At a University of Richmond forum in October, the Macker, as his many, many friends have nicknamed Terry McAuliffe, told of all the good he’d do for the great state of Virginia. His opponent for governor, Republican state attorney general and all-around crackpot Ken Cuccinelli, had gone first, and now it was McAuliffe’s turn on stage. McAuliffe has long legs and long fingers and long vulpine features that he manages to make appear golden retriever-ish. As he fielded questions from the moderator on alternative energy and school reform, he clicked his pen compulsively—open-and-shut, open-and-shut—and feinted dramatically at note-taking, as if desperate to set down the big ideas filling his head. It wasn’t clear that he ever actually formed a full word. (From where I sat: No, not even close.) His answers, though, were smooth and expert. McAuliffe takes notes everywhere he goes lately, as The Washington Post has cheekily pointed out. Terry, the eager student of Virginia, has become an obvious trope. And yet he keeps scribbling away.
In just a few weeks, if the polls are to be believed, McAuliffe is going to win the race and will shortly thereafter be clicking his pen open-and-shut, open-and-shut as he signs new state laws. This is a surprising development. It’s not just that McAuliffe is the consummate Washington insider, Clinton vintage, embodying so much of what some people find gross about the subspecies. Or that parts of his private-sector experience look not unlike crony capitalism, with ethical questions continuing to haunt GreenTech Automotive, the electric-car company he ran. It’s that it has always been impossible to imagine the proudly skin-deep McAuliffe in a serious job. When Al Franken ran for Senate in Minnesota, he worked to show voters that, even though he was an electoral virgin and he had once made a very regrettable movie called Stuart Saves His Family, he in fact had deep thoughts on governing. When Terry McAuliffe fake note-takes, that’s the real Terry McAuliffe. Rarely has a would-be elected official been so ardent in his lack of earnestness.
Friends and paid associates (the lines blur) insist that McAuliffe has always loved talking the ins and outs of policy and was frustrated at his lack of input as merely the man holding the biggest sacks of cash. Four years ago, McAuliffe was knocked out of his first gubernatorial campaign in the Democratic primary, and you only run twice, they say, if you really care about the people. It’s all a good story to fund-raise by.
But there’s another explanation for his motivations that has been making the rounds. It goes this way: McAuliffe, who made his fortune in banking and real estate very young, got into political cash-grabbing around the same time as another self-made Virginia millionaire, telecom titan Mark Warner. The two always competed over who brought in more bucks. Warner, though, carefully built local connections throughout the 1990s and, after a failed run for U.S. Senate in 1996, was elected governor in 2001. Padding the coffers of that ultimately successful campaign was one of McAuliffe’s to-dos during the years he spent as Democratic National Committee chair. Warner went on to become a senator and a darling of the national party, mentioned as a possible member of a presidential ticket. The contrast had to sting, and suddenly McAuliffe could see himself running and winning, too.
This theory happens to jibe with the extensive file on McAuliffe, including his romp of an autobiography, What a Party! The book came out in 2007, and it is stunning to realize that he wrote its many gifts to future opposition researchers at the same time he may have been mulling his first run for office. McAuliffe has five children, something he likes to remind people of, which politicians with big broods are wont to do. But his parenting stories don’t always have a family-values ring. In now-infamous episodes, he was kicked out of the delivery room where one of his kids was born after getting into an argument with the anesthesiologist about health care; ducked out of a second child’s delivery room to attend a party for gossip writer Lloyd Grove; and took a detour on the way home from the hospital with a third offspring so that he could stop at a fund-raiser while his wife waited, weeping, in the car. “I felt bad for Dorothy, but it was a million bucks for the Democratic Party,” he writes. Dorothy’s is a memoir I’d definitely shell out for.
Credentials that other would-be leaders would brandish, McAuliffe undermines. Of earning his J.D. from Georgetown at night while running his businesses, he writes, “To be honest, I found law school somewhat boring.” He thanks his assistant for helping him through the classes, declaring magnanimously that she deserves the degree more than he does, and describes his love of for-purchase notes. He boasts of having run his first marathon—after a night of boozing. His highest praise is reserved for people’s “energy level.” His own, of course, is famously off the charts. “I think there’s got to be something wrong with his thyroid gland,” says Joe Trippi, who has both worked with McAuliffe and against him as a consultant to one of his 2009 primary opponents. “I’m serious.”
Occasionally, McAuliffe has tried to seem more substantial. For instance, he once defended his gravitas to a New York Times reporter by pointing out that he’d been on television—“Meet the Press,”specifically—a lot. But it’s the enthusiasm with which McAuliffe talks about his successful fund-raising pitches that reveals his truer nature. Here’s how, in his own words, he convinced one couple, the Bagleys, to donate to the Clinton Library.
“Okay, Smith, what are you going to do for the library?” I said.
“I’m going to do one,” he said. “A hundred thousand dollars?” Elizabeth asked. “No, no, no," I said. “You’re saying a million, aren’t you, Smith?” “Yeah, Terry, I meant a million,” he said. “Great, let’s have another bottle of champaaaaaaaagne,” I said.
During this year’s race, McAuliffe reportedly told one influential Virginia tech group whose endorsement he was seeking that he’d accomplish his gubernatorial goals by taking people out for drinks, something that he, as an Irish-Catholic, was adept at. He did not get the endorsement.
Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics describes the McAuliffe-Cuccinelli contest as “two guys running against the only guy they could actually beat.” Cuccinelli did himself no favors by palling around with Ted Cruz, an orchestrator of the government shutdown, in a state full of people who make their money working for the feds, and has the further disadvantage of following an unpopular Republican governor who allegedly took money he should not have. But Virginia still has more Tea Partiers than champaaaaaaaagne partiers, and McAuliffe’s likely victory was hardly inevitable. Even if it’s midget basketball, in other words, McAuliffe is still sinking some jump shots.
At a 2012 event for GreenTech, Bill Clinton joked that, while he’d happily buy a new car from his good friend, a used car was a different story. And yet McAuliffe has so far managed to sell a used car—himself—to the voters of Virginia. It has helped that his campaign has been far more disciplined this time around. He has, in his way, shown an appreciation for local concerns: At the Richmond forum, he talked, like a survivor, about how he’d been out of cell phone service for a whole hour and ten minutes while on a rural campaign swing and would make expanding coverage a priority of a McAuliffe administration. It’s also possible that, in a closely divided state, his apparent comfort with the gristle of deal-making has a certain appeal.
Or maybe it’s just that his exuberance wears well. McAuliffe, a McLean resident who grew up in Syracuse, New York, is new money and acts like it. That can wind up feeling relatable: What average person wouldn’t brag, just a little, about all the awesome trips he’d gotten to take aboard Air Force One? There is something Biden-esque about McAuliffe, in the way he convincingly plays at an ordinary guy stoked to find himself in rarefied circles. He finds this all as funny as—or maybe even funnier than—the rest of us do. The effect is endearing.
McAuliffe is fond of marveling at his luck, but he fails to acknowledge his luckiest stroke of all, one he also shares with Biden as well as with Clinton, perhaps the all-time top beneficiary of this brand of good fortune: With repeated exposure, the otherwise problematic behavior of a sufficiently charismatic man sometimes starts to be written off as the guy just being his irrepressible self. “Governor Terry McAuliffe” may still sound like a punch line. But for a politician, being viewed with bemused indulgence can go a long way.
Noreen Malone is a staff writer at The New Republic.