Reached in the midst of a Sunday breakfast, the young man at the center of a brouhaha involving allegations of political espionage seemed rather serene.
On Saturday, Michael Doyne, 28, was suspended with pay by the campaign of Vice President Al Gore after ABC News confronted him with an allegation made by an old friend of his, Keith Siskin. Siskin apparently told ABC News that at the end of August, Doyne had bragged to him about the Gore campaign's having a mole in the campaign of Gov. George W. Bush.
When confronted with the charge by both the Gore campaign and ABC News, Doyne denied it, even signing an affidavit. Hours later, he recanted and said he remembered the incident, and he was then suspended by the Gore campaign.
Doyne, who was an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity brother of Siskin's at Vanderbilt University, told Salon that the reason he hadn't remembered the incident was because it seemed so inconsequential to him at the time.
"I don't know of any mole in the Bush campaign," Doyne stressed. "I don't know of anyone that knows of any mole in the Bush campaign. I don't know of any information that we're receiving that the Bush camp doesn't want us to have."
In a conference call Sunday afternoon with reporters, Gore had little to add to the questions about Doyne's suspension.
"Mark Fabiani put out a statement on that and I would refer you to him [his campaign's communications director]," Gore said. "As I understand the statement, he had signed a sworn affidavit that he has no knowledge whatsoever of any so-called mole or Gore sympathizer within the George Bush presidential campaign, and that's all I know about it. If they keep sending -- if somebody in the Bush campaign keeps sending -- confidential internal data to us, we'll keep turning it over to the FBI."
Asked if that last statement implied what some Democrats believe, that an internal Bush campaign videotape received by Gore buddy and former Rep. Tom Downey, D-N.Y., Sept. 13 was sent by the Bush campaign in an attempt to "set up" the Gore team, Gore said, "I have no comment. I don't know who sent it; I don't know why that person sent it. I read the reports that the FBI had identified a Bush campaign official as the person responsible, and I have no knowledge" other than that.
For its part, the Bush campaign wasn't satisfied with the Gore campaign's actions or statements. "It's troubling to us," said Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker. "It seems that there are people at the Gore campaign who may know more about a possible transfer of info from the Bush campaign than we previously thought. As the FBI continues to investigate the issue of the tape, and the media continues to ask questions about the e-mail situation, people in Nashville continue to get more and more nervous."
Tucker takes issue with the Gore campaign's assertion that it is handling the situation with the utmost gravity. "I'm not sure that the Gore campaign is taking this quite seriously enough," she said. "They basically have given [Doyne] a paid holiday until Wednesday ... And the situation at the Gore campaign is to obviously not take this seriously enough -- otherwise he wouldn't have lied on that first affidavit."
According to Doyne, his personal involvement in the alleged-mole saga began at the end of August, when he took Siskin, whom he knew to be a Republican, on a tour of the Gore headquarters in Nashville. "I showed him on my computer screen some information that at the time I thought to be confidential," Doyne says, "but it turns out it was just a Bush press release, which one person in our campaign gets and forwards to everyone else. I made a mistake at the time, not realizing at the time the nature of that ... I thought it was more confidential than it was."
Fabiani said that the Gore campaign gets Bush for President press releases after they're made public. "They send it to more than 2,000 people, at least according to the [Wall Street] Journal, and at that point we get it, either because it's sent to us or it's sent to someone who sends it to us," Fabiani said. "Just as they get our press releases."
But Bush spokeswoman Tucker said she questions whether a Bush press release was all Doyne had on his computer. "Obviously this is not a very credible source, since he's already changed his affidavit once," she said, "so it's obviously something that they -- at the Gore campaign -- need to investigate very seriously."
A few days after Siskin's tour of the Gore headquarters, Doyne says, he sent Siskin and several other friends an e-mail urging them to take a personality test on the Web site thespark.com. The accompanying message said something along the lines of "Hey, loser, do you want to take this message that your friend Mike Doyne is sending to you?" Doyne says.
Siskin, according to Doyne, wrote back something like "'Loser,' eh?" Then: "George Bush wants to know who the mole is. -- K.S." As a P.S., Siskin added that 10-year veteran NFL quarterback "Neil O'Donnell should be the Titans starter," a reference to the Nashville football team.
"So I responded: 'Hush-hush on the mole thing,' as if I knew what was going on with that, as if I knew anything about the mole," Doyne says. "And I wrote: 'I should be the Bengals starter.'"
"It was just a joke e-mail," Doyne says. "That's why when questioned by ABC I didn't remember this being significant at all."
But reporters have been sensitive to anything "mole" related since Sept. 13 (a few days after Doyne's "hush-hush" e-mail to Siskin), when Downey received confidential debate preparation materials that only those in Bush's inner circle possessed. Downey said that he immediately turned over the materials to the FBI, and has since recused himself from helping Gore with any debate prep.
Somehow, however, whether it was meant as a joke or not, the "hush-hush" e-mail eventually found its way into the hands of ABC News, which confronted Doyne with it, after which he was called into the office of his boss, Gore national field director Donny Fowler.
"He said the reason they're suspending me is because of a lapse in judgment," Doyne says. "And I don't want to be a distraction at this time and I would be by being at work." He adds that he would have done what Fowler did were he in his boss's place.
"They have to do what's in the best interests of Al Gore," he says. "They don't know all the facts yet."
Asked if it was just a question of a bad joke and bad timing, Doyne said, "I thought it was an OK joke; it wasn't something I'd send into some comedy routine. The timing's just very coincidental, I suppose."
Originally from Cincinnati, Doyne says that he only recently became politically active. Before joining the campaign, Doyne worked in Nashville for a company "that assisted nursing home chains in processing Medicare claims for small portions of products, like tube fittings and catheters and colostomy bags."
Doyne says he has yet to hear from Siskin, whom he describes as someone not particularly fond of Gore or President Clinton.
"I don't know what he gave or what was given," Doyne says. "I'm definitely not pointing any fingers at him because I don't know what happened. I want to let a couple of days go by before I think about calling him."
Doyne says that he was disappointed to see, in the wake of his name's being publicized, anti-Semitic postings on the Web site of a group he helped form, the Nashville Jewish Organization of Young Adults. Saturday night "the site had an extra 2,000 hits in a matter of two or three hours." Some of the postings characterized Doyne as a "Zionist Jew" and other "not really pleasant things."
"It feels like a silly situation," Doyne adds. "All of a sudden I'm one of these scandal figures. Hopefully it will wash over, and I can get back to the business of helping Al Gore win the White House."