Terry McAuliffe is 50, looks 40, and has the zest of a 20-year-old. Son of a real-estate agent who was the local Democratic Party treasurer in Syracuse, N.Y., McAuliffe made his first fortune -- a few hundred dollars -- resurfacing driveways at age 14. He would later make millions of dollars in various businesses and financial investments.
He was a bank chairman in Washington, D.C., by age 30. McAuliffe did so well financially, in fact, that most of the accomplishments for which he is famous have come as an unpaid volunteer for the national Democratic Party:
"I have a passion for politics," McAuliffe says. "I have a passion for life. I don't believe the glass is half full. I believe it's overflowing. I'm fired up, charged up. Because of my optimistic nature, I can convince people to do certain things, like give a lot of money to good Democratic candidates. But I try to make it fun. You gotta have fun in life. You only live once. The minute you just went through, you'll never get back again. So you might as well make the most of it."
Asked if he had an "off switch" for his enthusiasm, he replied, "No such thing. Just ask my wife."
Fresh out of college at Catholic University in Washington, Terry McAuliffe went to work for the re-election effort of President Jimmy Carter in 1980. McAuliffe's famous Roladex -- a rotating card file of political contacts -- expanded so fast that he was soon leading the fundraising for the entire Democratic membership of the U.S. House of Representatives, at the request of his friend who one day would be the best man at his wedding: California Congressman Tony Coelho.
"He can get in most doors," Coelho says of his friend. "And once he gets in and he meets somebody, they become friends. He has that magnetic personality that, once he meets you, you like him. And then he gets you enthused about doing things, and he's very, very effective."
In 2001, Terry McAuliffe was elected chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which, for the first time in its history under his watch, became debt-free and raised more money than the Republicans.
"I happen to enjoy asking for money," McAuliffe avers. "I love to ask for money. The worst they can say to me is no. I've never been shot. I've never been thrown out of a building, out of an airplane. And so maybe I'm a little wacky. But I actually love it."
McAuliffe describes this infatuation with fundraising, politics, and Democrats in fond detail in his new autobiography, called What a Party: My Life Among Democrats, Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals. The alligator gets a mention because McAuliffe once wrestled one in return for a $15,000 campaign contribution.
Terry McAuliffe became a close confidant and golfing buddy of President Bill Clinton, and he traveled the world for the Clintons as an informal troubleshooter. Now, as chairman of former First Lady Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign committee, McAuliffe is again making fundraising history. The Clinton campaign has already raised $26 million, a record for the first three months of any U.S. presidential campaign.
"This business is tough," McAuliffe admits. "When you put yourself out, especially on a presidential campaign, you open yourself up to a lot of criticism from your opponents, from the press, or whatever. You gotta have a very thick skin to do it. But it's tough. I'm not going to kid you. If you're going to get in this, this is a battle of giants. And you'd better be willing to fight.
"But you know what? That's the price you pay. You have the ability to change the course of the country and the world. Listen, I could go play golf every day if I wanted and take my money and go do something else. I don't choose to do that. I believe you gotta get back in the arena and fight for people. And I want everybody to have the same opportunity that Terry McAuliffe has."
McAuliffe says he's well aware that one doesn't always win in politics. He campaigned hard for Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 but lost the Electoral College -- and the presidency -- to George W. Bush based on a few hundred disputed votes cast in Florida.
"You don't always win," he says. "But you know what? You gotta always try. And the key to life is that when you get knocked down, get up, dust yourself off, and get right back at it again."
McAuliffe says that if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2008, he'd like to be both secretary of Commerce -- drumming up business for American companies -- and a presidential ambassador without portfolio once again.
An optimist like Terry McAuliffe acknowledges very few regrets in his life. Spending too much time apart from his kids is one. "Many times they see their dad on television, not in person. And it breaks my heart to call from the road and ask my son how he did in the wrestling match that day, or my daughter in her basketball game. You can never get those times back. To be honest with you, I'm just not a guy who sits around and thinks about regrets. As Hillary [Clinton] says, you can't do re-dos in life, and I agree with her."
Beneath his Irish charm, Terry McAuliffe is a fierce political in-fighter. He admits that his own party, made up of diverse ethnic constituencies and occasionally at odds with itself, can sometimes look like what he calls the "Democratic Circular Firing Squad." But Democrats can defeat their usually wealthier Republican opponents, he says, with sheer hustle in the drive for dollars. "If there's one thing I can do," Terry McAuliffe says in an understatement, "it's sell."
What a Party: My Life Among Democrats, Presidents, Candidates, Donors, Activists, Alligators, and Other Wild Animals is published by Thomas Dunne Books.