Native from Rutherford County, White House operative Roy Neel is pictured here with his wife Jenny, former Vice President Al Gore, Tipper Gore, Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. Photo submitted
Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part series
Before leaving for a career in Washington, young Roy Neel was already a published author.
“I was the manager of the great 1964-65 Vanderbilt basketball team and later was a sportswriter for the Nashville Banner, which inspired me to write ‘Dynamite: 75 years of Vanderbilt Basketball,’” Smyrna native Neel shared. “It also got sports writing out of my system.”
The author, a graduate of Murfreesboro Central High School in 1963, is penning another book, this one based on his knowledge gleaned while working the past three-plus decades in and around the White House.
From the 1970s to 2000, Neel was at the center of some America’s most extraordinary events, including serving as Vice President Gore’s transition planning director during the 2000 campaign and during the Florida recount.
“Brutal” was the one word Neel used in describing what it felt like when describing the U.S. Supreme Court process that led to Gore’s loss.
“Not brutal concerning the loss itself, but brutal in the manner the election was lost during the Florida recount,” Neel assessed back in time. “It is viewed by legal scholars as one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in the country’s history, based largely on partisan bias. Had the Supreme Court upheld the Florida Supreme Court decision to allow the recount to go forward, Al Gore would have become President and history would be very different.”
For example, Neel added: “The Clinton-Gore years were marked with unparalleled economic growth and a balanced budget. The Bush-Cheney years gave us an unjustified war in Iraq costing thousands of American lives, nearly a trillion dollars of debt, and the deepest economic recession since the Depression. I’d say the country got a very bad deal with the Supreme Court decision to give the election to Bush and Cheney.”
Neel at age 68 is penning his new book, giving lectures about U.S. politics and also serves as a professor at Vanderbilt University and Melbourne University in Australia.
“I’m writing about Presidential transitions, a topic that is fascinating to me, not only because I was involved in two White House transitions but also because it is an especially important and even dangerous time in U.S. governance.”
He also served as one of Gore’s top administrative assistants from 1978 to 1992 in the House and Senate. He was in the White House from 1993-95.
Neel’s brief journalism career in Nashville coincided with Gore, who worked as a news reporter for The Tennessean before being elected to Congress in 1976. Neel and Gore, through family friendships, had known each other dating back to young childhoods. After Gore’s election, Neel joined his friend in Washington as a senior member of his House staff.
Kent Syler, currently a Middle Tennessee State University political science professor and chief-of-staff to former U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Murfreesboro, credited Neel with being a “national player” for an extended period of time in America’s political theater.
“Roy Neel grew up in Rutherford County, before serving as chief of staff to Vice President Gore and Deputy Chief-of-Staff to President Clinton,” Syler credited. “That’s a huge accomplishment for a boy from Smyrna. He gets back to Tennessee frequently, and most recently toured the Albert Gore Research Center here at MTSU.”
When Gore was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1985, Neel was promoted to the senator’s chief-of-staff, the position he served Gore both in the Senate and later in the White House when Senator Gore teamed up with former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton to win the first of two terms in the White House.
Gore became the nation’s 45th vice president (1993-2001).
Neel recalls circumstances of how Clinton came to name Gore as his running mate.
“The two (Clinton and Gore) met privately in a D.C. hotel, holding conversations late into the night in mid-1992,” Neel accounted. “We (staffers) knew Al was being considered and a decision had to be made before the Democrat Party Convention coming up in New York.
“Al, his family and I were all at the Gore Farm (overlooking the Caney Fork River near Carthage, Tenn.) along with former Tennessean newspaper reporter Carter Eskew and others, when Clinton officially tagged Tennessee Sen. Gore as his running mate,” Neel confirmed.
“And the Clinton/Gore ticket subsequently got a big bump (in political polls) coming out of the convention in New York,” Neel said.
That’s also when Neel’s course in life changed …
“After the convention I went to Little Rock, joining the Clinton campaign team,” Neel noted back in time. “That was a terrific learning experience. I was named the vice president’s chief-of-staff the morning after the election.”
Later, Neel received a “double appointment” as both Gore’s chief-of-staff and assistant to President Clinton.
Syler was a recent co-host on WGNS Radio’s Truman Jones Show when he asked guest Neel to share a typical workday at the White House.
“For a boy from Middle Tennessee, didn’t you have an amazing seat to witness important history being made?” Syler asked. “Describe a typical workday at the White House.”
“I’d get to the White House most of the time before 7 a.m., to meet with my own staff,” Neel shared. “Then I’d prepare for the regular 7:30 a.m. White House daily staff briefing, helping organize the President’s schedule. Yes, I had an amazing seat to witness history.”
Neel was asked about “political power players.”
“When you step out of office you realize it’s not you, but the office that is the seat of power,” Neel defined. “You best not take yourself too seriously in Washington.”
In granting this exclusive interview to The Post and Cannon Courier newspapers, Neel was asked to describe President Clinton’s personality.
“Very charismatic…up there with FDR (President Franklin D. Roosevelt),” Neel confirmed. “They were probably the most charismatic of the Democrat presidents, while our Republican friends can claim President Reagan was also very charismatic.”
Neel also described: “And you can’t forget that Al Gore was a huge asset to President Clinton. No one but those two will ever know how much of a positive influence Al Gore was in the successes of that administration.”
“That inauguration morning, they were still moving President Bush and his furnishings out of the White House,” Neel added. “Presidential transitions can be difficult …
“When we took office in 1992, not one of us had ever worked in the White House,” Neel looked back to their first days after Clinton began his presidency. “And we had some problems. The early days were the hardest.”
While appearing on the Truman Jones’ radio talk show, Neel gave his opinion Hillary Clinton helped salvage her husbands’ last term of office on the heels of his affair with political intern Monica Lewinsky.
“It was probably Hillary’s influence and steadiness, with her standing by him, that saved the Clinton presidency those last few years,” Neel described.
It was U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s wife, Bess, who once said: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”