knight Oral History, Deputy Director for the Presidential Transition; Chairman of Clinton-Gore 1996 Reelection Committee

Transcript

Riley

This is the Peter Knight interview as a part of the Clinton Presidential History Project. We appreciate the invitation to come up and be with you in New York. Before recording began, we talked about the ground rules, the basic one being confidentiality. Most of what we want to do today is get a portrait of Al Gore as you knew him throughout the course of his political career, but particularly in the important campaign episodes with which you were involved, the four successive campaigns in which you had an important role, and also the period during the Clinton Presidency.

We’d like to start by going back a little bit to get a sense about your earliest associations with Al Gore, and thinking as we trace through this about his own development as a public figure. We want to know what you were seeing as somebody who was emerging from being a member of the U.S. House of Representatives to somebody who was a prominent player on the national stage. 

Mike and I were talking before we came inwe took a seat over at Bryant Park for a few minutesand he was wondering how you first became interested and involved in politics, you yourself? 

Knight

I actually gave a lecture on this very topic at Cornell recently; they asked me to look back on 30 years of a career in politics. I pinpointed somewhat the fact that my father was tangentially involved in putting up signs as a Republican. 

Riley

Where was this?

Knight

In Massachusetts. I had a number of friends who were interested in politics, but I think it was a series of explorations in my early years of college, and especially, ironically, a lecture that Ralph Nader gave at the University of Massachusetts. I can remember that lecture awoke in me a spirit of public service and the idea of giving back and fighting the good fight. That was consistent with what I had gone through as a Massachusetts native with both President [John F.] Kennedy and, to a slightly lesser extent, Robert Kennedy. Massachusetts politics was in my blood.

So I formed the view that I should go down [to Washington, D.C.] and get an internship, which is where it really started.

Riley

You were at Cornell?

Knight

I was at Cornell.

Riley

But the lecture you said was— 

Knight

Yes, I just happened to be on the campus at the University of Massachusetts. I just thought it was so ironic that, in essence, Ralph Nader stopped Gore’s career later on in life and yet I was inspired by him to get involved. 

Riley

After this tour of your office, I’m sure Nader would be proud of what you’ve done here.

Knight

He and I don’t speak. [laughter]

Riley

Enough said on that point.

Knight

So I was at Cornell. I actually went to the career center at Cornell, when I was a junior, and said that I wanted to be an intern in Washington. They said, Well, you can’t. I said, What do you mean I can’t?They said, Who do you know? I said, I don’t know anybody. They said, You can’t be one. So I said, Humph.

I went down to Washington four times in my little VW [Volkswagen] bug. I went to Senator [Edward] Kennedy’s office and Ed Brooke’s office, and I went to see Torbert Macdonald, who was my Congressman, I just kept going down there until they got sick of me. I ended up being offered two internships, not with Senator Kennedy but with Senator Brooke and with Torby Macdonald. At that point I had to decide if I was a Republican or a Democrat. The opportunity with Torbert Macdonald was pretty great so I accepted an internship with him. That was during my junior year.

I was hooked on public service from that point on. I really had focused on that and wanted to come to Washington and express my idealism and commitment to public service. 

Nelson

Right around ’70, ’71?

Knight

Seventy-four actually. I graduated in ’73, traveled for a bit, and then came back. My first job in public service was with the precursor of FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], which was called the Federal Disaster Assistance Administration. It was only a fun job when there was a disaster, and there weren’t that many disasters in the Boston region, and there were none while I was there, thank goodness. But I got a call from a colleague who had been at Cornell, asking if I would be interested in coming down to the Justice Department to work as a researcher in the antitrust division with an economics professor who was the head economist for the IBM [International Business Machines] cases. He was a Cornell professor. I didn’t know him but I knew his deputies, and the deputies asked if I would want to come to be a low-level researcher, which I thought was the coolest thing I could possibly imagine. The IBM suit wasthere were two final suits that were filed by the [Lyndon] Johnson administration, AT&T [American Telephone and Telegraph] and IBM. 

Ironically, AT&T was broken up; it was successful and it went on to thrive. IBM was not successful and did not thrive until about two or three decades later. Actually, they would have been better off—the other irony of history is that the lead counsel for Cravath, Swaine & Moore on the IBM case that I was doing battle with was David Boies. So I got to know David Boies—I didn’t get to know him then because I was this low-level person. 

So anyway, I went to work for the Justice Department and it was thrilling and exciting. The consumer advocate in me was inspired by that speech by Ralph Nader, and consumerism at that point was sort of the linchpin for activism in business and government. I just thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I had a ball. After about three or four months into it, I got a call from Torby Macdonald’s office to see if I would want to come and be their chief of staff. I was about 22 at the time. I had no experience being a chief of staff, but his chief of staff was leaving and they needed someone. Torby was a little old-line and it had to be a guy, and he wanted someone from his district. 

In fact, he was the one who suggested it, because when I was at Cornell I played football. We had a pretty good team actually. So when I was a junior I was going back to play in my senior year. Torby had been the captain of the football team at Harvard and held all the rushing records at Harvard for years. He was President Kennedy’s roommate. Back in those days Kennedy was Torby’s roommate because it was a bigger deal being the captain of the football team than it was being the son of the Ambassador. That switched later on, but back then—Torby was a great athlete, a handsome guy, and very close to President Kennedy obviously. So the bond between us was football. I played defense, he played offense, and we’d talk about that.

Riley

What position, defensive back?

Knight

Defensive back, safety, and I caught punts and so forth. So that was the bond between us. When he was looking around for a new chief of staff, he would be talking to the other folks and he’d say, What about that kid who played football? He didn’t remember my name, he didn’t know where I was. He just liked the kid who played football. So that’s how I got my job. I always look back and say it was because of and in spite of Cornell that I got all my jobs.

Torby thought that I would be perfectly suited even though I had no experience running—actually, what I did not know at that time was that he was quite sick. He fell ill after I was there for about a year and a halfwell, he had been ill for a period of timeand he died. He was quite young. At the ripe old age of 23 or whatever it was, I ran his funeral, which was an awakening experience among a number of other awakening experiences during that time. So I served out the term in Congress. We had to change offices; they put us on the dead men’s floor of the Longworth Building. I don’t know if they still call it that. Rayburn Building is where the senior members are, if you’ve ever been there, but the Longworth Building has a sixth floor, which is the dead men’s floor. They send the staff of every Congressman who dies to that floor for the interim, until they get a new Congressman. Anyway, that was a pretty interesting time. 

I served out the term but was looking around—I hadn’t fulfilled my public service commitment after a year and a half and began looking around for others that I could target to continue to work. I thought it would be a terrific opportunity when the new Congressman came in. So I went to one of the professors who taught at Harvard, you know, the staffers who used to learn—until Newt Gingrich disbanded the programhow to be a Congressman. They used to go for a week, get educated on issues and procedure, and get to know how to comport themselves and so forth. When my friend came back I asked him to give me the list of the four best, and I was going to use that. I need a list to go after. I was going to get a job with these guys.

He said there were four that were standouts by far and that I should start with them and then go down the list. He said there was this guy from Arkansas named Jim Guy Tucker [Jr.] who was spectacular, who actually, by the way, was the star of that class, and was later to be involved in a lot of things that you know more about than I do. But he was named to the Ways and Means Committee, which was a huge deal back then. Wilbur Mills had something to do with it, but he was the star. 

My friend said, There’s this guy from St. Louis named Dick Gephardt; he’s pretty smart. There’s a guy from Monterey, California, named Leon Panetta, and he’s pretty good. But the youngest and maybe the brightest of them all is this guy Al Gore from Tennessee. Gore had just been named to the Commerce Committee and Torby was one of the senior members of the Commerce Committee. I figured I had at least some experience in the Commerce Committee. So I used that as my list and basically walked into Gore’s office and said, I want to be your chief of staff. The woman who was there was kind of taken aback by my brashness and said, Well, we need one. 

I applied for the job, and about two weeks later was hired as his chief of staff. I had a year and a half of experience, now qualified. With Torby, I think I was the youngest chief of staff. I know I was the lowest paid. But with Gore, it turned out it was interesting. He was looking for somebody who had a little bit of experience, but he didn’t want someone who had been there forever. 

It turned out my experience in Massachusetts was extremely helpful to him, because I actually knew everybody on the Massachusetts delegation including, most importantly, the staffs of Tip [Thomas, Jr.] O’Neill, who was the Speaker at the time. I didn’t realize this until much later, but Tip did not like journalists. I can see why now, having had a little bit more experience. He was somewhat distrustful of journalists, and Gore was a journalist. So there was this concern on Gore’s part, not that he didn’t like him, he didn’t really know him. There was this concern and I think that my affiliation to the delegation was attractive, smoothing over, being able to talk to the staff of the Speaker, which included Chris Matthews and all the people, Kirk O’Donnell, Jack [Jacob] Lew, who is now at OMB [Office of Management and Budget], I’m sure you’ve talked to him several times.

Riley

Yes.

Knight

He was a couple of years younger than I was. Anyway, since I knew all those folks, I think that was attractive, and God knows why else. Maybe I was just brash and young. So that’s how I started my career with him. I was the first person that he hired outside of Tennessee. He had three people from Tennessee. I started January 1977. It was a longer story than you might have wanted.

Riley

Oh, but it was interesting.

Nelson

You alluded to awakening experiences and we can’t just leave that alone. Like what? Awakening experiences is a phrase you used, as something you had several of at this time. Did I understand you correctly? 

Riley

Yes, I’m trying to remember in what context. I think it was when you went to work for the Congressman. No, it was the funeral. You said the funeral was an awakening experience among several. 

Knight

One, being so young and having a pivotal role in trying to orchestrate a funeral where the family was all over the place. He had a nontraditional family, shall we say. Then having—but he also had a place in history alongside the Kennedys. I think it’s fair to say there were a number of tragedies around President Kennedy’s assassination. A number of the people who were associated, his close friends, were impacted by it, and Torby was one of them.

So having the sort of Kennedy legacy within that, it was extraordinary. Ted Kennedy, for example, when Torby was dyingand I was there every day at the hospital, at Walter Reedwould come every other day. He knew Torby, but it was because of his brother. There were a number of meaningful lessons that were there. One of them was doing such a high-visibility event at such a young age and not really knowing what I was doing.

Nelson

So what did you do as Gore’s chief of staff? What did the job involve?

Knight

It involved hiring people, overseeing folks, special projects, representing him at meetings, spending some time at the Commerce Committee hearings. He was the chair of what was back then the Communications and Power Subcommittee. It was all of communications and all of energy. It was a big set of jurisdictions. I would go to the hearings and get to know the folks well. Although I didn’t really have a substantive role in the development of the hearings, I played a role in being there with him. 

In the other committees, the other subcommittees, that he was not chair of, I would usually follow the legislative progress of the markups. I would be the one he would talk to on some of those subcommittee issues; we had other legislative staff as well. I was the link with their Boston office, or their district office. So it was the normal chief of staff role.

Nelson

About that time, I knew John Sirica, Jr., who was the Washington correspondent for the Nashville Tennessean, and the Congressman from Nashville then was Bill Boner.

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

He was pretty right wing. Sirica used to talk about Gore as the antithesis of Boner. In this way Gore would focus on a very small number of issues but dig so deeply that he became the person on that issue, even though he was a junior member of the House.

Knight

Yes.

Riley

Was thatfirst of all, do you agree with that assessment? If you do, was that Gore’s temperament? Was that Gore’s strategy of becoming influential? Why did Gore become known as that kind of rare junior Congressman who really knows more than anybody else about certain things because he just goes so deeply?

Knight

Well, yes, that comes into his career. It was really a very exciting time for me because it was sort of the culmination of the opportunity—I’m not sure if my experience was quite there yet. But as staffers on the Hill, what you were looking for was someone who could take any bit of information that you had and help to elevate it to this stage. I mean, that was what we dreamed of doing, to be able to find someone to do some great things, but then to have someone with whom we could be part of a team that would help elevate that. Gore was one of those folks who was just really gifted at that. 

So for us who worked on his team that was a really exciting time. You quickly came to see that this was an unusually bright—I mean, when I went there I was told how smart he was and how committed he was. I didn’t really know it, but I quickly came to understand the depth of his— He had, like President Clinton, very much a photographic memory. He remembered things in ways that were simply amazing. That’s why the two of them together were just extraordinary; they had similar intellects. 

But yes, he was just really, really smart. There wasn’t actually a time when I would brief him where at the end of it he didn’t know more than I did, which was really distressing for a staffer. [laughter] I’m sure he has had staffers since who have been as smart as he is, but I wasn’t. But it was really distressing because he would ask me—I would think I’d brief him on something and I would know more about this particular topic than he would, but he would ask me a question that just set me back, that I hadn’t thought about. 

I think part of it was that he had been to a year of divinity school and he had been to law school. He hadn’t graduated from law school but he had the initial training, a year or a year and a half, and I think he had a journalistic career as well. So he had an ability to dig into issues. He also had the opportunity—and I think that was one of the things that was unique about him. He was named—and wanted to be named, and asked to be namedto the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the [Energy and] Commerce Committee. That was chaired at the time by John Moss, who was legendary in his investigatory capabilities. And the Commerce Committee, which was then chaired by Harley Staggers, had given Moss a significant breadth to look into almost anything that the Commerce Committee did. There were normal jurisdictional squabbles between the subcommittee chairmen and the chairman of the Oversight Committee. He was named to that committee and the Communications Committee, so that’s really where his interest in communications started. 

We probably spent more time on the investigative subcommittee than anything else. It was the perfect opportunity of his intellect because Moss was older, he was a statesman, he had been there for quite a long time. He was a legislator. Gore was this young, brash, intellectually curious guy. The two of them made a very powerful combination because Gore could come in with questions that were really digging. Then Moss could be up above him and say, Well, I think this— and put it into larger context. 

But the staff needed someone to brief and to get up to speed and to ask the searing questions because although they could do it, but it was much better if a member of Congress did it. Back in those days, a lot of the questions were asked by the staff. Now they don’t, but they did back then. So the staff of the Oversight and Investigations Committee thought Gore was like the savior, because together it was very strong team. So when we would dig into issues, he would take all of his experience and just sort of master them. 

Now, it was children’s sleepwear to start with, infant formula, natural gas, pipeline issues, the hazardous waste. We did a huge number of those, two in Tennessee plus one other. We did Love Canal, which later became a cause célèbre in the campaign. But the base of the hazardous waste—actually, Jim Florio was the author of the bill on hazardous waste, Superfund, as we came to know it. The base of that support came from the hearings that were done by Gore. That was, if you will, probably the first set of environmental hearings that he did, although—I should back up. He was also on the Science Committee. He did have some hearings, I think it was in ’78, on climate change. No one remembered the fact that he had done a hearing on climate change and had gotten his professor to talk about CO2 [carbon dioxide] elevation. But he did become known for his work on that. 

Moss loved the fact that this young guy was able to do it. The other interesting thing about his career was that Moss was press-shy and Gore was press-savvy. So when the committee wanted to publicize this outrage in children’s sleepwear, infant formula, these were real serious issues. In some respects they were smaller, but the hazardous waste was just awful. So publicity was something that was important. You wanted to have the facts but you also wanted to publicize the facts and so forth, and Moss was not good at that. He could give a speech and they’d put him up. Not that he wasn’t smart, he just wasn’t— So when they wanted someone to go on Good Morning, America or the morning shows—I mean, now things have changed so dramatically. But the way to promo back then was to put you on the morning shows, and then the reporters would come to the hearing at 10 o’clock, and then hopefully, if you were lucky, you got it on the evening news. That’s kind of how Gore got the reputation as a media star, which was portrayed by some of the elder statesmen as pushing too fast, of him being too much of a publicity hound. 

But it was very much aimed at the desires of promoting the public aspect of these hearings. That’s where a lot of his public persona came from, doing all those hearings. Now, I participated in some of them. Actually, Roy [Neel] was there during that time. I hiredI shouldn’t say I hired Roy; Al told me to hire Roy five months after I was there, which I was very happy to do. Roy and I have been pals ever since, very close. But he started in ’77 as well. He did some amazing things for Al. 

That’s where Sirica got that from, and I think it was absolutely true. He was really smart. He absolutely knew how to needle people and ask the right questions. I think that maybe came from all of his training, from all of the things he did, including the journalistic ones. But he was very gifted at investigative work.

Riley

Did his father’s preceding him on Capitol Hill have any noticeable impact on how people received him there? Were they more familiar with him? You may not have any basis to compare by. Or were there camps of people who had been friendly to his dad and those who hadn’t that he found himself struggling with in any way? Or was it just a matter of one era and nobody—

Knight

No, probably Roy was a better person—I didn’t come from Tennessee so I didn’t follow what happened in the campaign. I obviously came to know a bit. I think what was interesting, I’m not sure when I met Senator [Albert, Sr.] Gore or his mother, but it was a long time. 

Nelson

Before you met?

Knight

Before I met them. He stayed away—he, Senator Gore.

Riley

Had they moved back to Tennessee then, during this interval?

Knight

They were at both places. They had their apartment here.

Riley

In New York or Washington?

Knight

Sorry, here. I spent so much time in Washington.

Riley

That’s why I asked, I wanted to be clear. 

Knight

They were near the Supreme Court, they had an apartment there. They spent most of their time in Tennessee. He was traveling a lot.

Riley

But his point is that he was clearing— 

Knight

It’s anecdotal. I did not meet him for a long period of time. Not that I was avoiding it, I didn’t spend as much time in Tennessee because we had a district administrative assistant who was really very good. So they took care of a lot of the stuff there. But there were a lot of gatherings and birthday parties and kids being born and so forth. I was there for almost all of it, but I didn’t really see Senator Gore and Mrs. Gore, Pauline, until later. I think that was really a function of them letting him do his thing and not wanting to be in his way, I guess, and to let him establish his own persona. Obviously, he had gone through a pretty searing experience and the issues had changed pretty dramatically after that time. I think it was obviously very much on Gore’s mind, but he wanted to make his own way.

Nelson

Was Al Gore more comfortable in Washington or in Tennessee? He obviously reveled in the role of being a Congressman in Washington dealing with national issues, even if they were narrowly defined national issues as a junior member of the House. Clearly he reveled in that. Was he more of a Washington person than Tennessee person?

Knight

I don’t—in a sense, policy was what he loved. But I think he also had learned a lot of the lessons from his father’s campaign.

Nelson

You mean the losing campaign in ’70?

Knight

Yes, and committed himself to being not only a good legislator but being a great Congressman and representing his district. So I think that probably he was comfortable in both. He was very comfortable in Tennessee; should I say more comfortable? If I had to choose, I might even say that.

Nelson

Really?

Knight

And he became even more comfortable over time. One of the things that he did that we were quite proud of was to spend a huge amount of time in the district. We helped to pioneer—I think there were a couple of other members in the 94th members’ class who started it, but we took it to a whole new level with doing open meetings. It was something that was brand new. One other guy in Maine had tried and done fairly well at it, but we took it to a whole new level. It was based on getting to know the district and to have as many open meetings as he possibly could. He actually averagedI may be off slightlyfour or five per week for his entire time while I was there. 

We had a very sophisticated program of making sure that we didn’t duplicate the places. So we were using computers at an early time to try to make sure that we were going to parts of the district that we hadn’t visited, that we were being efficient with our time. We had a list of—by eight years, it was pretty close to 2,000 meetings. It was a lot. There wasn’t anybody who had nearly the number we had. Roy and I used to be visited by people outside, other members of Congress and their staffs, asking, how do you guys do it?

So when Gore would go to Tennessee, he’d do five open meetings a weekend. He would spend a lot of time down there and he got very good at answering questions, getting to know people, and getting to know every single part of the district. I mean, there were 25 counties.

Nelson

Far-flung, rural.

Knight

All rural. This was not Nashville, as you know. Carthage was the big center. I think at the end of it, we’d gone to almost every incorporated and unincorporated town and city, whatever, in the district. 

Nelson

The issues you mentionedmaybe I’m wrong; maybe hazardous waste was a concern in thisbut the issues you mentioned earlier that he focused on were not particularly rural Tennessee issues.

Knight

Right.

Nelson

Unless hazardous waste was; was it by any chance? Were there big dumping grounds in his district?

Knight

Well, two in Tennessee, but they were not in the district. The infant formula issue started with a doctor in Memphis. So a number of these had Tennessee roots but they didn’t necessarily have roots in what he was hearing from the district. In that sense, he was leading and he was explaining. But these were not necessarily issues that were resonating with people. But he didn’t do it for that reason. He was trying to do it for the right reasons, which were that we felt these were wrongs and they needed to be righted. He became known as a fighter. I’ll fight for you.To the extent that there were issues that came up that would have affected the district, then he was there for them. I’m sure there were some. These were national issues, consumer-type issues. I think they were of interest.

It was jobs, it was the economy, it was healthcare, it was Medicare, Medicaid. It was all those kinds of things. He’d go into those open meetings. Sometimes there would be four people, five people, sometimes 30 people. But they would all show up. We would send out—I mean, we had this mailing prerogative— 

Riley

Franking privilege.

Knight

Franking privilege, right. But it always seemed so wasteful to send the franking to the entire district. So we pioneered this way of sending it to subgroups within counties so that people would know that we’re showing up at the post office in Difficult, Tennessee, and hope that you will be there. It was really targeted. When we sent out the open meeting notices, we didn’t send them to the district; they went to that little tiny town. We sent it to the people in that part of the county. So he got to know them on a very personal basis. They trusted him. They knew him, he was one of them. 

When he first started there was—I mean, he ran against eight people and they didn’t know him, and he rectified that really quickly. It was probably some of the legacy of his father’s issues. That was one of the things that his father had lost, which was being in touch and knowing where people were on these issues, or at least that was the knock on it. And that he had become too big for his breeches. Al never forgot that lesson. Even when he was in the Senate, he did the exact same thing.

Riley

I want to push on this a little bit.

Knight

Sure.

Riley

I’m sure this is at the heart of Mike’s question, and that is, if in fact he’s leading on issues that aren’t the bread and butter of the district, he’s got to find some way to give himself the space to do this. One way that I think you’ve suggested is home style with the district, his familiarity with the district. I’m going to go listen to them, they’re going to talk with me, they’re going to get to trust me because they see me and they know I’m a great guy. The other way is that you create space for yourself by voting in a way on the bread-and-butter issues that they respect. Okay, on these issues that they’re really concerned about, I’m going to be reliable for them and that gives me the space. Is there a bit of both in your answer, or were there issues that Gore felt compelled by the character of his district to reel in his kind of progressivism on some of these other issues? 

Knight

I think it was first and foremost him getting a level of respect and trust by the people who were in his district, and by the fact that every year, going to every part of the community, everyone knew that he was there. So he was kind of ubiquitous. He was always in the district and there wasn’t anyone who didn’t have—a lot of them didn’t come out, most of them didn’t come out, but they all knew he was there and they were in his community. 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

So he was open, available, and I think he learned a great deal from that. He also learned tosome of the questions that he couldn’t answer helped him think through these issues. But it did give him the latitude to work on these issues even if they were outside the experience of many in the district. I mean, hazardous waste was not an issue that was on everybody’s mind in Tennessee, but it wasn’t on the mind of anybody because no one knew about it. No one knew that these companies were just dumping hazardous waste. But they were just as outraged. They were really thinking about their jobs and the kitchen table, sitting around. But they were interested in hearing how this guy learned about this stuff and was fighting, fighting the big corporations. So there was a progressivism there that helped to increase his bond with the people in the district and perhaps gave him some latitude on some of the issues that might be a little bit outside of that. 

We may get to it later on, but there were a couple of issues where that appreciation and the closeness with his constituents gave him latitude to explain what he was working on. One of them was the issue of cigarette labeling, on which we spent a fair amount of time, but most importantly was his work on nuclear security issues. Then we can talk more about that, his work on that. I think his relationship, the strength of his intellect, and his political acumen did give him a little bit of leeway on some issues, but I don’t think he was that far outside of the mainstream. He was a pretty moderate guy, maybe a little bit more progressive than some in his district. But, you know, this was middle Tennessee, it was a pretty progressive place. It’s changed pretty dramatically over the last—especially as the suburbs of Nashville have moved out farther and farther. I’m sure Murfreesboro has changed dramatically since I was there. Smyrna, where Roy came from, these were little hollows, or whatever you’d call them back then. But he knew them well and they were proud of this young boy.

Nelson

When did he start positioning himself, planning to run for the Senate?

Riley

Let me intervene with one question, Mike. I’m mindful of the clock too and trying to make sure we don’t lose time that we’ll need later. I wanted to ask one question about your own relationship with the Congressman. You two were pretty close in age. Was there much of a hierarchy in your office? Or is there more of a collegial relationship with Al Gore when he’s a member of Congress at this stage?

Knight

Well, listen, he was in charge and he was the boss. What he said went, but we were friends. Obviously, after this many years we remain quite close. We had a very collegial office. Being in the House, there was always an issue campaign, it was always exciting. It is much different than the Senate in that sense, because the Senate is bigger, it is more corporate. But you’d wake up every day and everybody was going in the same direction. Everybody wanted to help him be the best he possibly could, and we were doing exciting things.

I mean, the fact that you could help him brief for something and he’d go on Good Morning, America—that was so fantastic. You would draw from that, shadow, if you will. So we had a close relationship and it was all going in the same direction because it was really a very fun time. We used to do a lot of things together. We’d have parties at Roy’s house, at his house, at my house, for the staff, so it was a very close-knit group. But, at the end of the day, he called the shots. I don’t remember that many real issues where there were differences of opinion. 

We tried to generate ideas, but he was much better at it than we were. So when he said all right, let’s go—it was a very exciting time when we all were going in the same direction.

Riley

Okay, let’s go to Mike’s question.

Nelson

It’s interesting you used the phrase going places because I’m going to guess that you and Roy and Al Gore, while he’s in the House, are thinking he’s not going to be a man of the House, he’s not going to stick around here long enough to be Speaker; he’s got ambitions that certainly are stable, and if that’s true, even if it’s not true, when did he start positioning himself? What did he start doing to prepare the way for running for U.S. Senate? 

Knight

He didn’t.

Nelson

Really?

Knight

I thinkwell, you’re the historians and you’ll decide, not mebut I don’t think he did. I think he just worked really hard on issues, and he worked on issues that were really concerning him and he dug very deeply into them and let the future take care of itself or not. 

Nelson

Hmm. 

Knight

But I don’t think he positioned himself as this is going to make me better able to run for the Senate because, if you remember during that time, he didn’t really have that many opportunities to run for the Senate. Just anecdotallyagain, this is just my own personal feeling. I had gone to law school while I worked for him. There were two of us who went to law school at night. He was very generous with his time, even as hardworking as we all were. There was another fellow, his legislative director at the time; then Roy took that position and I went to law school.

When I got out of law school I stayed for another year and then I thought, I’ve been working on the Hill for ten years, I should probably go out and practice law. So I began to look at jobs in law firms in Washington and in Portland, Maine, for other reasons. Just as I was about to take an offer—I had several offers and was mulling over offersSenator [Howard] Baker decided to leave. So I said, Al, I’m interviewing with law firms. He said, Nah, I think you ought to stick around because I’m going to run for the Senate. I said, Oh, that sounds pretty cool, being a chief of staff for a Senator; that would be a new experience. So my plan was to leave. It was time for someone else after eight years, ten years. It was time for me to go out and get some other experience. So we weren’t planning—at least I wasn’t planning on it. Maybe he knew deep down what Baker was going to do, but I don’t think so.

Nelson

No, you’re right. He wouldn’t have run against Baker, he wouldn’t have run against [James] Sasser. So you’re right. There was a traffic jam there.

Knight

And he wasn’t a Governor, he wasn’t going to run for Governor, he liked national issues. So he was convinced that being the best Congressman he could possibly be put him in the best light. Now, did he take advantage of some opportunities in the House to expand his base? In one way you could say getting on the Intelligence Committee and working on the Midgetman [missile] and the MX was that. However, that experience, I truly believe, came from the district and his decision to be on that, to come on that committee. 

Just to recount the story, it was when he was in the open meetings that there was a lot of talk of the nuclear first strikes, and the saber-rattling was very—it was the time of nuclear freeze, a lot of liberal talk. It was just a difficult time. It wasn’t the same time as we have now, but there was a lot of fear. So during the open meetings that he would go to, he would talk about nuclear issues. He didn’t study them carefully but he gave the pat answers to it. 

Then he became terribly frustrated with the answers that he was given because it wasn’t enough. He did have—I remember, because he came and told us about itthis dream of his kids asking him, is this nuclear war? Do we really have to worry about it, and he saw a bomb just about to explode, and a series of tools next to him that—but he couldn’t reach the tools to go and save his kids. So that was a reflection of all the questions that he was getting that he didn’t feel he was able to answer. He said that it was terribly unsatisfying for him, and at that point asked, I think it was TipEddie Boland was the Chairman of the Intelligence Committeehe went to him and said I’ve been here six, seven years, I’d like to be on the Intelligence Committee. He said, I want to make a contribution to the strategic doctrine. It was an outrageous thing to suggest that you could be a player in that field. But that’s what he did. 

Was he thinking, If I do this I could be Senator? I really totally believe that he felt that this was the most important issue, that he could be—and there were issues like that. Environment is very much—he’s very passionate about the things that he was doing. When there was a difficulty in answering the questions of his constituents, plus the virtuality of that dream and his kids, that this was one of the issues that really appealed to him. It was very complicated, very esoteric. But his constituents gave him the latitude to work on it, not necessarily because they were—they were concerned but they didn’t necessarily send him to Washington for that, but they knew him and they trusted him and they let him do it. Basically, the issue was so complicated there was no one frankly who really understood at the time what he was talking about.

The only people who paid attention were the nuclear freeze people in Nashville, who were totally opposed to what he was doing. I remember having conversations with him. I said, Al, I think what you’re doing is just fabulous but this is politically stupid. You’re getting nothing out of this and you can’t even go back and talk to people because they don’t really understand what you’re talking about. You’ve got these missiles coming in here—

During that time, he went to the Intelligence Committee and said, I want you to give me your smartest person on nuclear strategic doctrine and I want to learn the nuances of nuclear arms control.So he would leave for hours at a time. This was the scariest thing that could happen to a staffer. [laughter] He was going into this booth in the Capitol with the Intelligence Committee, and we had no idea what he was doing.

Nelson

Was that Leon Fuerth?

Knight

Yes. He had hired Leon, and after about nine months of just not even—he didn’t talk to me about it, he didn’t talk to Roy about it. Not that he didn’t talk to me, we ended up knowing what he was doing, or thought we did. He was going over there all the time and we hoped that that was what he was doing, and of course he was. But he learned the intricacies and we later learned—Leon put together a whole tutorial for him. It wasn’t until about March, after he had been on it for nine, ten, 12 months or something like that, he came forward and he said, Peter, I want to introduce you to Leon Fuerth. I said, Holy shit, you’re the one who’s been spending all this time with him. I had not met him before that. 

Al said, We’re going to be unfolding a nuclear arms control proposal and we need to get the staff involved in it. So it was another one of those okay, here we go, let’s do it. That’s when he put into the Congressional Record his nuclear arms proposal. He had been working on the fear of the first strike.

Nelson

What I hear you saying, and it is very persuasive, is that he very well could have been a career member of the U.S. House with the freedom from his district to dive into the issues he really got interested in and cared about and not felt that his career had been a failure if he didn’t go higher. Is that—

Knight

Right.

Nelson

Is that overstating your—

Knight

I think his attitude was to work really hard and let the future take care of itself.

Nelson

Okay, that’s a good way to put it.

Riley

One other interpretation is that, and I’ll put it in the form of a question, did he occasionally reflect with you on the possibility of leaving public service and going and doing something else? Because there are spots in his career where it indicates that this is somebody who truly did reflect deeply on the prospect of continuing his public service outside the public sector. Was that something you had to deal with on occasions?

Knight

I never had a conversation with him about the public sector, never. I remember one time Mike Wallace, when he was doing the investigative stuff, Mike Wallace said, You know, Gore, you really should be on 60 Minutes and help us do this kind of thing. He said, Nah, I’m staying in public service. But that would have been about the only career for him. 

I always thought in the back of my mind that if somehow he ever had to leave, then that would be his career, because he’s a good teacher and he’s a good explainer. In fact, that’s kind of where the slide show came about too. It was the substitute for that in some respects.

Nelson

Let’s get him to the Senate in ’84.

Knight

Let me just say the one other thing. I’m not sure that he has gotten the credit that he deserved, because basically, after a year he came forward with his arms control proposal. Within about nine months, not only had he become a player, but he actually had helped to shift the strategic doctrine of the United States. It was the single most impressive thing I have ever seen happen in public service. I’ve never seen it happen since or before, and I was a part of it, so I may be biased. But that was a league that was extremely difficult to get into and he became not only a participant but an active player in it and had a huge positive role to play in a very nuanced and difficult area. Basically, Brent Scowcroft and [Ronald] Reagan changed the strategic doctrine to eliminate the fear of a first strike, which was what he had been pushing for. It was remarkable. It was truly remarkable.

Riley

The focus that you’ve had on this issue up until now was his preparation and his internal work with Congress. Was he also, at that point, having ongoing discussions with people in the administration and pushing them in this direction? Or was the public leadership—

Knight

On this particular issue?

Riley

Yes, on this particular issue.

Knight

On that particular issue, some things that happened were somewhat by accident. We put out this plan and he did a piece in the Washington Post, and we thought everybody would pay attention to this thing, this somewhat junior Congressman, and everybody would say, Isn’t this brilliant? We should adopt this. It fell flat. What I was in charge of was helping to elevate this issue. Leon was the substance guy, but I was in charge of trying to push the communications strategy—and it was difficult to get into this field. Shortly after it went into the Congressional Record, which is a very detailed analysis of his proposal, there was an article in the paper that all the foreign policy people picked up on. 

It was a guy, a senior member of CongressI’m going to think of his name in a secondwho went over to Russia and was talking arms control with the Russians. He came back and talked about his experience with talking to the Russians, and he said all they wanted to talk about was the Gore proposal, and yet no one in our administration seemed to pay attention. So it wasn’t until the Russians paid attention to what he said that we did.

Riley

Okay.

Knight

Then about three or four months later, Henry Kissinger wrote an op-ed that basically stole his idea completely. Then everybody said wait a minute, Gore did this and Kissinger—didn’t you steal this from him? It was quite obvious. I mean, Kissinger used the exact same language. Then he was catapulted into it saying, Oh, Kissinger stole my idea? This is a serious form of flattery. But that’s when he began to— 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

He would visit with the administration, Scowcroft and all those guys, and talk to the Senators and House members.

Riley

Okay, fine.

Nelson

Back down to the realm of collective politics and your role in his ’84 campaign, am I right to think that was your first deep immersion in fund-raising?

Knight

That was my first deep immersion. As a Congressman he really didn’t have any opposition for all those years. He had one guy who helped raise money in the district, but we didn’t raise money; we never needed to. But when he started in the Senate we had to introduce ourselves to a whole bunch of people we didn’t know, and get more of a national profile, obviously. So, yes. We had a campaign manager, Hal Malchow, but as his chief of staff, I’m doing everything, and that’s when I first began fund-raising.

Nelson

Were you mostly raising money for him in Washington or in Tennessee?

Knight

Nationally, not in Tennessee. He had a guy named Johnny Hayes who was his finance chair in Tennessee, who was a wonderful man; deceased now. He always handled his work in Tennessee. So my job was always as a national, Washington, as well as the broader community. In a run for the Senate there are different constituencies out there that are quite interested in learning more about the new Senator. So that was a way of helping to introduce ourselves to them and to get to know people. That was the start, in ’84.

Nelson

So you’re learning a new political craft, I guess?

Knight

For me it was, yes. I had no—

Nelson

And obviously you were awfully good at it. So what did you learn and how did you become so good at it? What did you learn about how to do this, and what made you unusually effective?

Knight

Well, the most important thing in raising money is having a good candidate or a good product, somebody you feel really passionate about and want to be out talking about and can do it with zeal and so forth. I think that is the most important thing, and it was really easy for me to do that because we were not only good friends, but first and foremost I was very committed to him. 

Fund-raising isn’t hard, it’s just fundamentals. It’s taking care of people, making them feel part of a community, part of a family, being communicative with them, doing follow-up. It’s not throwing the long ball or being the quarterback, in a sense it’s just the fundamentals of what you have to do to do it right. So part of it was establishing new relationships, especially nationally, and to make sure that you nurtured those relationships. It turned out that I was okay at that. One of the things that is important, especially when you’re a Senator, is to extend—he didn’t have enough time to commit to all the people who were there, so you had to rely on others to extend him, if you will, and to be the eyes and ears and so forth, and to take the ideas, sometimes pretty goofy, of the people who contribute money to him and to translate that and to really build it into a family and a community. 

That’s what we did. I was actually pretty proud of that because I did start in ’84 and there were an awful lot of people who weren’t initially, but became very committed to him personally. Part of the fund-raising back in those days, the Washington part, was a game.

Nelson

How so?

Knight

Because it’s all transactional in Washington. You do this for me and I’ll do that for you. The trick was that we weren’t going to do anything for them. So that became kind of a goof and a game for me because it was all the lobbyists. A number of the lobbyists were fun people and it was fun to get to know them and so forth, but then there were all the very transactional people who worked for the association of this and association of that. What we really were doing was not so much playing offense but playing defense because we didn’t—he was seen back then as a little bit aloof because they didn’t know him. He wasn’t really aloof, but he didn’t have any conversations with any of these lobbyists. The only lobbyists that ever came into our office were the ones who were getting pilloried by the Oversight Committee. 

There aren’t a lot of nuclear arms lobbyists out there so we didn’t really get to meet many lobbyists. We got to meet some of the communications people. For example, Roy was in charge of communications policy for Al, and he got to know a lot of those folks. But we really didn’t know many communities. So part of it was, we had a detailed, as you might expect, plan of how to get to know people. A lot of them didn’t support him but they respected his intelligence and maybe feared him. But he wasn’t going to lose that race, as it turned out.

Riley

Is that so? Was it clear from the beginning that it was his race?

Knight

They didn’t have a—I mean, Victor Ashe was not a candidate who was going to—I don’t think anybody had any doubts that he was going to win.

Riley

Enough said.

Knight

And I think that they felt that people in the community—so it was not so much that we were going to try to get more lobbying money or Washington PAC [political action committee] money than anybody else, it was we really had to take the first five or six months and get to know people and say this is somebody you can talk to. He’s approachable. I think that probably helped his career. But you had to lay a base, and that’s what you always have to do in fund-raising. People aren’t going to give money to you unless they know you. So we did a whole series of industry—we asked different people to sponsor them. We went to law firms, he got to know and answer questions. He learned some things. A lot of them gave us money. That was fine. But for me that was kind of a game, it was a goof. If they didn’t give me money I figured out four different ways to try to get it from them. At the end of the day it was just that they didn’t really want to give it, but they did because I harassed them so much. 

Fund-raising with Al was really the transactional part, but there were an awful lot of people who just believed in him, over time. As I said, it started in ’84. It was that group of people who were really fun and exciting to work with because they weren’t transactional, they just believed in him. 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

That’s why Presidential fund-raising is a lot more interesting and fun than doing it for a Senator or a Congressman, because they actually are doing it for the right reasons and there’s not that much they can give you. By definition, PACs are transactional. All they do is they want something from you. Did these people think, when they’re bundling a hundred thousand dollars, what were they going to get? No, they weren’t really sure but they really liked him and they wanted to play in the game. That, to me, was the more interesting. 

So there was a Washington angle to the fund-raising and then there was a national. We went around the rest of the country and began to meet people, and we built that community from ’84 and stayed in close touch with them. It wasn’t my job, but as chief of staff on the Senate side we continued to maintain close relationships with the folks nationally. It was important for his Senate efforts but obviously it became important for his Presidential ambitions. 

Riley

Did Gore himself like raising money?

Knight

No.

Riley

Does anybody like raising money? Do you like raising money or is it just a necessary—I won’t say a necessary evil but— 

Knight

Chore.

Riley

A necessary chore?

Knight

It’s part of the fundamentals of running a campaign and you have to be good at it.

Riley

Was he good at it?

Knight

He wasn’t good at it, but I was pretty good at it. 

Riley

What was the difference between the two of you then?

Knight

It was probably more my job and I knew it was my job, so therefore I made the most of it. I would precede him into meetings and get to know these people really well. I think at the end of his career he really came to hate fund-raising. Earlier in the career it wasn’t that bad because he liked a lot of the people, but there were some goofballs. He also didn’t suffer fools and he was a very substantive guy. Some of the fund-raisers were a slap on your back and that kind of joking. That’s really not the kind of guy he was. 

So to the extent that it wasn’t a substantive part of the process, he wasn’t as excited about it. We would try to make it more interesting, so when we’d do a fund-raiser we might have a dinner and a discussion, which was really good for the—actually, for the most part they couldn’t keep up with him intellectually. From a business perspective, I obviously learned some. But we did a lot of things in doing that. One, they felt that they were engaged intellectually. It was more fun for him, but it was also building a family, a community. That was always what we tried to do. He did it both in Tennessee and nationally.

Nelson

Was part of the strategy in ’84 to raise enough money early so that he would not have a strong opponent? For example, if Lamar Alexander had run, that would have been a very tough race, but if you raise enough money early enough then it becomes a disincentive for a lot of potential people to get into the race. Was that part of your strategy?

Knight

I’d have to go back to recall, but I don’t think so because we were at a standing start, we hadn’t raised a dime.

Nelson

Because Baker announced he was—

Knight

Baker was pretty close to Lamar. I’m sure he told the Republican establishment before he told Gore. We couldn’t have raised money fast enough to stop somebody, so whatever they were going to do they were going to doand they had a lot more resources than we did. I mean, really, I don’t know how much he raised in those three races, it might have been $50,000. I’m sure it was more than that. There was one fund-raiser a year that Johnny would do, and a couple of other people would do one for him. But we never—I did not do one fund-raising event through 1983.

Nelson

It sounds like it ended up being a really good argument when you’re dealing with associations and others who want to make it a transaction to say, Al Gore is going to be the next U.S. Senator, do you want to have a stake in him or not? I mean, without having to promise anything. Is that an effective argument? You can either be with us or not be with us, but he’s going to be in the Senate.

Knight

Yes, I mean, it became pretty clear there. They’re smart people. They knew there was going to have to be somebody there to have to contend with, and frankly not everybody gave us money. But we were actually playing defense. That was part of our strategy to make sure that he got to know people, and he was at least somebody who could be reasonable and who you could talk to. It wasn’t necessarily something that he was going to do. But remember, he was seen as this consumer gadfly because he was doing Good Morning, America. He was on TV, and a lot of people thought it was—so there was that image, which I don’t think was true but that we had to dispel because no one else had ever had contact with him, because except in communications he didn’t have as many legislative issues where he was able to be the legislator, just because he didn’t have the opportunity.

People would say, You’re the showboat, not the legislator. Well, he didn’t have the committee assignments to do that. But he did have the investigative stuff. So therefore we didn’t have the relationships, and that’s what we set out to get.

Nelson

As somebody who has been teaching students for 30 years, this is the hardest thing to get a fix on because students assume, I think most people assume, that if someone gives $5,000 to a candidate, they’re getting something in return. The tendency is to assume they’re getting something tangible in return. To say they’re getting nothing in return would be unbelievable. So what is a lobbyist or a PAC getting who makes a donation to a campaign? Is he getting the right to get his phone call returned, or what?

Knight

Well, human nature being what it is, if you know somebody and they call you, it’s hard not to answer the call. Early on in my career I was schooled in making sure that I answered every single phone call by the end of that day. So a lot of the times it was the lobbyist who would call. Did they expect that? Probably. Did they expect them to go your way? Certainly not, in our case. But when you think about it, when he ran for the Senate we raised, I may be off a little bit, I think about three million dollars and about 700 or 800 thousand dollars was from PACs. So when you’re running for the Senate, make up a relatively small portion. It’s especially true when you’re running for the Presidency, PACs are basically irrelevant. 

I think most Senators and Congressmen have a predominant amount of their money, at least back then, in lobbyists and PACs, and we didn’t, just because we came from a standing start and couldn’t do as well as some others. I don’t know if that answers your question. So yes, do they expect a phone call returned?

Nelson

A chance to make their case?

Knight

Probably to make their case.

Nelson

A phone call from the Senator? 

Knight

That’s part of the system that I think the founders envisioned. They didn’t envision one having an outside influence over others that wanted to come in. I think that we prided ourselves in making sure that we were open to all folks, that we weren’t closed off. So yes, that’s probably the case.

Nelson

Just so I understand, a phone call from the Senator or a phone call from you? Which would they feel they were entitled to if they wanted to make their case?

Knight

It’s always still staff. I mean, almost always.

Riley

In the interest of time, I don’t know whether you want to say anything about your experience in the Senate before ’88. How soon is it after ’84 that you start thinking about, or Gore starts thinking about, Presidential politics?

Knight

Well, here’s another anecdote. Again it’s just me. We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Presidential politics, at least I certainly didn’t. We were building and doing, working really hard and trying to work on a number of issues that were important. We always felt that you did that and things would take care of themselves over time. We didn’t know any other strategy; that was the strategy, because if you wanted it too hard, you weren’t going to get it. Were people beginning to whisper it a little bit? Sure. Some day, some day. You’ve got the stuff. But it just didn’t seem to be in the cards. 

After being in the Senate, for me, for another six years, which meant now I had been on the Hill for 16 years, I said to him, Al, I’m going to get out of here. It’s time for you to have a new chief of staff. It’s time for me to go. I had a family at that point. I went to school on a scholarship, had no money, and so I thought that I should go out and do a little bit more for my family and widen my experience. Basically he said, Well, I’m going to run for President. Won’t you come join me?

Nelson

Seems like he runs for higher office every time you want to leave. [laughter]

Knight

Just to keep me, right. 

Riley

That’s a good strategy.

Knight

That’s what I always tell people.

Nelson

And it works.

Knight

It worked for me. I mean, that’s being facetious here, but that was the thinking that I was going through. I would have been the architect for him devising this political strategy. Now, I can’t say that I was a gifted political strategist, and there were probably others who may have been talking to political reporters about their bosses in different ways, and all that kind of stuff. We weren’t. We just tried to do it— But that’s what I was thinking, and I was on my way out the door when he decided— 

Riley

Was this in ’87?

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

What led him to decide to run?

Knight

An opening, a political opening. My memory is a little hazy here. But I think his space was moderate, thoughtful, slightly more conservative than many others who were beginning to think about the race. The place he was looking to hold, the ground was held by, if you will, Mario Cuomo. That was probably the place he would have been at, and Mario was running, or everyone thought he was running. That’s not to say that Mario was the same, but it was kind of that space. At least that’s what I remember. He was differentiating himself from the others who were thinking—this was around February or March. [Michael] Dukakis had already been in, [Joseph] Biden had been in. The space that Cuomo was planting himself, the more cerebralhe was slightly more moderateanyway, that was the space that he would have occupied. I guess [Richard] Gephardt was in there as well.

Nelson

Gephardt, [Gary] Hart.

Knight

Gary Hart, well, yes. 

Nelson

Early exit because of the Donna Rice thing.

Knight

Right.

Nelson

Biden early exit because of—

Knight

Biden was in, yes. So the opportunity, I think we looked at it as—at that point in time when people began to say you really should do it. Well, what was the opening? There was no opening. Cuomo was there, that was it. Then Cuomo said no. Then it was the Senator from Arkansas—

Riley

[Dale] Bumpers.

Knight

Bumpers was the main consideration during that time. He was the one who people looked to as the occupier. It wasn’t President Clinton, he was just too new or whatever, but it was Dale Bumpers.

Nelson

But you also had this movement among the southern Democratic leaders, including [Ned Ray] McWherter of Tennessee to create the greater role for the southern primaries by—

Knight

Yes, exactly. 

Nelson

That, I thought, was what you were talking about at first.

Knight

Well, it was that. It was the political side but it was also the ideological side, so it was both. Of course, that southern primary turned out to be an ephemeral idea because Gore did end up winning the southern primaries.

Nelson

So did Jesse Jackson.

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

That was the thing, they ended up splitting—

Knight

So did Dukakis, but we got more delegates than anybody else. Anyway, so when Bumpers decided to get out, then that was the time that a number of people were looking for somebody more moderate and they pushed really hard for Al. That was when this group of fund-raisers came forward to push Al. It would seem that he was pushed in by fund-raisers, which was an awkward wayit was probably our awkwardness of being kind of young at the game that made it appear that way. But I think it was much more an ideological opening, and the fact that a southerner could do it. He would be competing for space with Gephardt. He never gave a thought, or we never gave a thought to Hart, never gave much of a thought to Biden, naively, I should say, totally naively. 

As we got into the race I remember getting a call from Biden’s chief of staff at the time, Ted Kaufman. He said—and I knew him—he said, Peter, you don’t want to get into this thing. You don’t know how big it is. I said, Ah, Ted, how big can this thing be? We realized later on how big it was, and he was exactly right. I haven’t seen him to—he and I have told that story a few times, but he was exactly right. Of course, Biden faltered. 

The other thing we had no idea, at least I had no idea, that there was an ideological opening, but setting up a Presidential campaign, how to do it, how to raise the money for it. It was just so enormous that we were totally unprepared for it.

Gary Hart occupied so much ground. Until we got into this thing we had no idea how big, how important, he was and how much ground he had covered and what aif he hadn’t been through what he’d been through, the chances of him succeeding—we would have gotten crushed.

Nelson

I want to ask you about the fund-raisers’ component of this because you now are part of that community. What I have read is that there was this group of fund-raisers that Nathan Landow had brought together because he was frustrated that in previous elections (A) the Democrats lost and (B) the fund-raisers were sort of raising against each other.

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

His hope was that they could agree on a candidate.

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

They brought a lot of people through, and then they formed a consensus, and they brought in Al Gore, not so much to audition as to talk about the party, and they thought this is a guy we all like. So Senator Gore, if you run, money will not be a concern. Is that a fair summary of what happened?

Knight

Not quite. He did put together this group and it was basically the [Walter] Mondale, slightly more conservative Mondale group.

Riley

He being?

Knight

Nate and Peter Kelly [III] and a couple of others. But these were the major fund-raising folks of that period of time, and they were all Mondale people. They were slightly more moderate and they included an awful lot of people who were part of our Senate family, if you will, because we knew most of them. He was their kind of Senator. So there were a number of them that we knew pretty well, like—I won’t go through the names, but Nate was certainly one of them, Peter Kelly was another one, Norm Brownstein, Wallace Hyde, and a number of others. Their first candidate was not Gore, it was Cuomo. And their second candidate was Bumpers. 

It was that search for a moderate candidate. Now, I don’t know why a lot of them weren’t as excited by Biden. They weren’t excited by Hart because it was the Hart-Mondale thing. I mean, these were anti-Hart people from the get-go. Not all, but most of them were. It was that time that the fund-raisers was saying, I’m sick of being left behind, I want to have a major voice in this. Therefore, we should all band together and pick one candidate. It seems archaic now, but at the time it seemed pretty interesting. 

When Gore came, and they asked him to come speak, he was right in their ideological sweet spot, for many of them. And there was a presumption that money wouldn’t be a problem, but I knew that was a joke. I was smart enough, at least I knew that part of a Presidential campaign. These guys said we’re going to raise $250,000 times 40,and I knew that wouldn’t happen. But it was awkward. It looked as if the timing of his going there and then coming in quickly thereafter, certainly I would say that was awkward. But he didn’t get in because of them. They supported him because he was the candidate who was best suited of those who were left. I mean, you go ask Nate. I’m sure he’d say that Cuomo was my guy, then Bumpers was my guy. Then, he said, I love you, Al, but Dale Bumpers was huge. Al was a big risk, of course, because he was young, so young.

Nelson

He was 39.

Knight

So he was a big risk to a lot of those folks. It wasn’t straightforward that they would do it.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

And, of course, not all of them supported him; a lot of them went to other candidates. So it wasn’t 40 people, it was like 12. There were only so many of them that really came through. 

Nelson

Did he feel like he’d been sold a bill of goods, that he’d been promised he wouldn’t have to worry about money?Al, you can run the campaign you want to run, and then he does have to worry about money. Where are these 40? Did he come to feel like that?

Knight

No. I remember we had this conversation at one point. I said, Al, you know, something to the effect that I don’t know that much about running Presidential campaigns but we won’t have enough money for you to compete with these guys, with Biden and Hart and Dukakis and so forth. I said, Because this campaign has been going on for a long time, the skills of the political folks out there, we’re not going to be able to attract the top people. This campaign, win or lose, is all on your back. If you want to do it, let’s do it and I’ll be there every step of the way, but I’m just telling you that we’re not going to have the money, we’re not going to have the staff, because we’re not as seasoned as those guys. His view was, Let’s go.

Nelson

Okay.

Knight

I didn’t say not to. I’ve got to say that back in those times it just was very heady. I thought it was really fun, and in one sense I had no idea what we were getting into. I had never worked on a Presidential campaign. I was really not a political guy; it was much more. I thought of myself more as a substantive legislative, public policy person rather than a political guy. I remember that was the advice I gave him. He said, Do you think we can raise the money? I said no. He said, Do you think we can have the staff to do it? I said, No, but I’m willing to try. He said, All right, let’s go. 

It wasn’t just to me—I don’t mean to inflate my role because he obviously was talking to an awful lot of other folks. Again, it gets back to the fundamentals of a campaign. Those were two things that we probably were not going to be able to pull together. Most of it, most of the fund-raising, was going to have to be based in Tennessee because it would be difficult nationally. I knew that these 40 guys were not going to deliver. There were going to be some who did, but a lot of them were not.

Riley

Does he decide to proceed because he thinks maybe he can catch lightning in a bottle, or is he doing it because he thinks he can drag the national discussion in a particular direction? Or does he think if I do this in ’88 maybe in ’92 we’ll be in better shape?

Knight

I never had any discussion about ’92, so I don’t know if that was in the back of his mind.

Riley

You’re always the last to know though.

Knight

Right, exactly. Because circumstances—I mean, listen, politics is circumstances. It is the opportunity matched with the ability. When he ran for the Senate, he had the ability to be a Senator but there wasn’t an opportunity. As soon as Baker said no, bingo, I’m in. 

Riley

Right.

Knight

Joe L. Evins was the Congressman; Al couldn’t be the Congressman. But Joe L. Evins decided to retire and said, Man, I didn’t realize it but public service is where I need to be. So we went out and got it. The same thing happened on the Presidential side. I think the opportunity came to him and he took it. What we didn’t realize at the time was how damaging a Presidential campaign can be to people’s careers. I don’t think he appreciated that, neither certainly did I. Because they can be damaging; Presidential campaigns are littered with people whose careers, Presidential careers, were ended by that.

Riley

Because of poor performance or because of allegations

Knight

Look at Joe Biden.

Riley

Okay. 

Knight

John Glenn.

Nelson

Mondale.

Knight

Mondale.

Nelson

Democrats can be unusually cruel on their losers.

Knight

Yes, Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, Bruce Babbitt, Dick Gephardt to some extent. It is not a risk-free decision.

Nelson

You weren’t really aware of that.

Knight

No, because he was young. There was a little bit of brashness and probably a little bit of hubris. It was probably more naiveté than anything else.

Riley

The other thing is that you didn’t—the record that you enunciated is more recent than your experience, right? I mean, are there relevant examples from ’84 and earlier? Maybe so, I’m just sort of pondering aloud. Maybe part of the reason you do it is because you don’t have the campaign trail littered with the dead bodies in quite the way you just said here. 

Nelson

A couple of other things about ’88. One is that Tipper [Mary Elizabeth] Gore publishes her book in ’87, Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society, which got a lot of attention, but which I understand sort of poisoned the well for Gore fund-raising in that LA [Los Angeles]/Hollywood donor base. Could you talk about if it did? Did it open up other doors? How did that affect—?

Knight

What I love about Al is that he wasn’t calculated in his pursuit of issues, nor was the family generally. So he didn’t—look, he spent an entire year working on the Midgetman missile. Tell me what political benefit he got from that. He got zippo, except he became an expert on arms control, and it turns out he was smarter than all of us because that’s actually what the country needed. So none of this was born out of a calculation. Obviously, this was another one, because by virtue of what she did we didn’t have opportunities within that community. 

It turns out, especially in ’88, Gary Hart had most of them wrapped up anyway. And they were much more liberal than he was. The biggest guys out there were already taken or doing other things. So the people who were attracted to him were slightly more moderate, younger, on their way up; they were not the big, old established folks. So you just do, slightly more insurgent. But there was not a huge amount of support, and yes, it was taken off the table. But I’m not sure how big a deal it would have been. 

I mean, there were a lot of Presidential candidates and it was hard to break through. Positioning himself as the moderate to conservative, going into Los Angeles was not the place to win hearts and minds. Then of course with the—I don’t think the record community, but they talked to the movie community too. It was the right issue, it was fine. But did it complicate? Slightly. Yes, but you’re just going in different directions.

Nelson

Did it open up any doors for either fund-raising support or other kinds of support?

Knight

No, it was basically a negative.

Nelson

Within the Democratic Party at least.

Knight

Yes, because most of the Democratic Party was more moderate to liberal, and this is the moderate to conservative approach to things. So it didn’t really help, but it didn’t harm it in that we just went after—there are always opportunities. In Presidential politics what you really need to do is energize people and get them to be excited about the process. And the only way you can do it is to go out and talk to them and schmooze and cajole and say it’s going to be really fun to be a part of this campaign; come and do this with us and you can be a big part of it.

Riley

Was there a chance in ’88 that the effort could have succeeded? Were there missed opportunities?

Knight

You mean in the campaign itself?

Riley

In the Gore campaign?

Knight

I think you’re getting back to the political strategy. The political strategy is always win Super Tuesday.

Nelson

Well, he focused on Iowa and New Hampshire, didn’t he?

Knight

Yes. Well, we never thought that—the big issue for us is what do we do about Iowa? We thought we could compete in New Hampshire, and as it turned out, at the end of the day we actually spent more money in New Hampshire than most other people did, probably not more than Dukakis, and then pulled out at the end saying it wasn’t a fair fight. Then we said we’re going to focus all our attention on Super Tuesday. Of course, in the meantime we had actually spent a fair amount of money in New Hampshire. But Iowa was not a fair fight for us; we didn’t do well there. So our focus really was on Super Tuesday. 

It was kind of set up that way, as you had indicated, to look to southern candidates and to try to boost their ability to attract attention. We thought we could win Super Tuesday and that we’d put most of our energy and our—when I said we spent a lot in New Hampshire, it didn’t take that much in New Hampshire but we ended up spending a fair amount when we pulled out. But we did put all of our resources, the remaining resources, which were not all that ample, into Super Tuesday and basically didn’t have anything left when we woke up that next day.

Nelson

A lot of the reason was that Jesse Jackson turned out to be really formidable and won primaries that Gore would have otherwise won, or allowed Dukakis openings in, say, Florida and Texas that he wouldn’t have had otherwise, because Jackson was drawing votes away from Gore to some extent. Had you expected Jackson to be that formidable a candidate on Super Tuesday? 

Knight

Well, let me answer it this way. Nightline that evening featured a bunch of politicos. George Will was on, and a couple of others. It would be interesting to go back and see if my memory is actually that good, but this was defining for me. The show was on for a half hourwell, they went for 27 minutes and hadn’t mentioned Gore.

Nelson

Really? This is the night of Super Tuesday?

Knight

The night of Super Tuesday. So remember, Gore was the fifth story. Again, I’m not sure I’m remembering it. [Robert] Dole dropped out. Gephardt dropped out. Jackson won a state. Dukakis won Florida and Texas. Gore wins Super Tuesday. It was the fifth story. So at the end of it, Ted Koppel turns to Will and says, Is there anything that we’ve forgotten this evening? George says, I guess it’s interesting that Gore won Super Tuesday. Well, that’s all the time we have and we’ll be off. I said, Holy shit, that’s it. We’re done. What you need is the glow of the spotlight, and we never got it. 

Nelson

But he did end up in the final three. So the New York primary becomes the next big thing, unless I’m forgetting something.

Knight

I’ve been trying to forget New York.

Nelson

Al Gore being led around by the nose by Ed Koch. How did that happen? I mean, when you talk about damage that a candidate can suffer in a losing campaign, it seems like a whole lot of that ended up involved around the New York experience. Would you agree with that?

Knight

We had put all our eggs into the Super Tuesday basket and it didn’t—then we had no money left. Then it went to Illinois. And Paul Simon won Illinois.

Nelson

Yes.

Knight

Everybody kind of conceded that; he got a lot of attention. Then I guess he dropped out afterwards. I’m forgetting what was in between Illinois and New York, but after Illinois the big thing was New York. We didn’t really have any money left. It was Jackson and Dukakis and Gore. We didn’t have a huge base in New York. We didn’t have a lot of political acumen in New York. Some decisions were made to hand over a lot of the reins of the campaign to Ed Koch. I don’t know whether I agreed with it or not. There are always a hundred people in a campaign at that point who are talking in the candidate’s ear and so forth. We didn’t really have a lot of support and he was a very—you know, Mario Cuomo wasn’t going to come out and support us. The next biggest guy was Ed Koch, a pretty powerful guy. But it didn’t turn out so well. After New York, I think it was the next Friday or something, he pulled out of the race. 

Riley

Did you do an immediate postmortem after it was over to figure out what does all this mean, or does everybody just scatter to the four winds and you’re back tending to the shop in the Senate?

Knight

Well, there were a number of postmortems that were done over a period of time. New York was kind of searing; it was not a good exit. But there were two things that were energizing for me at that point in time. One, Roy was running the office. There was a Senate office and he was running it. He wasn’t as much a part of the campaign, but he was running the office. New York was tough. It was tough for all of us, watching what happened to him. I mean, New York politics—we just weren’t—it goes back to what I said to Al initially. Not that I was so clairvoyant on this stuff, we didn’t have the staff to be able to do anything. We didn’t have Harold Ickes [Jr.],who could have told us what to do in New York. We didn’t have the right people. So that was pretty searing.

Anyway, Al made his announcement in the Russell Building that he was going to be pulling out. I had spent all that time on the campaign. It was just—running Presidential campaigns, there are just so many emotional highs and so many emotional lows that they’re tough, they’re very tough. But after I left, and a lot of people were crying and this and that, the campaign was over. I remember this: One of the lobbyists for the real estate association of Tennessee, the Tennessee Association of Realtors, came and screamed at me because I would not let them have a meeting with Gore to talk about the Tennessee realtors. I basically told him to get stuffed, or something like that. 

Then it dawned on me that it was time for me to leave. [laughter] If I was going to say that to a constituent, then I was not the right guy. It was in the heat of the moment but I realized that it was time for me to go. So I made up my mind right then and there that I was going to go. Also, Roy was ensconced there in any case. But I also wanted to take care of the political apparatus and help close down the campaign. I was in charge of that. Everyone else dispersed but we were still there. So Roy did the Senate and got that back in gear and I was running that part of it. We determined—he went on vacation—

Nelson

He meaning Gore?

Knight

He, Gore, went off on vacation, and when he came back I was all energized. We had a big debt. I think it was $2.6 million. It seemed like so much money, and we couldn’t raise any more money. I couldn’t figure out how to raise any more money. What are we going to do with the debt for a Senator who wasn’t a Presidential candidate? We just couldn’t figure it out. 

Anyway, I didn’t go on vacation. I wrote a plan and I was really excited about it. I said, We’re going to focus all our attention and we’re going to get this plan done and we’re going to eliminate your debt, and we’re going to do it in ten months. He turned to me and said, That’s a fabulous plan, but we’re going to do it in ten weeks. I said, Are you going to be there every step of the way with me? He said, Yes, I am. Let’s do it. I said, Okay, we’ll get it done before the convention. 

So we put together what you have in the notes, the 40-40 program. Johnny Hayes, myself, and Al helped to eliminate his Presidential campaign debt within a ten-week period of time. We culminated it in a fund-raiser that Johnny Cash did. To this day, my wife, who has been to so many events, said that watching Johnny Cash sing his songs was the best day of her entire life. Tommy Lee Jones was there—

Nelson

Gore’s roommate in college.

Knight

Yes, it was the culmination of the 40-40, the 40 people raising 40,000 bucks. Then we’d done a couple of other events, so that added up to $2.2 or $2.3 million. Mrs. [Pamela] Harriman had done a big event for us. But the 40-40 was pulling people together. That was not an easy thing to do, but we basically eliminated his debt. What was important about it—it was important for many reasons. One was that at the time Dick Gephardt had a big debt and it was really hanging over him, but more importantly John Glenn. John Glenn had a debt that crushed his career.

Nelson

From ’84?

Knight

Yes, he [Glenn] still had a big debt and couldn’t do anything about it. I realized quickly that if he [Gore] had a future, he had to eliminate that debt as quickly as possible. So I put together a plan that I thought was possible to do in ten months. Gore said, Nah, we’ll do it in ten weeks. That was the thing about him, he was always one step ahead. But he knew it was important for his career to do that. I think in the back of our minds there was a thought that if he were to do that, position himself, it would be very good for his career so that he wouldn’t end up like John Glenn. It would be impressive, and lo and behold maybe he’d be on the ticket.

Riley

In ’88.

Knight

In ’88.

Nelson

What about that?

Knight

So we took those ten weeks and we were just flat out—I still have the little 40-40 lucite cubes and things that we gave people. It was all just a gimmick; you’ve got to make fund-raising fun because otherwise it is so laborious. But we had a good time doing it and we energized all the people. They were excited about coming to see Johnny Cash and Tommy Lee Jones and visit the Governor’s mansion and all that kind of stuff. So we had the fund-raiser onI don’t remember, Monday or Tuesdayand then we went to the convention on Thursday. It was all happening in real time. So that’s what I was focusing on.

It wasn’t that you could campaign to be Vice President, there wasn’t much you could do, but all of us were just really focused on—I was and Johnny was and Al—eliminating his debt. Again, my memory is fuzzy on that but my understanding of the Dukakis campaign is that they had signs printed for [Lloyd] Bentsen and for Gore, and that there were some Dukakis-Gore signs that they had to destroy because they weren’t sure what his decision was going to be. So apparently he was one of two. I’m forgetting exactly what happened, what the discussions—but he was the one they were considering. 

Now, did it have anything to do with the 40-40 program? I have no idea. But it was a good idea and I’m really glad we did it. It was actually quite exciting to be a part of it. 

Nelson

A couple of things before we leave ’88. One is, is there any Gore-Clinton relationship? Any Gore-Clinton awareness, if there’s no relationship, at this time? 

Knight

No, there wasn’t much. I don’t remember. I guess I didn’t meet then Governor Clinton at that time. I know he really didn’t support us.

Nelson

Clinton didn’t support Gore for the nomination, is that what you said?

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

How come?

Knight

I’m a little hazy on the details. Was Arkansas init must have been in Super Tuesday. We had some support but it wasn’t—and I don’t know if he ended up. Senator[Samuel] Nunn didn’t support us either. We tried and tried. I’m sure we tried to get Clinton and I don’t remember the politics of that. I’m just hazy on the details. We had a whole southern crew working on it. It was a little bit more focused on Nunn, and I remember we tried like heck to get him because he was such a big name at the time. On Tuesday after he voted Nunn left to go to Europe. Reporters asked him on the tarmac who he voted for and he said Gore. That was our endorsement. [laughter]

Nelson

Too late for the—

Knight

That was our endorsement.

Nelson

The other thing I wanted to ask you is, maybe the first time Gore ran for the House, but certainly it has been a long time since he had a tough race, and you got to see him for the first time having to deal with defeat, severe criticism as a candidate, and all these other things. How did he handle adversity? How did he handle, to some extent, embarrassment?

Knight

Well, for the first three months I think he really did immerse himself in this program to eliminate his debt. So he felt that the most important thing that he could do to help his career was to do that. Then he tried to be as good a soldier as he could be at the convention. Then he also took it upon himself to help Dukakis in any way he could. So I don’t think there was a lot of introspection that went on during that period of time. He sort of had a role.

Nelson

I was actually thinking more during the primary campaign itself. Did he show resilience when he experienced adversity? Did he restore y’all’s morale when you were down? You said you had a lot of ups and downs. You’re seeing him here in a situation that really everybody has to go through in politics, but he hadn’t had to go through it.

Knight

Well, that’s true. Actually, nobody goes through it until you go through a Presidential campaign. So he was going through it, we were all going through it in real time. Was he resilient? I think so. I thought heI’m not exactly sure how to answer the question. As a candidate you’re out of your own control because you really have to put your hands into those of other people, and he was not really used to doing that. That’s a very hard thing for a Presidential candidate to do. And probably he was not as good at that as he should have been. There’s a lot of conflicting advice going back and forth. He certainly, as a political figure, is not as sure-footed, nor is anybody being sure-footed in a Presidential campaign, it’s just really hard. 

Was he the one who would pump us up? Yes, in some respects, but we were all going on adrenalin anyway. I don’t remember him being really down. I remember it being really tough. I don’t think any of us had time to think, Well, okay, you didn’t get that mayor so how do you feel about this? We didn’t sit around asking him that question. He didn’t get a lot of mayors, he didn’t get a lot of Governors, or a lot of Senators. We had some. But every time you got one it was exciting. Then somebody would go for another candidate and that was like, oh, geez. That’s why I said the emotional level—

Riley

Did you then leave his immediate orbit? You’ve already said that you decided to go into the private side.

Knight

I did. I wanted to go into the private sector, but before I left we did the 40-40 program. Then I stayed for another four or five months. Roy became chief of staff in a transition. What I remember during that time was that he was hiring a new legislative director and a new communications director. So Roy asked me to do the first cut and give them two candidates to interview. So I did that.

Riley

Who were those two people ultimately?

Knight

There were probably a few other candidates, but I remember it as four candidates. There were two candidates for the communications role, one was Marla Romash and the other was George Stephanopoulos, and Marla got the job. For the other job it was Carol Browner and Gene Sperling.

Nelson

Really? You’re a very good—

Knight

And Carol Browner got the job. And Gene and George to this day still hold a grudge.

Riley

They’ve done all right. 

Knight

I think they’ve done fine. They do remind me of that, although it was one of their few defeats. Both of them were quite young at the time, although they were— 

Riley

They’re still quite young.

Knight

They were very gifted. Anyway, that was my claim to fame. Then I went out, I left. 

Riley

Why don’t we break now for lunch?

[BREAK]
Riley

All right, we got you past ’88 and you’re now back in the private sector. I want to move as quickly as we can to ’92 because that’s really the main course. Is there anything between ’88 and ’91-’92 that we ought to park on for a minute, from your perspective?

Knight

There wasn’t anything political that I was doing during that time. I stayed pretty close in touch with him and all that was going on. I kept trying to leave politics to get into business, but as you can see, I always get pulled back for other reasons. No, not particularly. 

Riley

Are there conversations about ’92 and about possibly his running in ’92?

Knight

Yes.

Riley

Are you getting a sense from him that he’s thinking about making the leap himself again?

Knight

I’m going to be fuzzy on this, but you know his son, who actually works here, had that accident, which was really profound. Yes, it really changed the family a lot. I guess I should say I spent a fair amount of time with him helping to organize Earth in the Balance [subtitle: Ecology and the Human Spirit]. I didn’t write it, he wrote the whole thing himself, but helping to orchestrate, getting the staffers in, and so forth. 

Riley

To provide support or to do some drafting for him?

Knight

Because it was outside—we set up a foundation and did a whole bunch of other things. I’ve always been the outside guy after that. Senators always need somebody who is—or anybody really, on the outside helping to do things that are outside their official things. So I helped with that. But it became clear in conversations pretty early on that he wasn’t going to do it.

Riley

You had mentioned his son’s accident.

Knight

I think that was a big part of it. I think focusing his energies on the book sapped a lot of energy on the environment as well. He was focused on that issue. 

Riley

Sure. 

Knight

I guess for good and ample reasons he decided early on he just wasn’t going to make another run for it. It wasn’t right for him.

Riley

Okay.

Knight

One of the things I certainly have learned, because ever since that time there has been a little cottage industry of people who have been involved in campaigns of other candidates, and they say, Hey, should I run? It’s got to be in your gut. You’ve got to have it. You’ve got to—and there’s no one who can talk you into it. I remember his father telling me, A thousand people couldn’t get you into the race but only one person can get you out. It’s true, it’s not—you’ve got to have it deeply in you that this is the thing that you want to do because it’s so hard.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

He now knew how hard it was. All of us knew how hard it was. I never tried to push. I don’t think I would have been successful anyway. Nor is he the type of guy who can be flattered to run. After having been through that, he just didn’t feel it was right.

Riley

Sure. Were you as surprised as the rest of us were that he was tapped for the Vice President nomination?

Knight

Yes, absolutely, totally shocked.

Riley

Take us back to how you found out about it.

Knight

Roy and Marla were dealing mostly with it. I remember learning, I think from Roy, that he was being vetted, and that just to—I’m not sure I helped with the vetting. I may have helped a little bit with the vetting, pulling pieces together, because I actually had done—I always filled out all his forms and so forth when he was in the Senate. But I knew about it. I knew that he was going through the process.

Then he went away to Rio. I think he was in Rio when he found out actually. I maybe wrong on that by a day or two, but it was the Rio Environmental Conference. Senator [John, III] Heinz was there, John Kerry was there, and Al. It was the last successful climate change conference. I think that’s where he got the call, or it was just as he was coming back from that. I’m pretty sure I got a call from Roy saying that they were—cowboy up or whatever it was, time to get going. Roy was off to Arkansas. So we did another campaign.

Riley

What was your role in this campaign?

Knight

Well, it was a whirlwind at that point. I remember going down to Little Rock. I’m not sure I was there for the actual announcement but I was there shortly thereafter to be introduced to the staff and so forth. But soon thereafter we were in New York at the Intercontinental Hotel, and Roy and I were going to meetings at 5 o’clock in the morning. Harold Ickes always had these early-morning meetings and it was just such a total blur. These guys were funny because we were looking to stay at the Intercontinental. I couldn’t stomach to go off to the Intercontinental Hotel again. The memory of Roy and me going into those staff meetings and being told what to do and so forth. I mean, it was very exciting but it was also humbling.

So at that point, at the very beginning when we were at the convention, everybody was trying to figure out what their role was. Basically, over time, what I did was to be his key guy at the DNC [Democratic National Committee]. He asked me to do that, which involved doing some of the politics and really getting his network of fund-raising people into the campaign. So I became sort of a counterpart to Rahm [Emanuel]. Rahm was the money guy. Rahm and Ialthough Rahm was not at the DNC, he was running it from afar. So I was the vice chairman of the campaign from the DNC. The question was whether you went to Little Rock or you went to the DNC. I went to the DNC. Roy went to Little Rock, a little bit to his chagrin, but it was exciting. At that point it was whatever you could do to help. So that was what I did.

Riley

Did you self-select that role, or was that pretty much something that was assigned to you?

Knight

Well, fortunately or unfortunately, I got pigeonholed into this route of being the guy who knew all the money people. So it was kind of hard to get out of it in any other way. So for better or worse, I wasn’t upset about it one way or another. It was a meaningful role and it was critical at that point to raise a whole bunch of money, and we did. We had some substantial building of that community, which we had done over time and had kept alive. It was get the band back together again and let’s go. That was fine. It was a great ride during that time. But I do remember those early days in the Intercontinental Hotel, watching Harold. That was the first time I had ever met Harold. 

Riley

What can you tell us about Harold Ickes?

Knight

I spent a lot more time with him in the ’96 campaign. He was just the quintessential—this was New York, this was his convention, and he was in charge. Those first few days I didn’t really see George, I didn’t see [James] Carville; they were elsewhere. It was really Susan Thomases and Harold who were running the show while we were there because it was who is going to say what, what the lineup was going to be, listening to Harold’s expletives spew out of his mouth undeleted. It was pretty entertaining.

Riley

I’m pleased to say he leaves most of them undeleted in his transcripts too. 

Knight

Anyway, I got deeply involved at the convention, let them go off on their bus tour, then headed down to the DNC and worked with a small team including Rahm. Then I worked doing all that. I did a lot of work on the debates and so forth. So there were a lot of assignments in addition to fund-raising. This was at the DNC. Not huge, not roles specifically with respect to the campaign and what they were doing. Actually, when I think about it, that was probably the start of my efforts with the DNC, which seemed to reoccur over time. Again, I didn’t have any vision of being at the DNC, especially during that period of time. In a Presidential campaign the DNC becomes a really critical component of how you raise money. Or at least it did at that point.

Nelson

What are the challenges of—I mean, here you’ve got two nationally prominent political figures, one of whom has just won the Presidential nomination. They bring along their families with them, right? They bring along not only their own reputations and their own history, but they bring along their political families with them. Then somehow it has all got to be merged into one family.

Knight

Yes.

Riley

So was it your sense, or was it the sense of Roy or any of Gore’s other people that they’re treating us like we work for them? Were they trying to give you more orders than were appropriate? Were they trying to define what Gore was going to say? Were there ways in which this was a bumpy merger?

Knight

I don’t think it was bumpy but I think it’s an awkward time for staffs and for candidates because all of the power is derivative. That goes with the staffs as well. Usually Presidential campaigns try to be deferential to the Vice Presidential nominee, but at the same time they’ve been running things for a long time. They know what their message is and you’ve got to be on that message.

So there is an effort to control that I think worked really well with Al and the President. Maybe it had something to do with the personalities that were there. Roy gets along with everybody; I think that was part of it. The person who was assigned to Al was a fellow named Mark Gearan, who I guess you’ve probably talked to, a Massachusetts boy. He’s very gifted. He’s very smart. He knew how to handle Al. He was really the head guy for the—I don’t know if Roy had the title, we all had big titles, but Mark was really in charge and he did a very nice job. 

Nelson

Knew how to handle Al?

Knight

He was deferential. He was diplomatic. He was assertive but respectful, which was not the case with some of the other people on the campaign, but Mark was. I think Mark, in that way, was more part of the traveling team. They give you a campaign manager, as is always the case, and should be the case. They gave us Dennis Alpert, who was the body guy, so that we would know—I mean, Al hadn’t been in a General Election Presidential campaign, he’d been in a primary campaign, but this was a different level. So not only was it needed but I think Mark was a pretty good buffer because they had some pretty strong personalities. A lot of those personalities did not respect, or only respected one person. Not that they didn’t respect, but it was, I work for one guy and that’s it, I don’t care about you.

Roy got that a lot more than I did, and I’m sure he would have given you the back and forth of some of the meetings that he was in and so forth in Little Rock. I think there were some who really felt that they were empowered beyond a Vice President candidate, and therefore didn’t have any respect for anyone except the Presidential candidate. I’m not being very articulate, but that he was a pawn of their ability to control things, and no Vice President, or no candidate, wants to be seen as that. There were others who were respectful. 

In those kinds of campaigns it is hard to remember that you work for two people, or that anyone else matters except the President or the Presidential nominee. You really have to stop yourself to think, Oh, I wonder how this affects Gore? We’re telling him to do this; what about his past? Is it consistent with what he did? So there are a lot of those kinds of issues that Roy worked through. I worked through a few of them and Mark helped to do some. I think it worked pretty well and ended also—the fact that they were so good together. That bus trip was a pretty electric time.

Nelson

What was the basis of that good relationship? You said earlier that Clinton and Gore really didn’t know each other. In ’88 Clinton didn’t endorse Gore. These were two people in the same generation in adjacent states. It seems odd that they wouldn’t have had a relationship until they have this marriage. What do you know about how they first—If you were telling the story of how Clinton picked Gore, how far back would you have to go in terms of their relationship to begin that story? When did they start to have a relationship? What is it about Gore that attracts Clinton?

Knight

My recollection is hazy here, but they didn’t have much of a relationship at all. I know that they met each other, but they didn’t know each other. You know, it’s natural. They’re all about the same age, they occupy the same space. Of course they’re going to be natural— 

Nelson

Rivals?

Knight

It’s similar. Any politician in the same state or same region, they’re going to be a little bit competitive with each other. I think to the extent there was any competitiveness it came out in his mind in the ’90-’91 timeframe when he’s thinking of running and Clinton is beginning to occupy that space, and was he going to run or not. There wasn’t a lot of back and forth—but as far as I know, there really wasn’t any relationship; they really didn’t know each other well at all. Why he picked him? You guys have done all the work on it. I don’t know. You guys know much more about that than I.

Riley

I doubt that, but let me come at this from a different angle. (A) Was there ever a chance that Gore would turn down the invitation to join the ticket, and (B) were there any understandings that you were privy to at the major level about how the campaign was going to unfold or about things like access and things of that nature during the campaign? We’ll talk later about what happens when he becomes Vice President. Or, I guess, even about the Vice Presidency itself. Were there some understandings at the outset about how that might be structured?

Knight

Again, I wasn’t sitting in the room when those conversations occurred, but I understand that President Clinton was really good and very deferential, and wanted Al to be a partner and wanted him to play a very visible role. I think too that all of us felt that was true because of the fact that the synergies between them were just so strong. Al complemented the President in ways that made the team better. Whether that was out of love or expediency I don’t know, but it certainly worked. The President was pretty gifted to figure that out. But he was always respectful of Al, I remember that. If Al were ever to ask him to do a certain thing he would normally do it. He would try to stay away from the infighting that went on. I don’t think there were any blowups between Gore and Clinton during the campaign. I may have missed one, but I don’t really remember any. Gore probably would have wanted to do the bus tours throughout the entire campaign [laughter] but they had some other views on that. I remember it as being pretty respectful. 

Riley

And to the first question, in your mind there was no waiting on whether he should do it?

Knight

No, I don’t think so. I think for him it was a pretty easy call; he was committed to public service. Probably the little known fact was that the Senate is a pretty hard place to stay in. It was a pretty elegant way to leave the Senate. That’s one way of putting it. He was committed to public service. This was a different arena, he wasn’t expecting it, and it was a really terrific opportunity to work with somebody who was certainly just as energized as he was about issues and so forth. They come at it from a slightly different direction, but I think the reasons that he picked him gave him great hope that he would have a big role to play.

Nelson

The Senate is a pretty hard place to stay in?

Knight

Go back and read the article that Tim Wirth wrote in 1991 in the New York Times magazine. 

Nelson

When he retired?

Knight

When he retired.

Nelson

What you meant by that is not that it is a pretty hard place to get reelected to but it is a pretty hard place to— 

Knight

To live in. I can’t even imagine being in the United States Senate right this minute. I don’t know how these guys stomach it. But even back in those days. Al would never—Tim just let it all out to the extent that when he tried to get a job with the administration, Al really had to go to bat for him because the Senators, especially Senator [Robert] Byrd, would have nothing to do with him. They were totally aghast that he would leave the Senate and say what a horrible place it is. As we were talking about, it’s a definition of a gaffe, right? 

Riley

Airing your dirty laundry in public.

Knight

Telling the truth at the wrong time.

Nelson

Inconvenient truth.

Knight

An inconvenient truth. Al wouldn’t have done that but, and that’s not—he wouldn’t say that, but it was a side benefit.

Nelson

There’s a pattern here that makes it easy for me to believe that he didn’t hesitate to accept because what you talked about as leading him to run for the House initially, leading him to run for the Senate initially, leading him to run for President initially, it was a window opened. It was like an attractive window to go through and he did.

Knight

Exactly.

Nelson

The impression about Gore that a lot of people have is that he is very ponderous and slow moving and deliberate sometimes to the point of immobility. But you’re describing a Gore who grabbed—whenever he saw an attractive brass ring he didn’t hesitate to grab it.

Knight

Right.

Nelson

So why do people think of him as this kind of deliberative to the extreme kind of person, ponderous?

Knight

It all happened after ’92.

Nelson

People didn’t think of him that way until— 

Knight

Because they saw him as the wooden guy behind Clinton.

Nelson

That’s very interesting.

Knight

That was the view that most people have, but that’s not the view I had, nor other colleagues—he was a pretty good pol up to ’92.He was a pretty good political guy. Not the best. Nothing like Clinton. Nothing like the President. Nobody could match him, but he was pretty good. He had good instincts and he went with them. The Presidential campaign was sort of doomed from the beginning so I don’t really take that as a test. But in Tennessee, he was a couple of steps ahead. The Midgetman missile thing was really three steps ahead of everybody else. As a chess move that was pretty impressive. The environmental stuff, his communications, and the stuff that he did on science policy and so forth were ahead.

So I think people saw him in that role of standing behind Clinton—the wooden jokes and the Secret Service, I’m the stiff one—they would have seemed totally out of place in ’91. It wasn’t until ’92 that he began to—and that is the role of the Vice President. There is an aspect of him to do the right thing. He’s the good soldier. If he’s told that he needs to do it this way then he will do it that way and he’s not going to fight it.

Nelson

To a fault? I know this is getting a little bit ahead of where we need to be, but my impression was that Goreit’s not like Clinton said, Al, I want you in the picture, I want you standing behind me in the picture. It was Gore who wanted to be standing behind him in the picture. In some ways Gore internalized his understanding of a Vice President to an extreme and ended up presenting himself in ways that he thought the Vice President should be like but were not natural to him. I’m thinking out loud here.

Riley

I’ve often heard people say he acts Presidential. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before now anybody say he acts Vice Presidential. 

Nelson

He acted Vice Presidential. Again, this is just off the cuff.

Knight

I don’t know. I didn’t really get the idea that he put himself in the picture. He was Vice President of the United States; he gets to be in any picture he wants. I think the President never said you can’t do this. I don’t think the staff—I didn’t really hear anybody saying you should not be in this picture.

Nelson

No, I misspoke. I didn’t mean he elbowed his way into the picture using his own judgment.

Riley

No. 

Nelson

But that he thought being the Vice President means visibly standing by the President, and the real consequence of that was that people thought of him as this wooden figure standing behind the President was the image he was trying to convey. There may not be anything to this.

Knight

I’m not sure. Listen, he knew that the power that was there was derivative and he wasn’t the President and that was okay with him. But there is that aspect of him, which is the good soldier, he does the right thing.

Riley

Let me try another angle on this. Did you ever get the sense that he was turning the voltage down in order not to upstage the President?

Knight

I think he was respectful and deferential and I think he understood where he was. I don’t think he needed to turn the voltage down. What I do think is that hein some respects the Vice Presidency was one of the most exciting times he could ever have because he didn’t have to worry about the politics of the situation, all he had to do was worry about the substance. He was good at that. He was really good at that. 

I do think—I may be wrong on it, but I do think that for those eight years, because the President was so dominant on the political side, he allowed some of those political skills to atrophy. Then he became not as sure of himself politically. Substantively he was great but—because the President was so dominant politically. And frankly there wasn’t anything that you could—the President was making those calls, the political calls. I mean, he would always put in his views on the foreign policy judgments, but in terms of politics or thinking that way, Al didn’t have to do that, it wasn’t his job. His job was to be a really good substantive guy to go in and solve any problem that the President asked him to solve. I think his substantive and his policy skills were greatly enhanced, but I think his political skills probably atrophied.

Nelson

What did you do during—first of all, is there anything else about the ’92 campaign?

Riley

You mentioned debate prep. What role did you have in debate prep?

Knight

Mostly with the surrogates, the people who did the spin room. So there were always four or five people who were the key guys, the Senator, the Governor, so we’d go in and brief them, hear them talking, this is what you should be saying. So there’s always a big apparatus around the debates. Of course, in ’92 that was sort of the beginning of the circus around the debates. It hadn’t come to the fine art that it is now, or has been. It was just starting. It wasn’t until, I don’t know which debate it was, that we finally figured out you should have signs so they could point to where Harold Ickes was, where all the people were. Then it continued on in ’96.

Nelson

You did this for all the debates?

Knight

All the debates, yes. 

Nelson

Were you involved at all in debate prep for the Vice Presidential debate?

Knight

I did not do that. I was not—I mean, I was around and sat in on some of the sessions, but I was not the guy who was doing the briefing on that debate.

Nelson

In the Vice Presidential debate there was some criticism of Gore for I guess not responding as vigorously to [J. Danforth] Quayle’s attacks on Clinton? Some of the Clinton people thought he should have—am I remembering that right? If so, was it a fair criticism?

Knight

I vaguely remember that but I don’t think it is a fair criticism. I think he would have done anything that he felt he needed to do. There was no holding back.

Nelson

So he felt he had done well.

Knight

To my recollection, yes. Of course, the expectations for him were a lot higher.

Nelson

That’s true, that’s very true.

Knight

The debate stuff, it’s hard. He is a really skillful debater but he has had some bad moments, or it has been perceived, as he said, as bad moments because times when I thought he did extremely well, it was only two or three days later that the perceived wisdom is different.

Nelson

You’re talking about 2000?

Knight

Yes, more in 2000. 

Riley

Let’s come back to that. You were mostly in Washington, then, during the ’92 campaign?

Knight

Yes, I was.

Riley

Was it a good time to be raising money?

Knight

Yes. There was a lot of enthusiasm, it was very exciting. I think the opportunity to make some significant changes, to try to change the world, there was a lot of excitement, yes. And because of that—it was just not a humdrum collection; at that point it was really seen as important.

Nelson

Was it your job to raise money from the Gore network or was it more than that? Not that that wouldn’t be a big job by itself.

Knight

We had a whole network that was really not a Clinton network at all. Very few of the people who were in our campaign were in the Clinton campaign. So it was a whole new network that we brought into it. We raised about a third of the money, maybe a little bit more than that, 40% of the money was raised after Gore got into the race. It was a big shot in the arm. 

Nelson

Had that ever been done by a Vice Presidential candidate, raising close to—

Knight

I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s why Clinton picked him, but that was a side benefit of it because he had a very strong network of people who had been sitting on the sidelines and were really excited now to get involved. In Presidential campaigns that’s actually what you need because it’s so—even fund-raising people get stale, they’ve talked to everybody. What you need is new blood. So that’s what we were able to bring to it. 

Nelson

Was that yours and Gore’s initiative? Give us some marching orders and we can raise a lot of money that you might not have expected? Or was it them telling you, we want you to tap into your network, and you taking that command and running with it?

Knight

I think there was an expectation that we would raise money. But I think we wildly exceeded it. Rahm was no shrinking violet; he said go out and get something done. But I think—we may differ on whether it was 40% or 33% or whatever, and he would always say that the President’s supporters were more dominant, but we had a big impact. I think at this point even he would concede that. It was a big shot in the arm. We were able to do a lot of it without the President’s participation, so we could do a lot of it with just Gore, which was a big thing for them. Because taking the President’s time to do stuff wasit was hard to get on the Presidential calendar. But to the extent that Al could be perceived as bringing along a lot, that was a big deal. I think it helped him. Fund-raising is just one aspect of what he did, but he gave that campaign a symbolic boost, an energy boost, and certainly a big financial boost.

Riley

Where were you on election night?

Knight

Where else? In Little Rock.

Riley

You were in Little Rock. You went down for that?

Knight

Sure.

Nelson

Gore was in Little Rock too?

Knight

Yes.

Riley

But you’d been in Washington most of the campaign.

Knight

Yes.

Riley

So you go down to Little Rock, and do you have a nice story?

Knight

You know, for people who are focusing more on fund-raising than are in the field, the last part of the campaign is kind of weird because two weeks out there’s nothing more you can do. So all the people in the DNC were deployed to go into the field. All the calls had been made and now it’s just execution. Many of the people at the top of the campaign didn’t have much to do. 

It’s actually a pretty funny time, the last two weeks. It had always been kind of weird for me because I’d either been on the fund-raising side or on the management side and there are few decisions to make, but for the most part it’s on autopilot at that point. So I could kind of enjoy going to Little Rock. We would organize the parties that people were going to be at and keep the community together, that sort of thing, which was pretty easy. 

Nelson

Did you feel at all frustrated at this time in your career by your success as a fund-raiser? I mean, you described yourself as originally a real issues guy, a policy guy. Now people are saying you can really raise money, man, so that’s what we need you to do.

Knight

I didn’t really feel frustrated by it, I don’t think. I was a little bit pigeonholed in that respect. But these are very significant roles in a Presidential campaign, so I was just really grateful to be a part of it in some respects, in many respects. Ten years ago I would have decided to be in another part of the campaign rather than raising the money, but this is the way it went. That was okay with me. I made a lot of good friends. I think we did a lot of good together. 

There’s an aspect of fund-raising that’s quite rewarding. You know immediately if you’re any good at it.

Nelson

You measure your success.

Knight

You measure your success on a daily basis. I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures. So it’s winning or losing.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

On the issues side of the campaign it’s not as determinative, if you will, and you don’t see the results every day. There’s some aspect of that. For the most part I don’t think so, it was what it was. I was able to play a pretty big role and be a part of that history and I was incredibly excited.

Nelson

One thing you said earlier when you were talking about raising money for Gore’s Congressional campaigns is that it’s a different kind of challenge in a Presidential campaign. I don’t know that we ever followed up on that. For example, PACs are really not players in Presidential campaigns. Were there other fundamental differences in addition to just scale of operation? Is there a different skill set or knowledge base that you need to be a good fund-raiser for Presidential campaigns as opposed to Congressional campaigns?

Knight

Presidential fund-raising is a lot more satisfying because it is a pure way of participating in the electoral process. People are supporting them because they like the guy or the gal. There’s really no expectation that they will get something other than maybe a White House Christmas party or a state dinner. It’s the excitement of being part of something bigger than they are that drives a lot of the fund-raising people. 

And by the way, there were times when people would come to you and say, I’ll help you but I want this. Then you’d stop the conversation and say, I don’t want to have anything to do with you, because it was illegal. But for a quid pro quo for what you were doing. That happened several times. So there were built-in mechanisms to—usually in those cases it was somebody saying, I’ll do this but I want to be an Ambassador. It wasn’t, I want a bill, I want a piece of legislation. It was more of that. That happened a couple of times, and you just throw them out of your office and say I don’t want to have anything to do with you for fear the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]Well, for doing the right thing but also the fact that you never know if these guys are wired or whatever, and fortunately we stayed clear of that. But it’s the purest form of support. They’re doing it because they like the guy and they like the team and they’re very excited about being—and it’s a very exciting process. The fact that they can be invited to a Presidential debate, it’s fun and it’s exciting, and it’s part of history. In that way, it’s quite satisfying. 

If you can help to motivate people and have them go beyond where they want to be and push them in a good way to exceed the goals that they even think that they can, then that’s what a manager does and what was very satisfying about fund-raising. I mean, in one respect the skill set is more akin to business and managerial skills than it is to politics—because most of these people have day jobs, and you’ve got to make sure that they take time from their day jobs and don’t do their day job in order to work on what you want them to do. You’ve got to call them all the time. What are you doing? Let’s do this. Oh, so-and-so is doing a little bit more. It’s all these little tricks that you use to get people to work hard. But that was fun, and it’s exciting.

Nelson

At your level you’re not so much calling up people and asking for donations, you’re calling up people and saying I need you to solicit donations from your network, is that right?

Knight

Absolutely, my job in most of the campaigns was not to call people for a thousand dollars but to get people who were going to go out and raise money in significant sums. You can’t raise the kind of money that you need in a Presidential campaign without—I mean outside of the DNC money, which is a little bit larger, more than a little bit larger, in the Presidential primary context, a thousand dollars, two thousand dollars, 24 hundred. Now, the trick is to get 200, 300, 400 people who will raise $100,000 because you can’t get there otherwise. So the game really is to recruit new people and to get them energized. That’s actually a lot of fun.

I came up here hundreds of times, not always successfully, but to try to say you can be a part of something really great. I believed it and still believe it to be the case. So when you believe the candidates, believe what they can do and believe that these other people have the networks to be able to be effective, then it’s a pretty easy story. You just have to tell it, and tell it with passion and so forth. 

Riley

Did you findand I guess I’ll restrict this to ’92 unless you want to carry it forwardthat the structures of the campaign finance system were sufficiently understandable that you weren’t constantly trying to figure out if you were keeping within those structures or not?

Knight

Keeping within the law or keeping within the structures?

Riley

I guess both. As an outsider looking in we hear complaints, and I don’t know exactly how to give voice to them, but we hear complaints about the system at large being so complicated that it’s sometimes hard to know what is allowable and what isn’t allowable. I’m trying to get the perception of somebody who’s been on the inside working on these things, of a sense about whether the structures you were working in were transparent enough for you to know or feel comfortable most or all of the time, that you weren’t somehow running afoul of some regulation or some law related to what was permissible and what wasn’t.

Knight

I can’t really remember a time when I was ambiguous about that; it was black and white. 

Riley

Okay.

Knight

We tried—sometimes the rules changed after, but I’m a lawyer, I never took a step without making sure that we were 100% within the law. I just felt for hisfor the President, for the Vice Presidentyou always did everything you possibly could within the confines of the black and white. If there was a gray area you didn’t do it, and you always checked with the lawyers no matter what you did. 

Riley

Okay. 

Knight

So I understand that, but I never felt thatI’m trying to think of a circumstance in which—you know, every single thing that we ever did was all vetted through lawyers. Now, as I said, sometimes the rules change after the fact and that’s disconcerting, but for the most part I always felt that we were doing it the right way. 

Riley

Okay. You get a portfolio during the transition period that moves beyond the fund-raising business and actually has you back in, if the briefing book is correct, both in personnel and issue areas. I’m looking at two entries here; one is related to a formal role that you had during the transition in helping to vet staff out to government. And then there is a fascinating reference here to your researching the history of the Vice Presidency. I’d like to get you to elaborate on both of those things. What was your formal role during the transition, and then what were you doing behind the scenes to help tee up Al Gore to be Vice President?

Knight

Well, I did do a memo to him on the Vice Presidency, and a couple of other folks worked on it. I remember meeting him, I’m trying to remember exactly where it was, and briefing him on that about a week before because it looked—I don’t know if it was a week before, but it was all behind the scenes. It was things that he ought to be thinking about and what he should ask for and what historically folks had done in that office.

Riley

Okay.

Knight

I’m not exactly sure whetherprobably Roy asked me to do it and it was because he didn’t—no one else had time to do it, and obviously it was something you didn’t want a lot of people knowing about for reasons that you didn’t want them to think that you were getting ahead of yourself. Transitions always have that—It was really more historical analysis, and not so much— The other people in the real transition were thinking about what’s the role of the White House going to be? But it was what are the kinds of things that the Vice President, at the outset, could ask for and be a part of that were realistic and historically accurate? I certainly hadn’t reviewed it; I don’t know how good it was anyway. I probably thought it was brilliant at the time but it was just a historical look back. As you might expect, it looked more to the Mondale Vice Presidency as the thing that you’d hold up as one that would be more effective. I remember starting it out with something like, It’s the economy, stupid. I think my line was, It’s all derivative, stupid. It was that you have to understand that you don’t have the power; it’s all derivative from what he will give you. We went through issues like, should there be a luncheon—

Nelson

A weekly?

Knight

A weekly luncheon. Where should the office be? Should the Chief of Staff also be a special assistant to the President? Small things, but they were—What role is he going to have in the transition? What kind of resources will he have? What portfolio will he have? What’s appropriate to ask for? It was those kinds of issues. Really, what we were doing was just getting it in his head. These were things he knew about but he was the candidate, he was on autopilot, and he wasn’t thinking about these things. So we just stopped him and came back in a couple of times to talk about what would happen. After Little Rock was over, I remember having a number of us going in and talking to him about these, briefing Roy and then talking about the issues. It was pretty heady times because after the election everybody took a little bit of time off, but then it was whoa, we have to form a government. 

So I don’t want to overinflate my role in writing a memo, but I certainly remember doing it and briefing him on it. For the most part, all of what we had hoped to come true actually came true. 

Nelson

One thing that Mondale asked for, based on his study of the Vice Presidency, was not to be assigned a particular portfolio but rather to be free from any specific responsibility so he could be a wide-ranging senior advisor. [Hubert] Humphrey had told him that he wished he had thought of that when he was Vice President, and Mondale really got it. Do you remember how you came down on that issue? What would be the essential place of the Vice President? Would it be as a general advisor or would he take on specific portfolios?

Knight

I remember there being a discussion of that. I would have to go back and see it and see what I actually said, but I know that there was a discussion of that and that it was pretty well known at the time that that was how Mondale had done it and that was his— 

Riley

Peter, did you keep a copy of the memo?

Knight

I’m sure I did— 

Riley

Because those are Presidential records, and if you could find it and you didn’t have objections, you could append this to your transcript as a resource document, subject to all the regular stipulations. Forgive me, go ahead.

Knight

I should go back and see. It wasn’t part of the Presidential—I gave it to him, showed it to him. I think he gave me back a copy. 

Riley

Okay. 

Knight

But I remember that discussion. That was pretty well known at that time. But the relationship really had to develop between the two of them and how they wanted to do it. He was aware that that was an opportunity and a downside. But for the most part, Mondale’s Vice Presidency was held out as a model for how well—and one that you could build upon, and that’s really what we were trying to do. 

Nelson

Did you have a sense that Clinton had been thinking about this too, or people around Clinton, and he was getting his own advice about what Al Gore’s role should be in the White House? Or when Gore went and talked to Clinton, I guess based on his preferences this was not something Clinton already had his own positions on.

Knight

I do think that the President had an expansive view of what Al should do, what the Vice President should do. I’m not sure the staff thought the same thing. That is why you want to prepare him as best you can to be thinking about all these issues, to go on and fight for this, because if you don’t you’re going to get trampled. I don’t think that there’s any question that Presidential staff do almost anything they can to cut out the Vice President. I’m not aiming that at anyone in particular, it’s just a natural event.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

I mean it’s just, we’re in charge and you’re not. And, by the way, they’re right, because it’s all derivative, stupid.

Nelson

But the staff’s power is all derivative; staff has no power independent of what the President gives them.

Knight

No, but it’s pretty powerful. You can have a thousand cuts. By the way, there aren’t that many times you’re going to go to the President and say, Hey, have this guy cut it out.You can’t do that. The President doesn’t want it, the Vice President doesn’t. I mean, he getshow many asks during each luncheon do you get? You don’t get that many asks—you get a lot of What do you think, Al? or What do you think, Mr. President? because that’s really what his—I think what the President got, and what he knew he got, was his judgment, and he was always was going to get that. 

But I think the President was pretty generous. I don’t remember him ever pushing back on things. What we tried to make sure was that what he asked for was reasonable, that he wasn’t greedy, that it was respectable and relatively humble and helpful. So that’s why we tried to think through those issues, but also on the side of protecting him.

Nelson

Apart from all the other things that Gore brought in the way of talent and experience, he knew his way around Washington, and Bill Clinton and a lot of his staff didn’t. Was that an asset that you were able to make, or help Gore make, a lot of? He had a knowledge base here about some of the challenges you were going to deal with working in Washington, that’s a value to you.

Knight

I think that was one of the main values. This was a pretty young crew that came in. When I went over to work in Presidential personnel, I was one—there were two principal deputies to [Richard] Riley in personnel, and then we had a whole bunch of others that came in, who turned out to be all-stars in the administration. But we had a rainbow of people who had to be deputies. At the end of it there were eight of us. There was only one person who had any experience in the Federal Government, and that was me. The number of people who came and said, I think I should be at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], I’d like to be assistant administrator. I’d say, Do you know how many people would work for you? They’d say, Well, I worked in scheduling in the campaign. [laughter] I’d say, Do you know that you’ll have 1,500 people working for you, career people, scientists, Ph.D.s, lawyers?They’d say, Oh, I didn’t know that.

Nelson

And you won’t be able to fire them. 

Knight

And you won’t be able to fire, right. So there was a lot of—I mean, I don’t have to tell you guys. During the first period—and I only saw it for the first three or four months in the transition. I saw it on the personnel side, where there is a lot of elbowing. I mean, it is the worst. What I was doing was just teeing things up. I didn’t really have any real power to put people in, but we suggested a lot. But you could see, you’re hand-holding all the people who were there and thought that they should get these exalted positions. Frankly, people like Rahm and George initially overstepped what they should have been doing, and many other people did as well. But there was a lot of inexperience.

Nelson

Overstep meaning?

Knight

They asked—

Nelson

They were out of their league initially?

Knight

Yes. Not that they weren’t important to what the President was doing, and that isn’t to diminish it, but didn’t have the formal experience to—I mean, it takes a while to figure out that it is actually not a good idea to be in a job above your weight. You should be good at what you do rather than be struggling. Most of the time at the beginning of an administration there’s just such a rush to get the biggest title and the biggest everything that you could possibly get. It’s always a mistake. Some people have done it a lot better than others. I don’t admire the [George W.] Bush administration for much of anything, but I think they did that extremely well. And I think Reagan did it well. [Jimmy] Carter was horrible at it.

Riley

They have more experience though. Democrats—a dozen years or more in between administrations doesn’t give you much of a bench.

Knight

Yes, it was hard. That’s exactly right. 

Riley

There was a transition operation that existed during the course of the campaign that was run by Mickey Kantor.

Knight

Yes.

Riley

Did you inherit any of that work, or did that just get blown up or disregarded?

Knight

No, we did have a representative in that camp and that was Carol Browner. She was working as Mickey’s deputy. So you’d really have to ask her how that occurred, but of course it all got kind of blown up. It’s always such a treacherous field. I stayed out of that. I mean, I had done this little Vice Presidential memo and that’s why I don’t want to overinflate whatever role I had there, but it was just a thinking piece to get him to think about it. But in terms of the actual transition, Carol was doing that. So we had people who were at different aspects of this. I was not a part of that, thankfully. But then my role became two roles within personnel, one was the only person who actually had federal experience, and two, to help Al with his efforts within placing the people in the administration. 

Nelson

I don’t know of any previous Vice President who was able to get more of his suggestions taken in terms of appointees to important positions. 

Knight

Thank you very much.

Riley

You got a nice smile on your face when those words were spoken.

Nelson

Explain that to us, because it is an important chapter in the history of the Vice Presidency. You said [Richard] Cheney was able to follow in that path. I don’t know about Biden, but that was something that hadn’t been done by a previous Vice President that did happen in your case. Explain that success. 

Knight

The Vice President had a number of areas that the President had indicated that he wanted him to play a significant role in. They had discussions with that throughout the campaign. There was an expectation that he would do that, that he would try to play an influential role. Of course, we knew that you really needed to move people into those positions; otherwise, if they were not people you knew well—so, number one, we knew that we had to get our own people in there. Not that they were different from his people. But secondly, we actually knew people who were really good, really gifted, so it was important to place people who were familiar with Gore’s role and his views and so forth. So it was really part of a conscious strategy to be, as I said, very focused, modest, but effective.

Nelson

If I heard you correctly, I think what you were saying was that first of all, unless you had good people doing these jobs, they might not get done, even if they were trying. Second, unless they were people who you had a connection to, they might feel free to disregard the Vice President if he’s trying to give them guidance about what to do in office. Is that right? 

Knight

I think that if you are being seen as playing a significant role in a policy area, you would like to have people you’re familiar with, who are not only loyal to you but who know your positions and are familiar, have a relationship that is familiar, and you can have a good policy discussion, etcetera. So yes, you’re going to want people who are loyal to you. It isn’t that they were disloyal to the President, it’s just that they had worked with Vice President Gore. 

It was a constant with Al. He and I were—it was really that he and I and Roy worked extremely closely together to make sure that there were opportunities for people in both Cabinet and subcabinet positions who we knew were really good. So in that sense we were way ahead of the game. We knew people who were really good and we could target—go to the President and his team and say this person is really good, we’ve got to get him in quickly. You’ve said that he is going to be in charge of telecommunications or environmental policy and okay, you think this person—okay, great, let’s go.

The effort was, again, not to be greedy but to try to pick the people who would be in key positions and who would be excellent, people the President didn’t have experience with but we knew would be extremely good at what they did, and they knew Al.

Nelson

Weren’t you interested in taking a position in the administration, at least in principle?

Knight

No. Well, this is a later conversation, but I had spent 16 years in public service and I frankly couldn’t afford to be in public service and I felt that I had to be out for some period of time. I could have had a number of positions, but I think I was smart not to. I think it was more for my family. It was better for me to stay out and to try to be outside of government for eight years. Frankly, I had always felt that at some point I would go in, and it would be during the Gore administration. Of course, that wasn’t to be, but nonetheless that was sort of in the back of my mind. If I took eight years and was outside, and maybe if he were successful, then that would be the time to come back in.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

It’s not that I disdain that, it’s just that I had spent so much—it was really 16 years, and I hadn’t been out long enough to make any money. 

Riley

Gore was spending most of the transition in Little Rock, right?

Knight

Yes.

Riley

He was down there working with the President and the First Lady on Cabinet nominations. Are you in constant communication with him about what’s going on down there?

Knight

The transition was about subcabinet positions.

Riley

Your transition.

Knight

My transition. The personnel transition that I was working on was subcabinet. So what he was working on—yes, he was working on the Cabinet. So that’s why I said there was a constant between Roy and me because Roy was really—in an effort to try and push forward those folks who might be for Cabinet positions, where there were a few, like Carol, whatever, the EPA, like Katie [Kathleen McGinty]. Then my job was the ones that were underneath. So we worked very closely together to push people at the right time to get a decision made that allowed them to be first in.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

And it was just really the knowledge we had of the Federal Government. For example, we went in early and said, Gee, we’d like just to be able to give a few names for Ambassadorships. That was it. Again, it was modest, humble, but focused. So he said, Okay, sounds reasonable. That was one of the ways that we did it. It was pretty interesting. I do remember Bruce Lindsey talking to John Emerson one time, or someone telling me one day, Christ, I came into this thing, how the hell did all these Gore people get in here? [laughter] I said, Oh, I’ll see you later. But they were really effective, they were good people.

Riley

Did you have any notable losses?

Knight

Well, no, because losses turned into victories over time. There was a time when one of the people they were pushing really hard for was the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] chairman. That was an area that he knew a lot about. He initially lost the battle because there was another candidate, but that person got kind of blown up. That’s the other thing in personnel. You never know. Don’t burn any bridges because candidates can get blown up for a whole bunch of different reasons. So it was really the—with our candidate, who was Reed Hundt, we basically said, If something happens we would like this to be the guy. The President said fine, because they already had a candidate. Then when people said the President had already agreed that Reed would be the number-two person if anything happened, a number of people came out saying, Hey, you can’t— I already told Gore. At least that’s how I remember it. He might have a different recollection. 

Again, I think it wasn’t an attempt to go around, it was just an attempt to be pretty focused. Gore is focused and very substantively oriented, and I think the administration was extremely well served by someone like Reed being in there.

Riley

In a couple of instances you’ve mentioned the issue areas that were assigned to Gore, telecommunications, environment. Eventually he gets reinventing government. At what stage was the decision taken that those were going to be Gore’s issues? I’m assuming, based on what you’ve said already, that it must be a postelection stage. But when does Clinton say all right, I want you to be the point person on these issues? Was there a negotiation about what those issues would be?

Knight

My recollection is that those discussions happened a lot on the bus trail, just before him being in the Vice Presidential—he wanted him to be, not an equal partner but to be a partner. Certainly, whether Gore would hear it as a co-Presidency, he certainly thought he would be a welcomed partner. I think the President always talked about—there were certain issues that he was not as well informed on, and foreign policy was one, defense policy, science policy, environmental policy, communications. Governors don’t deal with this kind of stuff, why should they? He dealt with a whole series of others that were arguably just more important. 

So there was a lot of—and the brilliance of the President was to utilize the best that Gore had. I think the President was really effective and very generous in giving Al leeway, but smart to do so. I’m sure there was some pulling back at various times, but for the most part giving him the bandwidth that he needed to be effective in those areas, to be effective for both of them. Because the President had other things to do. To the extent you have a couple of really smart people focusing on problems, that’s better than just having one. That’s the way he saw it, that’s the way Gore saw it, and I think that’s really much to his credit.

Riley

After the administration gets inaugurated and moves into office, what kind of ongoing contact are you having with the Vice President at this point?

Knight

We were friends and I’d see him and they’d invite me to stuff, and I’d go and schmooze and that kind of stuff. There wasn’t really an ongoing relationship. I’d see Roy all the time. I’d see the staff. I knew all the staff. I’d talk to them all the time. There was a whole network of people who were interested in getting their views heard or wanted Presidential commission things and to be on this and be on that. I stayed active in helping them do that, like being on the Kennedy Center board or things like that. I did feel that to the extent that these were the little perks that you could give to people that it was important to keep the network alive and happy and being responsive. 

If there is one thing that the President’s side did not do, which was sort of their detriment in ’96, was that people were so active and busy doing other things that they didn’t have the network to come and take care of the people who were part of their broader network. And I think we did that pretty effectively on Gore’s side. That was a big part of keeping the community and the family, if you will, together. 

Riley

So they almost would have had to have designated somebody to be the keeper of the networks outside the formal confines of the White House?

Knight

There is a role. I wasn’t the only one who was doing it, but there is a role for that, yes. I was Gore’s guy. I’ll always be Gore’s guy. So that comes with a blessing and a curse sometimes. But I was always his guy.

Riley

Were you involved—one of the things that we hear, and scholars talk about this all the time, is the bubble that a President lives in, presumably a Vice President lives in also. That it’s very difficult because of the bubble to get accurate readings about what is going on outside the bubble. Are you, because of your position, well situated to be a thermometer, or whatever the proper metaphor is, for getting Al Gore’s sense of how he is doing outside the bubble, or does your presence in Washington make you a biased thermometer?

Knight

Probably—I certainly had an opportunity to talk, but I’m not sure what’s really going on in the country. One shouldn’t turn to me to be the one to do it. Here I am sitting in Washington and talking to folks who are within Washington all the time. I think I’m probably more the perceived judgment of Washington. I certainly was a part of that conversation, but that didn’t really tell him how he was doing. So I don’t— 

Nelson

For the sake of time, should we be moving into the reelect?

Riley

Probably. Unless there’s something else. I don’t know, because you don’t have a formal role in the first Clinton Presidency.

Knight

I had no formal role ’92 to ’96.

Riley

It’s a little hard to know based on the paper trail, the public paper trail, whether there is something that we should ask you about. So I guess the generic question is just, is there anything related to that first term, any duties that you’re performing or roles, informal roles that you served that are important for us to know, to be aware of?

Knight

No. Not really. Just trying to be a friend and help out and provide guidance and whatever you could do. But no, there wasn’t a formal role.

Nelson

One thing that is easy to overlook is that at the time Clinton and Gore were approaching the challenge of reelection, three of the four previous Presidents who had run for reelection were beaten, Clinton beat one of them. Each of those three[Gerald] Ford, Carter, and [George H. W.] Bushfaced, at a minimum, a nuisance fight for renomination and sometimes a real serious fight for renomination, which weakened them for the challenge. So you’ve got that pattern. 

You’ve also got the political disaster of ’94 and this incredible shrinking President and the perception that Clinton was an unusually weak candidate for reelection at that stage. When were you asked and when did you start helping out in any way in the effort to get reelected in ’96?

Knight

I guess the first actual thing we did is the first fund-raiser for President Clinton.

Nelson

In?

Knight

It was just prior to the primary, the Presidential campaign to be started, or just about the same time, so I’m not exactly sure what month that was. I guess it was probably my idea. Let’s do the first one and let’s get all our people in there and we’ll just give him the money and say this is the most important thing we can possibly do to show that we’re supporting the reelection of the President. 

Nelson

So this would have been in ’95?

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

Fairly early in ’95?

Knight

It was early. It was just about the time that Terry [McAuliffe]he raised the money for the primary campaignbefore he started, just around the time. So before they even got started we said we’ll do the first fund-raiser. 

Nelson

Was there a strategy here of—because I remember there was even talk after ’94 of Gephardt or somebody challenging Clinton for renomination. Was there a sense when you’re starting to raise money pretty early that we don’t want that to happen, so we want to raise enough money early so that there will be no fight for renomination because nobody will be able to climb that mountain of raising enough money to run a serious campaign? Was that part of your thinking then?

Knight

No, I think that was over at that point. I don’t know how much, how serious. I don’t really remember how serious that was, but by the President asking Terry, who was Gephardt’s guy, to be his finance chair, finance director, whatever the title was, that pretty much took that out. So really, no, the motivation for us was to just do everything we possibly could to make sure that he knew that we were first in with the most and could help him and get that money out of the way.

Riley

It was very much an accelerated schedule, right? 

Knight

Yes.

Riley

I mean, ’94 sets off alarm bells in the White House. You’ve got Dick Morris and others recommending that the White House go on the offensive with a very early ad campaign and things of that nature. I guess most of that must have come through the DNC. But you’re involved— 

Knight

Most of it came through the DNC and I was not involved in the DNC, with the exception of one thing. So we focused just on the primary part. It was the thousand-dollar contributors. As I remember, we raised pretty close to a million or over a million dollars for that first event. So that was pretty good. I think it demonstrated what we had hoped that it would. Then afterwards they asked me to be—I’m forgetting exactly; I think this is in March or soasked me to be the chair of a DNC event, so I did do that. I wasn’t involved in the DNC activities. So all of those efforts were being run out of the White House. I didn’t have a formal role at the DNC. 

In fact, when I did, I was just the chair, and you—basically there’s a whole apparatus and then you come in and take the podium and all that kind of stuff. As I remember, we did a pretty good job of raising money at that DNC event.

Riley

Was that ’95 or ’96?

Knight

It was ’96. It was just shortly before I was asked to be campaign manager.

Riley

April of ’96 is when you’re designated campaign manager, according to the timelines.

Knight

So it might have been March or early April.

Riley

But you had been involved, and I’m framing this as a statement but it is more of a question. You were involved in providing advice and memos on fund-raising in ’95 to help them get started on this? The context for this is that there is this whole controversy that arises about the use of the White House as a venue for rewarding donors.

Knight

Yes. 

Riley

My general question is to get you to comment on that, what the thought process was that went behind this, and what your sense is of the use of the President and the Vice President and their time and the resources of the White House in assisting them for political purposes.

Knight

Well, other than having specific assignments, some with Gore, I really wasn’t involved in the DNC side during the ’95-’96 timeframe. 

Riley

Okay.

Knight

The decisions to—the Lincoln bedroom and all those kinds of things, I wasn’t privy to those conversations, nor did I write any memos about how that should be done. I’ve read after the fact of how the needs of the campaign sort of pushed people to think of creative ways to use—but I was not part of the strategy. I was not part of the Morris—See, I didn’t come into that thing until April. I think I started in May, and it was only at that point that I really understood what was—they became involved in the discussions that happened with the White House and the DNC and so forth, and I wasn’t privy to them before. 

The things that I was privy to, which we later got in trouble for, were helping, it was like, who is going to help Al make phone calls for the DNC? Well, Peter should do it. So that’s basically how I got— 

Riley

Last in on the decision, first in on raising the money. 

Knight

Exactly, and it was our effort to try to do it the right way that caused you to go through some of the gyrations, because where was he going to make the calls from? That’s what got him involved when all of the—and the rules shifted. But certainly during that period of time, I did help him make the calls, called ahead to people and said, Gore is going to give you a call, blah, blah, blah. 

Riley

And you were doing this at the DNC?

Knight

Well, physically I’m not sure if I was at my office or at the DNC, but I was not in the White House for sure. We were quite scrupulous about making sure that I wasn’t in the White House making— 

Riley

But the Vice President was in the White House sometimes making the calls?

Knight

I’m not going to get into that.

Riley

There are millions of dollars in investigations.

Knight

Yes, you can go in. Those are not days I’d care to relive. But anyway, I wasn’t involved in the decisions to do what they were doing. So I’m begging off in some respect. What I did—so I was, in one sense, sort of transitioning out of the fund-raising mode and I had been asked to go into the DNC at various times, which I said no to because I really didn’t want to. So, from the fund-raising side I did that first event with Gore and that was about it.

Riley

Okay.

Knight

Then they asked me to do this, to be the head of this DNC fund-raiser, and I did that. That was about the extent—in addition to Gore asking me to help with making these phone calls and so forth. The other parts of it I really wasn’t involved in.

Riley

That’s before April of ’96.

Knight

Right.

Riley

And when you’re helping Gore make phone calls. We’re historians, we hear—what’s it like? I mean, I’m not going to ask you to take a phone and practice one here, but how do you go about doing that, and what is your role if you’re working with him on this? You said you would sometimes tee him up for a call, or maybe that’s not your language.

Knight

I think that the people who are being asked to help really want to hear directly from the principal. So to have an opportunity to speak to the Vice President or the President or so forth was a really important part of energizing them, and it was all about energizing and how to get them excited. So basically, to the extent that he would talk to them, usually there wouldn’t be a specific ask, but I could then come in and ask for specific sums afterwards. More normally what happened in those kinds of situations was to pass it on to the DNC folks who were actually working on it. I remember working with some of the folks to say, hey, you should follow up and do the following three things. So in that sense I was sort of a conduit. 

Riley

Again, Gore is being a good soldier. He is not particularly fond of getting on the telephone—I’ve known a lot of politicians, and not very many of them actually like to ask people for money.

Knight

Absolutely.

Nelson

I just wondered, Peter, somebody who is doing research on the Clinton Presidency or the Gore Vice Presidency, or the ’96 campaign, is going to read all these articles that were included in this briefing book from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal. The thrust of what they’re going to read is that Peter Knight was facilitating some really dubious fund-raising. Whether it was a crime or not, we don’t know, but it was sketchy. We’re not here to cross-examine you, but what else would you like people doing research on that to be aware of, from your point of view, instead of just relying on—what’s lacking from the news accounts? I mean, Time magazine? There are a lot of these stories. As you know, I’m sure they were painful. They’d be painful for anybody.

Knight

The stories that were painful were the lobbying stories, not so much the fund-raising stories. The fund-raising stories were—I actually was not really involved in the ’95-’96 fund-raising except to the extent of that.

Nelson

There were stories about these coffees that Clinton would have that you would allegedly—

Knight

I’m pretty sure that’s when I was campaign manager. But I wasn’t—I was on the campaign at that time and I was aware of them, but I wasn’t doing the fund-raising. I was out of fund-raising at that time. So it is a little bit unfair to put me into that fund-raising mode because that really was the DNC. It was Marvin [Rosen] and all those—

Riley

Exactly.

Knight

—guys who were doing it. I’m not trying to push off blame, but I was really trying to get out of the fund-raising mode at that point. Now, there were the fund-raising calls—I mean, he was involved in the Buddhist temple thing. I wasn’t involved in that at all except when we originally met the people who went on that trip, I was on the trip four years earlier. 

Riley

Went back when.

Knight

So therefore this shadowy figure, me, was somehow involved in the Buddhist temple thing. I basically had nothing to do with it, but I was seen as this Svengali, Darth Vader guy who just did all the stuff that Gore didn’t want to do. So, I don’t know; it comes the good with the bad. But in terms of the ’95-’96 campaign, I headlined the primary event and headlined that DNC event and for the most part had really nothing to do except—I mean, all those other things that were going on—I didn’t know who was staying at the Lincoln bedroom, I didn’t have anything to do with that. But you could perceive it, you could see it happening. 

I do know that at the time there was scrupulous attention to the legalities, and the legalities shifted during the time. So in retrospect there were probably, as it comes out after all this period of time, there are mistakes to even have any relationship between having done something and sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom. The coffees were in a totally different area. Like I said, I wasn’t the one inviting people to the coffees, but they would come and have a conversation with the President. It’s how you energize people. Some of those efforts just went too far. But they happen during every administration. You learn the rules and things shifted. 

I think a lot of the ’95-’96 stuff that painted me as this Svengali, Darth Vader guy was basically untrue. At the time, I was really trying to position myself to be out of fund-raising because I was getting kind of sick of it. So that’s the defense.

Nelson

You mentioned the lobbying stories. A lot had to do with the Molten Company. 

[BREAK]
Riley

We’re still on and you said that the painful press accounts came through the lobbying stuff that Mike had just asked you about.

Knight

Painful for me.

Riley

Exactly. 

Nelson

We just want to give you a chance to put on the record, this record, what you feel was lacking from the published record, if you will, so that people doing research on this will have your take on it. 

Knight

Well, I certainly haven’t reviewed all the transcripts of all the hearings. I really have not—looking at this book, it was here, this is your life. It was a pretty painful time because it was the first time ever, and I think for Gore too, it was the first time ever his integrity had been challenged. For people who feel they have a sense of right and wrong and try to do the right thing and always stay on a black and white area, try to stay outside of the gray areas, we’re always so conscious of trying to do that. Obviously, we’re not always successful, but that was the effort in trying to do that. 

I know, at the end of the day, I was really a pawn in the whole much bigger play, and the play was about Gore’s election, because in one of these articlesI hadn’t seen it in some period of time, but it always stuck with me and I think it was because I heard the back story from most people. It was see what you can do about taking out Peter Knight and then you don’t need to take out Gore. Now, it was a little fanciful on anyone’s part that they think they take me out and they didn’t have to worry about Gore. Of course they did. But it always struck me as that was what I was going through and I was going to have to suffer that. 

That’s what it was really all about. It wasn’t about me, it was about him. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I knew I had not only played within the rules and the law but was more scrupulous than I think anyone else had been. But it was another one of these times when the game was shifting a little bit and I was a convenient punching bag. Frankly, I had probably put myself in a position of exposure. 

I know that I didn’t do anything wrong because I was exonerated from every hearing that went on, but did I put myself and expose myself in ways that perhaps I should not have? That’s probably fair to say. But the fact that I was a lobbyist put me in that trajectory. If I had been outside of that, then that probably would have been a safer place to be in. But the Molten Metal hearing, I think they ended up—I don’t know how many hearings there were, eight or 12 or something like that. I testified at a couple of them. Basically, this was a story about a company that had a very exciting environmental technology. It was kind of within my sweet spot of expertise to understand what they were attempting to do, to advise and guide them. This was a project that had received its endorsement from the Bush administration. So when they asked me to help them out, they had already received significant funding from the Bush administration.

Nelson

The first Bush administration.

Knight

The first Bush administration. The idea was that they were going to continue to need funding from the DOE [Department of Energy] and could I help them think that through and how it would be—I was proud of what we did for them. What was done during the Molten Metal was a series of dots and there was no connection between the dots, but there was innuendo with the dots. I think that it was unfair. At the end of the day—I mean, you look at the Republican memos and all it says is, there’s no smoking gun here, which means he didn’t do anything wrong but let’s dirty him up as much as we possibly can. And that’s what they did. 

So the people—I mean, Bill Haney, who was the CEO [chief executive officer], very gifted guy, worked for Gore in ’88. He’s a Democrat. Of course he’s going to give money. But did he think that by virtue of him giving money to the DNC that meant that he would get a contribution from the DOE, from a person who would be making the decision in West Virginia? The answer is no. But they went back and they talked to the people in charge, then they talked to the people under that, then they talked to the people—I think it was Morgantown, West Virginia, that actually made the decision on these kinds of technologies. Of course, everything—Senator Byrd got all that money out there, that’s why it was all in West Virginia. 

They pulled these poor people into the hearing and said, Why did you make the decisions that you did on this?And they said, Well, we thought it was a pretty promising technology. We’re not sure, but it was aimed at a problem that we didn’t have any solution to. Very complex, very technical. They said, Did anyone ever tell you to do this? No. Who’s Peter Knight? I don’t know. I mean, there was no substance to what they were doing. I think that if you read many of the memos you’d see that what they were attempting to do was what they did do, which was to bloody me up. 

Now, one of the things that was really disheartening to me was that my law partners basically stole documents from my law firm and gave them to the Republican committee. Billing records, all things that shouldn’t—they were all confidential to the law firm. So a lot of the documents the Republicans had were basically stolen.

Nelson

From your files.

Knight

From my files, and from the law firm’s files. The partners knew that it had happened but they were—it was extremely painful for me to understand that that’s exactly what happened, but that is what happened. Now, having said all that, the documents were, I don’t want to say embarrassing, but they needed to be explained and they shouldn’t have had to be explained, but going back after the case and so forth—like the fact that Bill Haney had given stock to my son. That was a particularly painful aspect, to go back over that. But that had to do with the documents that were given up. 

So it was the Senate committee that realized that they didn’t have anything, but they put it all in a packet and they gave it to a couple of reporters. I know for a fact that the New York Times refused to print it because it was basically just a put-up job. I know the Washington Post did it. I believe that it all had to do with Gore. I’m not sure I’ll say this on the record, but Bob Woodward did the main story that hit me on Molten Metal, and he was really angry at Gore because Gore wouldn’t talk to him about one of his books. I didn’t cooperate with him either—not on the book because I wasn’t part of it—but I always felt that he was getting Gore through me because the story that he wrote had dots, and he should have been a better reporter than that.

But it was official Washington, he was giving the official Washington imprimatur that what I had done was wrong. I didn’t think anything I had done was wrong. And to this day I don’t think there was anything that I did that was wrong. I never talked to Al about it. I mean, the idea—it came out over—they said that I had arranged for Al to come to the Molten Metal facility, which I did not do. Try as they might, they couldn’t get it to be—even the fact that Bill Haney thought that I had done it, which he did. I hadn’t done it. I told him I hadn’t. Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. But that was what was really frustrating about it, when somebody like Bob Woodward—it was sort of the official Washington hammer on me. It was okay to continue to beat me up. 

So it started with Molten Metal, they did something like eight or 12 or 16 hearings, whatever it was. They found nothing and then they went on to my next client.

Nelson

Then Bob Woodward wrote a big story saying—

Riley

I had it all wrong.

Nelson

Not exonerated. Right?

Knight

Exactly.

Nelson

That’s how it works?

Knight

That’s exactly how it works. But the funny thing is that the Republicans also knew. They wanted to build as much of a case as they could because they knew that I was also subject to the independent prosecutor law by virtue of being the campaign manager. So their goal in all this was to be able to turn the stuff over to the Justice Department, and of course the Justice Department said no. So at the end of the day the exoneration comes from, hopefully, the FBI and the others that took a legal view of this and saw that there was nothing that was improperly done. But if you want to draw innuendos from me having dinner with clients and people in the administration, then that’s what they did. How many times did you talk to him and how many times did you have a meal with him? Why did your son get stock? Those were facts, but they weren’t related to anything. All of it was transparent; it was in the public record. 

I guess what I’m saying is I felt it was an extremelyI knew what was happening. It was all about getting me and doing everything you possibly could to bloody me up so that I wouldn’t participate in Gore’s 2000 campaign. They did a pretty good job at that. But that’s what it was. Because at the end of the day there wasn’t anything; I hadn’t done anything wrong and was exonerated by every committee—The Senate didn’t look into it because they knew they didn’t have enough. The House, because they wereNewt Gingrich and all those folks didn’t care, it didn’t matter. It was staff-driven. I think some of the members were embarrassed by it, some of the Republican members. The Democratic members, of course, were outraged and supported me the entire way, which was really great. But just having to sit in that seat and take the innuendos. It was hard. 

But nonetheless I was a big guyI didn’t actually know by sticking my head up as campaign manager that that would be the result. If I had known that I probably would not have done that, but that’s a consequence. Washington is a pretty rough place and the rules sort of shifted during that period of time and I was one of the ones who took a heavy blow for it.

Riley

Let me stop and shift the focus here. We’ve spent a little bit of time here talking about all these, the negatives that are in the historical record because it is one of the—probably the first time that Gore’s credibility comes under any sustained assault. But there must be some good things to focus on in your story in ’96 as well. You successfully do something that a Democratic candidate hadn’t done since Franklin Roosevelt’s time, you won a second term. 

What did you do right? What did the campaign do right in general? What did your friend Al Gore do right in particular that year, and were there calls that you made, not only phone calls, but were there judgments or things that you did that helped? Or was this just destined to happen because the planets were properly aligned?

Knight

Well, glad to come back to that because I had about seven or eight months as campaign manager. Chris Dodd was the chairman of the DNC and he introduced me when I became the campaign manager, saying we’ve got a ten-point lead. Here Peter, here’s the baton, don’t blow it. [laughter] So, oh, God, thanks a lot. Presidential campaigns are very hard. There was a potential for a lot of things to go wrong. In the past, as you had indicated, a lot of things had gone wrong for candidates running for reelection, most of which was the tension between a campaign and the White House. The White House obviously feeling that they’re in charge and the campaign knowing that they have to be in charge. People fighting with each other. 

So in some respects the President had recovered quite nicely by that time. And he had shifted the discussion a lot. So we benefited from the fact that it was a better environment than it was about a year and a half before. But it was probably the most satisfying professional experience that I’d ever had because we did it right. We didn’t make any mistakes. There wasn’t a need for a lot of brilliance, it was just a matter of blocking and tackling and managing and making sure to avoid traps and so forth. It turns out I was pretty good at that. 

I wasn’t ever perceived as the grand strategist who was going to elevate him, and that wasn’t really my job. It was to manage the campaign, to make sure that people worked together, make sure there were not a lot of blowups, make sure that everything went on time, that people were in the right places, and the right things were done and the right talent was put to bear at the right time. 

I think it was satisfying because at the end of the day we didn’t make any mistakes, and that’s not true of other campaigns. In fact, that was about the only time I’d ever been involved in a campaign that didn’t really make—I mean, we made minor things, but we didn’t make any mistakes; we did things the right way. I was very proud of that.

Riley

How hard was it to contain the Dick Morris— No mistakes, but maybe mistakes isn’t exactly the right word there. 

Knight

I guess how I got to be the campaign manager was part of history. Harold had his candidate and Morris had his candidate, so therefore I became the other candidate. Part of what I did was to keep the two of them away from each other and try to make sure that we had a campaign that was on solid footing and that went in one direction and that didn’t have a lot of blowups. Campaigns are rife with staff intrigue and this and that and so forth and they destroy, they destroy from within. There was a potential with that here. But for the most part we kept that under control. Of course, Morris blew himself up at the end. My role was, in many respects, to make sure that things did not go off track, off kilter. So it was a contained role in that respect. It was a role that was defined by the fact that it was a reelection effort and you had a White House that was in charge. All you could do was screw up, is basically what happened and we didn’t, so to me that was a big success.

Nelson

One of the characteristics of successful reelection campaigns has been—dating back to [Dwight] Eisenhower at leastthat they don’t have coattails. They aren’t accompanied by gains for the party in the Congressional elections. Having lost Congress in ’94, was there pressure from the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] side and so on to try to share some of the President’s popularity so that we can retake Congress?

Knight

Yes, there was, and I think that we did it. I think we did and we went to a lot of the states that he didn’t really need to at the end of the campaign. We put money into states that we didn’t have to put into for television advertisements and so forth. So I think we did just about everything we possibly could. Could all the other candidates have said we could have done more? They always will say that. But our job was to do all we could to make sure the President was reelected—that was my job. To the extent that there was also an opportunity to help the other candidates, we tried to do that and I think we did do that.

Nelson

There was quite a bit of talk at the time about Clinton’s driving desire to get more than 50% of the vote and he fell just short with [Ross] Perot in the race. Was that something you perceived as a test of success, getting a majority, not just the plurality but a majority of the popular vote?

Knight

I don’t really remember being focused on that; I just remember being focused on winning. That was really what my job was. It would have been nice, I guess; you talk about it. But it was hard to define where that vote was going to come out. I didn’t spend much time on it. Whether he did or not, the President did or not, I don’t know. But would it have been a nice thing? Sure. But winning is winning; that’s what mattered. 

Riley

Was there any conscious thinking that this is a campaign that you wanted to use to tee up a Gore succession eventually? 

Knight

No, there was nothing that happened in the campaign that was attempting to tee Gore up for 2000. This was all about the President.

Riley

All Clinton, or all Clinton-Gore, the team.

Nelson

That’s a real tribute to you that even though you are a Gore man, that you’re put in charge of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. To me that is a remarkable vote of confidence in you. Isn’t that unusual that one of the Vice President’s people is elevated to running the whole campaign?

Knight

Yes, well, thank you. I guess I should just stop and say thank you. 

Nelson

And trust you not to try to look out after Gore’s future interests at the expense of the President’s. 

Knight

I think they all understood that I knew what my role was and I was going to certainly look out to make sure he wasn’t hurt, but there was never any need to even give a second thought to that. I had one loyalty and that was to the President and the Vice President together. I think I was an honest broker for him. I think I had come with some reputation, some managerial skills and so forth. So I was among the people who might be tapped for that, and the fact that I eventually got the call, that was pretty exciting.

Riley

Okay, in the interest of time, we’re going to jump ahead. 

Nelson

Will you tell us, when does the Gore 2000 campaign begin, in the broadest sense of that word begin? The day after the ’96 election? Clinton is foreclosed from ever being on the ballot again.

Knight

In one sense yes, but not in a way that would impact his duties and responsibilities as the Vice President. But to find opportunities that would allow him to meet the kind of people who he would be best to meet in a Presidential campaign, and to be the one visiting mayors and Governors and talking to them and so forth. That was a big part. There’s a political piece, there’s a message piece, there’s a fund-raising piece, and so forth. During that period of time it was much more on the policy and substance and growing relationships. I think that’s really what it was. Ron [Klain] and Charles [Burson] and others were in charge of that. Ask Ron how mindful he was of it. I think he was quite mindful of it. But not in a way that would put in jeopardy any—at least that I perceivedwhat his job was as Vice President. 

And I think that the White House was pretty supportive. There really wasn’t anyone who wanted somebody else to be the nominee. They had a great deal of respect for him. They might have been people who had grown up with President Clinton but they really wanted him to be—I don’t really think there was anybody at the White House who was pushing for Bill Bradley or pushing for Dick Gephardt or pushing for somebody else. It just didn’t exist. So it was supportive. 

If there was a trip that he could do that made sense politically, then they might give a nod to him. 

Nelson

They meaning the—

Knight

They meaning the White House, and Ron would say maybe we should do that. So it was quite supportive. So when did it start? I guess it sort of starts at that because it’s really—he is Vice President, he has to continue the job. If he looks as if he is campaigning, it’s not going to be—but how can you do it? You can position yourself substantively, work as hard as you can to make sure it’s successful because if the Clinton Presidency is not successful, then chances are it is not going to be. So there was a convergence of interest. Then put yourself in a position of getting to—I think part of the building of relationships with people that have been more on Clinton’s side, now he had to be in closer proximity with some of those people because he was then going to be the guy to have the campaign.

Nelson

Were you helping in any of this, and if so when does that begin?

Knight

No, not really, ’96, ’97. There’s really not much that anyone can do outside of what the White House was doing. There were a lot of things that were going on during that time too, not with me but with the President, the Vice President, and so forth. There were a lot of distractions. Really not, I was very much in touch with him and I had oriented myself to help him in any way he wanted me to, but knew that it was going to be ’99, not ’97 or ’98. So it wasn’t until then that you begin the process of thinking about a campaign.

Riley

Are you called in January of ’98 to consult with the bombshell that has happened with the [Monica] Lewinsky scandal?

Knight

No, I didn’t come in to talk to Al about that. I stayed in touch with the folks in the White House, but I wasn’t—

Nelson

Close identity of interest between convergence, to use your word, between Gore’s interest and Clinton’s interest, surely that comes into question starting in January of ’98. Because Gore has to start thinking to what extent do I continue to identify myself with this President? To what extent do I step apart? At some point he would have to do it anyway, in some way, because you can’t run for President as Clinton’s clone. But the Monica Lewinsky thing surely forced the issue, at least in terms of how you all were thinking. What were you thinking, and were you expressing that to either Gore or Roy or any of the other people you knew were close to Clinton?

Knight

I don’t remember being involved in advising them how on to handle that. I just wasn’t involved. I don’t remember Ron reaching out—I think Ron was the Chief of Staff at the time. Ron is a pretty smart guy. It was a difficult time. I’m sure all those thoughts are going through his head. It was happening in real time as well. But from a policy standpoint, I don’t think he was thinking about separating himself. You’re going to have to put emphasis on different issues for sure once you get into it, but you had to be a long way from it. I mean, he was going to and really had to remain in his role as Vice President for as long as he possibly could and keep the campaign on the very back burner. It had to operate but it had to be on the very back burner because it would beThat was difficult because his role as Vice President became more challenging while this was happening. 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

I think the hope was that he could just continue to be the best Vice President. Jobs would be created and everything would go on and you could move in to then to become candidate Gore and there would be the baton passing, and hopefully that would be successful. But it just wasn’t a straightforward way to get to that point.

Riley

But you had not been consulted in any way about any contingency plan? I mean, the biggest role the Vice President serves is to be ready to take over the Presidency in the event of the incapacitation of the President. You know Washington well enough to know that in January of 1998 it looked for a while like the President wouldn’t survive. So are you aware of any internal consultations that may have been going on about, okay guys, what are we going to do if this comes down?

Knight

I wasn’t. I should probably turn it around and ask you guys. [laughter] I didn’t know. No, I certainly wasn’t involved in any. Was Ron? I don’t think so. I don’t know of anybody who was. Even the hint of thinking about that.

Nelson

Would have been top secret.

Riley

Maybe it was so explosive that you couldn’t have the conversations. There was an event at some point in the spring, right, where the Vice President exuberantly proclaims that the President is the greatest President?

Nelson

Yes.

Riley

Do you recall that event and did you have any reactions to—

Knight

I thought he did that at almost every event. [laughter]

Riley

Maybe so.

Knight

I mean, he may have done it. I don’t know, maybe he did it at the fund-raiser that we did.

Nelson

I think this was what Russ is referring to is when the impeachment vote took place.

Riley

Is that right? Am I missing—

Nelson

Yes, I think all of the liberal Democrats came to the White House. . .

Riley

I missed it—

Nelson

. . . and Gore addressed them and exuberantly, extravagantly, praised the President in ways that were seen as a little bit over the top, a little bit politically tone-deaf, at least in the media. 

Knight

Yes, and he would have been criticized one way or the other. 

Nelson

That may very well be true. 

Knight

And he was criticized for the other thing, being too tepid in his praise. 

Riley

Yes. That’s right.

Knight

So listen, it was a really impossible situation. 

Riley

Sure. 

Knight

Clinton was a very effective President and should be extremely proud of the substantive things he accomplished, and I think that’s what Al was certainly focusing on. But you couldn’t win for losing in that situation; there weren’t a lot of winners. I think Al would have been criticized if he was too tepid in his praise too, and he was.

Riley

I guess that obviously is the more general question we’re trying to get at in the post-Lewinsky environment, to get you to talk a little bit about how the Vice President’s network of friends, close friends, and his strategists are thinking about this impossible question of how do we position—you spent so much time making sure that there’s no space between this President and this Vice President, which has been absolutely the right strategy until January of 1998, and then this explosion happens. The question is, is the logic revisited? Do we have to show distance? If we do, how do we do it? If we don’t, what are the consequences of it? I guess I’m just sort of throwing out—this is what historians are going to be interested in trying to dissect, and we’re intensely interested in the internal discussions that are going on about these very issues.

Knight

I know, and I’m not helping you because I wasn’t part of that. It was a little bit later that we began to think about putting together the apparatus of a campaign that was the nuts-and-bolts aspect that needed to be put together, and the idea of what strategy and what the communication strategy and what the message was going to be. For the most part it had to evolve over time. During the real time it was happening, I don’t remember any formal discussions that I was a part of to see how to distance— Ron didn’t pull together a group of us to say what we should do here and so on. I don’t remember those.

Riley

Did you have informal conversations with Mr. Gore himself about his own thinking?

Knight

No, not that II’m sure I talked to Al all the time during that. Not that it was a particularly painful time, but I don’t remember any formal strategy sessions, it’s, What should we do? Frankly, there weren’t that many choices. What were the choices? The choice was how far to go. How far—do you distance yourself? He couldn’t. At that point in time he couldn’t really distance himself. 

Riley

Could you characterize his reaction to this whole business?

Knight

Not any more than what others have written about. I mean, disappointment, frustration, watching his life flash in front of him, wondering what impact this is going to have on him and his career, not really sure. It was a very difficult time of understanding really how things were going to come out. He was seen as not being involved in any of this, but then again, he could have had, potentially he did have, some impact. Frankly, he never quite came to grips with the issue. That was one of the problems. He probably should have come to grips with it sooner.

Nelson

Come to grips, how so?

Knight

Well, it played out in the campaign. Should you use him, should you not use him and so forth. But that was the whole dialogue going on all the time. It was pretty easy when you were in the White House. You showed up at events and did that, because that was his job. But in the campaign, it was do you also affirmatively use him?

Riley

By that time—the discussion begins in January of ’98 where it’s toxic and Clinton looks like he may sink. He stabilizes himself after the State of the Union, with this up-and-down year in ’98, impeachment vote, and an acquittal. And in ’99 there is a sense of recovery. So the dynamic is different by mid-’99 than it was a year before. Maybe that’s what you’ve been saying all along, that political life changes so quickly that you can’t develop a strategy in ’98 that is going to last you for longer than three or four months. 

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

Let’s talk about your involvement in 2000. Are you involved in the campaign while the battle for the nomination is taking place? If so, when and how?

Knight

I was involved in the early part of the campaign in helping to set up the infrastructure of the campaign and then helped to set up the fund-raising, which is really the first thing that needed to be done. I helped to put together the team. I didn’t take any formal role, but did oversee a lot of the people who were put in place. So I had a fair amount to do with the early part of the campaign. I had less to do after Tony Coelho came into the campaign.

Nelson

What was the deal with that? Why did Coelho—first of all, why was he chosen for that role and then why did he want to clean house to the extent that he did? Why was he chosen?

Knight

He was chosen because he’s a very gifted political guy, very smart and very experienced. He was available to do something like this. He’d left the House and this would be a good thing for him to do and to come back onto the scene. He was probably, in terms of the most effective political figure at that time, the one who could be recruited to that position. So I think he was quite a good choice from the résumé standpoint. Al liked him. So I guess that’s why he was chosen. 

Nelson

Then why did Coelho conduct himself the way he did in terms of cleaning house, pushing people aside?

Knight

The only way I can explain it is insecurity.

Nelson

Because you had a longer relationship with Gore— 

Knight

Yes.

Nelson

So what led to—I guess it was his health, or was that just the official excuse that led to his stepping down? Did he walk out? Was he pushed out? Were his health problems a convenient reason to replace him?

Knight

I think all understood that he was not the right choice. Let’s leave it at that. 

Nelson

And who fills the void? [William] Daley takes his place—

Knight

I think that Al really wanted Bill Daley to do it from the beginning.

Nelson

Really, so why—

Knight

He wouldn’t leave Commerce. I don’t blame him. That was the guy he wanted to help run the campaign to begin with. Daley is a seasoned pol, really good but he wouldn’t leave his Cabinet post.

Nelson

Understandably.

Knight

I don’t blame him. But at that point in time I think he really leaned on him pretty hard. And at that point the administration was pretty much at a close and it was an easier decision for Daley to make. 

Nelson

This was July of 2000. 

Riley

Are you filling your usual fund-raising role here, or are you just on the periphery during the bulk of the campaign?

Knight

After Daley came back in he pretty much welcomed all the estranged Gore folks. It was a strange place for us to be, Ron, myself, others. Daley was quite good. I came back in to help at the DNC and actually took a title with the DNC. I spent a fair amount of time down in Tennessee, did a lot with them. There was a fair amount of fund-raising to be done and I certainly did that. But it was a strange and unusual situation for me after having been in the ’96 campaign to be in 2000 campaign and how it unfolded.

Riley

Because you had been estranged, you had been on the outside looking in for a good part of the time? I just want to make sure I’m clear.

Knight

In some respects it’s a more complicated story, but in some respects the Republicans were successful in beating me up to a fare-thee-well so that it was hard for me to play a visible role in the campaign. Therefore, I had to step back and play a role that was less visible. What I really wanted to do was to just be there to help him however he needed to have help. So at various times he needed that help, and especially starting out the campaign I had a big role to play. But then when Tony came in it became clear over time that there wasn’t a lot of room for other people and it became clear that that was not the right position for Gore to be in either, and so changes were made. 

That’s, in essence, what happened. One of the things that had been hoped was that I would play a more visible role in the 2000 campaign, and basically for a variety of reasons I didn’t. Now, behind the scenes I was very much a part of what was going on but it certainly wasn’t visible to all. But at the end of the campaign, Al and Daley asked all of us to come back in and play a role, which we did. 

Nelson

Was your role in 2000 when you came back in with Daley focused on fund-raising or was it broader? 

Knight

Mostly focused on fund-raising but also some general strategy. You can talk to him, but July and August of the campaign there was some—the convention was already going. A lot of the strategy was pretty much set. But in general I was one of the senior people who would come in and schmooze and talk to folks in the campaign, but the line responsibility was more on the fund-raising because that’s what I always did. 

Riley

We learned that today. 

Nelson

What was the strategy to beat Bush? Was there any strategy established? What was the basic strategy for when you returned, because it wasn’t tie ourselves as closely as possible to the record of the past eight years.

Knight

No, it was an attempt to capitalize on their successes but not pay as much attention to some of the challenges, and that was a hard road to walk. This was a state-by-state strategy, where you’re going to put money in. At that point, certainly by July or August, a lot of the issue discussion had been—it was really a ground game and how you’re going to expend your money, how you’re going to play in different markets, and what states are you going to try to emphasize and which ones you’re not. It is an allocation of resources at that point, where you should put your resources and where you shouldn’t. At the end of a campaign that’s critically important because putting in your dollars—and we had limited dollars, so you had to be careful about how you’re allocating those. So that became an important aspect. And obviously the debates were critical. 

There are only a few events that happen in a Presidential campaign that are important: picking the Vice President, the debates, those were the big events and you can’t really change things otherwise, except putting in resources into the different areas. So most of the issues and substantive things have already played out. Those were the big events that happened from July on, picking [Joseph] Lieberman and then the debates.

Riley

Were you privy to the internal discussions about the Vice Presidential candidate selection?

Knight

Yes and no. I wasn’t sitting in the room when they were making the decision. I knew generally as one of the outside folks.

Riley

Was that the best choice for him? 

Knight

It was his choice, and in retrospect I don’t know. I certainly didn’t disagree with it. I can’t say that I disagreed at all with the choice that was made. The other people would have been very good choices as well. There was something to say for Lieberman at that time. I think he was a good choice. You look back on it and as things have shifted over time, things look a little bit different than they did back then. 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

But he had a sterling reputation at the time, he was a great legislator. He was very committed. He reinforced the moral compass of Gore.

Riley

That’s an important— 

Knight

Was it the best choice? Who knows. But it was a good choice.

Riley

Electoral— 

Knight

It wasn’t a mistake. Did he perform the way he should, the way you all hoped? You never know in those kinds of situations how a Vice Presidential—I mean, it’s not straightforward that everybody is going to do a great job as Vice President. 

Riley

Sure.

Knight

Which distinguished Gore in ’92, because I think he did do a great job in ’96 to 2000. 

Nelson

As you were making the state-by-state, you described yourself as being involved in determining the amount of focus by the candidates on this state or not that state, this amount of money. Were you thinking of West Virginia and Tennessee as states that were very much at risk?

Knight

There was a lot of discussion of both states as a risk, and yes, of course there were visits. There was a lot of—the problem with Tennessee was that the time to play in Tennessee was probably a year or so earlier. By the time that decisions were made on allocations of time and money it was already too late. It had become a very difficult state. The electorate had changed, the voting patterns had changed. Did he make a mistake in not spending a huge amount of time going back to Tennessee? I guess you could argue that. He was the Vice President of the United States. He was not supposed to be spending huge amounts of time back in any one particular state. I’m not certain that there is anything that he could have done to win Tennessee, ever, almost ever.

Nelson

So even if he had kept the grassroots fertilized, so to speak— 

Knight

If he had done open meetings in all the

Nelson

Not to that degree, but to come back more frequently than he did during his second term. Do you still think it was a lost cause?

Knight

Yes.

Riley

People had made up their minds about him a long time before then?

Knight

Well, they certainly—it was sort of the changed circumstances. Bush capitalized on it. It’s a Bible-belt state. I don’t know. I haven’t gone back to relook at the numbers, I’m not sure. I know there are an awful lot of people who felt that he should have gone back more often. But I know he went back many times. Would ten more times have done it? I don’t think so, I don’t know. He hadn’t run in many years on his own on the ballot. Even in ’92, it was sort of—it started turning against him. I think by 2000 it was pretty much gone. 

Riley

I want to bring you back to a comment you made earlier that was striking. You had said by 2000 you felt that his political talents had atrophied. Can you elaborate on that a little bit and maybe talk about how, if you’ve got any illustrations about how this plays out in 2000? Do you mean that his ear has gone bad? Is he not hearing politics quite well? Is his stump-speaking style becoming less effective? I just would like to get you to play that out a little bit.

Knight

I think it’s the fact that there are—any time you’re doing an exercise and you’re using those muscles, they tend to be sharper. I think it did take him a while to get his voice back on the campaign. I think part of the wake-up call came when Bradley was doing so well during that—that was a pretty close call. I think that was really energizing for him. But I think in some respects he was not really as sure of his footing, political footing, as he might have been. Part of it was what I described as the fact that he never had to exercise his muscles over’92 to 2000. Part of it was he was thrown totally off kilter by the attacks on his integrity. Part of it was the fact of the President going through what he went through. Part of it was having to set up an apparatus of a campaign that he hadn’t done in some period of time. Part of it was the sort of unfortunate infighting that went on, the theatrics of a Presidential campaign. I think all that added to him not being as sure-footed as he might have been. 

Riley

Did he recognize this of himself? I mean, was there a confidence gap at any point where he is feeling that he can’t get this right?

Knight

It manifest itself in the shifting of campaigns, moving out of Washington back into Tennessee, trying a lot of different things, trying a lot of different people. I think that was kind of a manifestation of it. Would you have wanted to have one set of people organized throughout the campaign, being in one place, having one message, not having distractions of all these other things that happened in the meantime? Yes, but that would have been the preferred way. It doesn’t always happen like that—that’s why in some respect the ’96 campaign was so satisfying in the sense that—I don’t know if we were able to keep that out of the way or we were just lucky, but most Presidential campaigns do not go in a straight-line path. I think that this one did not, and I think it was somewhat in contrast to Bush’s campaign, which had a tighter set of controls. 

Riley

One of the interpretations contemporaneously coming out of the 2000 campaign was that the Vice President was relying more heavily on his daughters for advice than before. Is that consistent with your understanding of how things were? Was his family always an important source of political advice for him before, or was this just a kind of pundits exercise in finding something to talk about? 

Knight

I think his family has always been a part of who he is and the advice that was given. There were a couple of things that happened. One is that a couple of them, especially Karenna [Gore Schiff] and Kristin [Gore], played a pretty visible campaign role because they were very good campaigners. In a campaign you have the candidate, the spouse, and then if you’re lucky you have a few others that can be used to go different places. In any campaign, as you probably know, you track what kind of impact any of these people can have. You actually give a quantitative number and add that with both radio ads and TV ads and other kinds of ads that you can do. At least back in those days that’s how you did it. 

You try to allocate out on the map all the different places where these people would go, based on your strategy of trying to win those states, because it all comes down to that. So you would try to—the candidate himself would go into X number of states but then the spouse would go into others or lesser or smaller markets. So being able to use the kids in other markets was quite effective. So there was that. Also, they were smart. I think they were always a source of advice to him but you didn’t see it. As the campaign rolled on they were perceived as having an additional role, but I think they always did. His daughters would always have an impact on their father, always. Why would anyone think it would be different? 

Now, everyone has their views of political advice, and I think that they were a very beneficial part of the campaign. 

Nelson

I know the decision to not involve Clinton, to not tie the campaign too closely to Clinton, was not lightly arrived at, it wasn’t just a whim on Gore’s part or irritation, but I wonder, at the time, was this issue debated within the campaign? If so, what were the arguments on either side? Because surely there were good arguments on either side, and were there, in particular, arguments for using Clinton in a particular way that might be helpful without getting the down side? So to the extent that you can remember, what went into that strategic decision? Can you share that with us?

Knight

Well, the person really in charge of that was Bill Daley at that point in time. In one sense there wasn’t anybody better because he was pretty close to President Clinton and to Al— 

Riley

And he’s a Daley.

Knight

And he’s a Daley. So who could be better? The problem—people used to say, Oh, we could use the President in New Hampshire, we can use him in Arkansas, or we can use him here. The fact is, we used him anywhere. He just occupied so much space. The decision really needed to be either use him or not use him, rather than use him in a particular—there’s no way to isolate how you use him because he was President of the United States. Every time he traveled it was like the soccer game, everybody runs to—and it didn’t matter whether they were in New Hampshire or Arkansas or Alaska, they were going to run there and everybody was going to cover it. He’s the President of the United States and he’s bigger than life, and he is always going to occupy that space. 

So if your strategy was concerned about that, giving of headlines and away from the headlines of the Vice President, then your strategy would have been to hold back. Were there ways to finesse that on the issues side? I think we’ll all go back and rethink that over a period of time. It could have been handled differently or better. I don’t know. But it wasn’t—it was kind of a binary decision, I guess is the way to look at it. There was no using the President of the United States in some isolated way. When he traveled and he did an event, you are off the TV for that day.

Nelson

But Bush used Reagan at similar risk, I would think, in ’88. In other words, what was the evidence that that would be bad if for a few days spaced over the campaign people were looking at Clinton instead of Gore? President Clinton had an enormously high approval rating and would be endorsing Gore.

Knight

I don’t think the situation was similar between Bush and Reagan at that time. But it was a conflict that was never fully resolved and it should have been. If it had been, it probably would have been to his benefit—

Nelson

You mean within the campaign?

Knight

Within the campaign, yes. I think in retrospect it could have been handled a bit differently. But it was as it was. I understand the decisions as to why they were being made while they were being made.

Riley

You did actually win the most popular votes in that election, didn’t you? And then what happened?

Knight

That’s one of the reasons why this is so painful. Of all the times, that was absolutely the worst. But I remember running into a Republican operative about two weeks after the election and him basically saying, We’ve got you, checkmate. I said, It’s not straightforward that that’s true. He said, Nah, we’ve got you, checkmate. That was actually true.

Nelson

All you had was the Florida Supreme Court. They had the Governor of Florida, the legislature of Florida, the majority on the U.S. Supreme Court—

Knight

The House of Representatives. 

Nelson

You had the Florida Supreme Court.

Knight

I was never sanguine about—I don’t think that there was anything they could possibly have done. I think people—we didn’t use all the political levers that we could have used and Gore didn’t want to. I respect him for that and I think it was probably the right choice.

Nelson

Like what?

Knight

How the Republicans had the outrage of screaming at—

Riley

The Brooks Brothers’ riot?

Knight

The riot. And it would have been so easy to manufacture our own things any time we wanted to. Labor was killing themselves, the African Americans—all the communities. It’s not that hard. We had 100,000-person rallies as part of the campaign every day. You could have done that in two seconds and he said no. Gore said no. To his credit, because I think it would have made a mockery out of the whole thing. So I don’t know; I am not sure that there’s any scenario where he could have won. I always felt that way, but I know that there are others who felt differently. I respect Ron’s view on this; obviously, he was a key lieutenant in doing that down there.

Riley

Were you in Tennessee for election day?

Knight

I was in Tennessee.

Riley

What can you tell us about how that unfolded?

Nelson

What was that night like?

Knight

Well, I remember one thing that was sort of the metaphor for the election was that we spentthere was the campaign in Nashville and then we spent election night in the Bell South Tower, which was one of the large—

Nelson

The Batman building.

Knight

Yes. I don’t know how many stories it has but it’s big. Nothing like this, but it’s a pretty big building. We were on the top floor and everybody was there. One group of friends that was trying desperately to get up—I remember getting a call from them and saying come on up. When they started, they were on the bottom of the building and we had won Florida. They got into the elevator, everybody pushed into the elevator and they were in like this and the elevator crashed. No, it didn’t crash—

Riley

Stopped.

Knight

—it stopped. And it was a half hour or40 minutes before they were able to get to the top floor. Apparently there were some animal-like behaviors that occurred, as only humans that are like this—but by the time they got out of the elevator we had lost Florida, or perceived, as it had gone to Bush. So I rushed over to the campaign to talk to the folks who were doing the delegate count.

Nelson

What does that mean, rushed over to the campaign?

Knight

I was at the Bell South—

Riley

Were you with the Vice President there?

Knight

No, he was not there. He was in the hotel. 

Riley

Okay. 

Knight

So I rushed back to the campaign.

Nelson

Meaning the headquarters.

Knight

Headquarters.

Nelson

Church Street?

Knight

No, it was way out in that park—

Nelson

Centennial Park?

Knight

Yesnot Centennial Park. Anyway, it was in a big, huge—

Nelson

I’m just confusing the issue here, forget it. 

Knight

Anyway, to the election night folks, basically the fact that there was a real concern about what was happening in Florida and that we were going to have to contest it. Then finally, when Gore cameI was there when he arrived at One Memorial Plaza with Daley and all the others. It was really a surreal time. No one quite understood what was happening with Daley announcing that; however, he did thatthat we weren’t conceding, because he was basically on his way to concede. If he was going to do that, I wanted to be there with him. 

Then the new information that we had gotten in the meantime said that we shouldn’t do that. So then it was back to headquarters and okay, now what do we do? Well, let’s get people on the plane. Of course, what’s my role? We need to raise the money. [laughter] Who’s going to do that? Okay, Peter will do it. So all of the—this is 3, 4 o’clock in the morningall of us got an hour’s sleep, went back, put signs under everybody’s door that had been there for the evening saying meet at 8 o’clock in the lobby and we’ll tell you what’s going on. We did—because everybody was just in a frenzy for informationbasically, during that 15 minutes, raise all the money that was needed to wage a legal fight in Florida. We made the commitment; we went around the room, made all the commitments, and that was it. 

People couldn’t, I mean, that probably was the most amazing thing I’d ever—

Nelson

Who were these people that—

Knight

They were all the people, all the single big supporters that we had.

Nelson

They were there already.

Knight

Yes, they were there already, they all wanted to know. They all would have done anything to try to make it happen. I remember, for whatever reason, my son was there. He had a couple of his buddies sitting in the back of the room. He said, Wow, Dad. That was amazing. [laughter]

Nelson

Can you increase my allowance?

Knight

That was the only time he ever was impressed, I think. But, of course, people at that point in time were just so outraged and would have done really anything. 

Riley

You remained in Tennessee for the duration of the—

Knight

No, I came back, I was in Washington. I spent the time—

Riley

Consulting?

Knight

Back and forth. I didn’t go down to Florida. I spent the time in Washington.

Riley

Were you involved in any of the strategic decisions about what happened?

Knight

Somewhat. It was really Daley who was making them, and really on the legal side it was Ron. But no, I was tangential to that. Went in there all the time and gave them my advice and guidance, but the significant role was Daley’s.

Riley

In retrospect was there anything that could have been done?

Knight

I just don’t think—if I had felt there was a path forward—I know that the legal team was fighting really hard. Ron may say something different. I never really felt that there was a path to victory just because I really did think there he was checkmate. How it played out was pretty amazing.

Nelson

I put words in your mouth about why it was checkmate, but why did you think it was checkmate?

Knight

For example, every avenue that might have been open would have been eventually blocked. But having said that, the night that he delivered his concession speech was one of the most exhilarating nights I’ve ever spent. There was just so much emotion. He had asked everyone. We actually had a party at NAVOBS [Naval Observatory] and an awful lot of people came, including an incredible number of musicians, and we just let it all out at that point. He was there until late. I don’t know, it was just quite an emotional time and it was—but invigorating at the same time. It wasn’t really a celebration—I don’t know what the word—

Nelson

Catharsis?

Riley

You were reaching closure anyway.

Knight

We were reaching closure, it was catharsis. I think that’s the way to explain it. If I remember the number of musicians that were there on hand to help, it was pretty extraordinary. So that was—that’s kind of the way that chapter ended at NAVOBS with his family, with everybody there, with friends, with the White House staff.

Riley

Did you think at that time that he might continue with a political career? Did you think maybe he’d wait four years and give it another shot for redemption?

Knight

No, I didn’t. I felt at the time that that was it.

Riley

That was it.

Knight

I think he grew to feel that way as well. 

Nelson

Have you read anything about Gore, books about Gore, or just read anything about Gore that you think gets him right? If you want to understand Gore, read this. Don’t read that, read this.

Knight

I should say to read the books that he has written; that’s the way to get to know him. I don’t know, I haven’t been a voracious reader of the stuff that was written about him. I didn’t read the books that were written about him, so I’m not sure I can say anything about that.

Riley

Is there anything about the popular image of Gore that we’ve got wrong? This sort ofcaricature may not exactly the right wordbut there is a conventional wisdom about what this person is like? As somebody who has seen him up close and personal and understands the way he ticks, what we—

Knight

I think maybe in the final analysis he would have been a great President. One of the challenges was that he wasn’t a great campaigner. He wasn’t as sure-footed in his campaign mannerisms as, say, President Clinton was, and despite the fact that he ultimately won, he wasn’t able to grasp it. He was in a bubble almost the entire campaign. He had trouble getting out of it. It was hard to get out because he was the Vice President up until the time he became the candidate, and when he became the candidate he was in this bubble construct that was difficult to extricate himself from. So people never really saw him in the way that the rest of us did, and knew him the way that we did for a variety of reasons that didn’t come across as much to the American people as perhaps we would have liked it to. 

I do think the press had something to do with it. I think the press was quite unfair to him. That’s been proven out over time that there was a real significant bias against him for reasons that that are still not entirely clear, mostly in the Post and Times, the sort of intelligentsia of the campaign, really treated him pretty shabbily and probably amplified things that shouldn’t have been, and portrayed him in ways that I think were unfair. But nonetheless, the campaigns have to project themselves and this campaign wasn’t able to project exactly who he was and what he was about. So ultimately he won but he didn’t quite win. 

The tragedy is that he would have been a great President, and this country would have been a lot different. But it wasn’t to be.

Nelson

You say that we didn’t see things that all you who knew him saw. What didn’t we see that you saw that you wish we’d seen?

Knight

He’s funny, he’s witty, he’s not—back in ’92 there wasn’t anyone who called him wooden or stiff; it was all post-’92. Those jokes all came from him being Vice President. I’m not saying they’re wrong because they had that caricature of him standing behind the President, right or wrong; but that’s not who he was. He’s very smart, very engaged, very witty, very funny, loved to laugh, loved to crack jokes. A lot of the American people didn’t see that part of him. Is that a failure of the campaign? Probably in some respects, it had to be because that and the events leading up to it. Could you have replayed it in a different way? I’m sure all of us would have replayed it in a different way.

Riley

In a couple of instances you’ve mentioned that he didn’t have the campaign skills of Bill Clinton, which is a sort of unfair comparison because there aren’t too many people who had his campaign skills. I’m wondering if you could think more generally about comparisons between the two as you saw them on other dimensions. How were they alike and how were they different for people who truly knew them?

Knight

Well, President Clinton would ask you questions like, What’s happening in the fourth district of Iowa in that precinct that I went to a couple of months ago? I’m making it up—that’s not a question Gore would ever ask, but Clinton knew. He knew what he got the last time—Gore didn’t think like that. So Gore’s approach was a little bit more issue-oriented, cerebral. That isn’t to say that the President’s wasn’t, he just had this inner compass on how people were perceiving him, and he had a photographic memory of people in all parts of the country, in each district, and he knew it inside and out. I mean, you talk about being hard to keep up with, I don’t think there were one or two people in his political sphere that had anywhere near the knowledge that he did of politics. Craig Smith might have been about the only one that I could think of. I don’t think Bruce knew it as well as he did, knew every district, every precinct. He was amazing. That’s kind of the contrast that I was referring to.

But it was also, one of the things—when I say atrophy, it wasn’t that he didn’t have—Gore had formidable political skills.

Riley

Sure.

Knight

In ’92, were they as good as Clinton’s? It is such a totally unfair comparison because the guy was the most gifted figure any of us will ever see in terms of raw political skills. So anyone pales by comparison, but Gore was pretty good. Gore was good. But when I say they atrophied, he didn’t have to keep up the relationships with the Daleys or this mayor or that mayor, or this Governor or that Governor and so forth, because that wasn’t his job. The President—it was his job, he had a whole apparatus to do it, so Gore could focus on that— 

It wasn’t so much—I mean, his skills maybe atrophied a little bit, but it was all the political component around him that had to be rebuilt again starting in ’98, ’99, and so forth. So maybe that could have been handled a little bit differently, but that wasn’t part of his job. I think he truly, really loved being Vice President of the United States and what he was able to accomplish, which was considerable. 

Riley

The Vice Presidency does have that effect. Martin Van Buren—

Knight

I think he was arguably, certainly at that time, the most effective Vice President that we’ve ever had. I don’t know where history will put Dick Cheney in a different role, but the job he set out to do he did really extremely well. He was on very firm ground because he knew the issues and was really good at it. That’s why he really would have been a great President, because he knew how to use the levers of power.

Riley

Mike?

Nelson

That’s a good benediction.

Riley

I think it is too. You have been very generous with your time.

Knight

I feel as if we had some joyous parts at the beginning and less joyous parts at the end. I guess that’s how—

Nelson

Maybe we should have talked about them in reverse order.

Knight

In reverse order, because it became more painful as the years went by.

Nelson

Even though there were no musicians here, it was cathartic in a way.

Riley

We’re very grateful that this has been—I know you’ve worked long and hard and this has been a long day for you, but for us the time flies by because we’re getting so much interesting stuff. And the interviews are fun for us as well as we learn a great deal. 

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