I remember Sept. 13, 2000, like it was yesterday. The next day would be our first “mock” debate; I was George W. Bush and Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Altria - Biden unleashes on Trump and GOP A presidential candidate pledge can right the wrongs of an infamous day VP dilemma: The establishment or the base? MORE was, well, Al Gore. I had been Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) during the Democratic primaries and, four years earlier, I was Congressman Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) during the 1996 vice presidential debate prep.
Debate prep at the presidential level is a world of its own. Al Gore’s team, headed by Ron Klain, had it down to a science: I spent months getting ready, hours watching and reading everything Kemp said and, in the days before that 1996 debate, our campaign provided me with video of everything Kemp said on the stump. There would be no surprises. Gore destroyed Kemp in that debate, and I was going to play my small role in his demolishing Bush — until the materials arrived.
“I have something you should see,” said Kathy McLaughlin, as she handed me a thick pack of papers and video tapes. She had been my chief of staff when I was in Congress and now ran my small lobbying shop.
The documents she handed me were very familiar: My staff created a debate book for me for every campaign. I knew what it was the moment I saw it — the Bush campaign’s debate talking points, rebuttal answers, everything a candidate for president would need to get ready for a debate. The postmark on the package was from Austin, Texas. There also was a letter; it read in part that more of this was on the way and that the sender wished me good luck.
We put the tape in the VHS, and there was Gov. Bush, in shorts, doing a mock Tim Russert-style interview. “Stop the tape,” I said. I didn’t want to see anymore. I didn’t need to. My role in Gore’s campaign was over.
We sat silently for a few minutes. Now what? Marc Miller had been my first administrative assistant when I was in Congress, and now he was my lawyer. We started with him: “Please come over and get this stuff, Marc. I don’t know where it should go but I don’t want it here.” It was clear after a short discussion that he would take it back to his office and contact the FBI to convey the material to the bureau. This was an easy choice; the stolen material had come through the mail and that was a federal crime.
Marc got the materials to the FBI, and an agent interviewed me later that afternoon. I found myself in an interesting position because the FBI agent wanted to know why the debate materials were important.
I called Bill Daley, Gore’s campaign manager, to tell him what had happened and why I was “recusing” myself from any further campaign activity. No one would ever believe I hadn’t made copies of all the materials. Next, it was time to put out a press release and be done with it.
What I believed and wrote in our statement then — and still believe today, especially when our president says it’s all right to get information from foreign adversaries and not necessarily alert the FBI — was this:
“This election should be about issues and vision not tactics. As a result, my decision today was an easy one to make. Using these materials was never an option. To do so would dishonor a great American tradition of open and honest debates. Too many people are cynical about the political process. I happen to believe it is a noble and honorable profession. But if the American people are to believe that, we must act honorably. And that is what I have tried to do here.”
So should our president.
Thomas J. Downey represented New York’s 2nd Congressional District from 1975 until 1993 as a Democrat. He is a founder and chairman of Downey McGrath Group, a Washington-based lobbying firm, and has been a board member of the Council for a Livable World, a nonpartisan organization that works to reduce nuclear weapons worldwide.