James Carville, Party Animal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page C1
James Carville is in mid-tirade. His ghoulish smile is frozen in place, his eyes narrowed to scary-looking slits, his bald head tilted at an unnatural angle.
"This is a school-lunch-cutting, government-closing, right-wing-worshiping, sex-obsessed, president-hating party," he says of the Republicans.
Carville is filibustering CNBC's Chris Matthews, a night after fulminating at Larry King's elbow. He's just decided to form a political action committee along with former White House aide Rahm Emanuel and onetime presidential pollster Stan Greenberg aimed at defeating selected Republicans in 2000. But there are plenty of PACs, and only one Ragin' Cajun.
"James lives in a border town between genius and madness," says White House adviser Paul Begala, his former business partner. "Now that he's rich and famous, he's eccentric. I knew him when he was just crazy."
But Carville's critics say he's crazy like a fox. As President Clinton's friend and informal adviser, he automatically commands attention when he bitterly denounces Kenneth Starr, Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, Tom DeLay and Bob Barr. But as a best-selling author, highly paid lecturer and international consultant, he has the luxury of insisting he's just a plain ol' private citizen speaking his mind.
The reality is somewhere in between. Carville writes his own scripts, but he speaks to Clinton several times a week, according to his wife, Mary Matalin. And the president gets a ferocious advocate with complete deniability when Carville starts savaging Clinton's opponents.
"The White House is saying they oppose the politics of personal destruction, while they are the chief practitioner of it in the United States today," says Clifford May, communications chief for the Republican National Committee. "James Carville has been doing this for a very long time, declaring war, fighting war on any basis."
"James is marginalizing himself," says Dick Morris, a Fox News commentator who worked for Clinton's 1996 campaign until his own brush with scandal. "He's gone from a highly respected, acute and intelligent political strategist to being almost a demented fringe advocate. . . . He's making himself something of a laughingstock. I think it hurts the cause."
Carville, 54, revels in such charges. He is a master at flipping an interviewer's question, making himself the victim and firing at his critics, working himself into a paroxysm of outrage.
"This is not the politics of personal destruction, this is the politics of politics," he says. "I know the editorial writers hate that. I go about the most sacred work of democracy. All the stupid idiots who say this never put in that our retribution will be at the polling place. What do they want the president to call and ask me to do quit trying to win elections?"
When Carville began portraying House Republicans as a partisan lynch mob for impeaching Clinton last month, White House spokesman Joe Lockhart, like Mike McCurry before him, tried to distance his boss. "James has strong opinions, which he expresses freely," Lockhart told reporters. "He has expressed the view that this process is illegitimate and was unfair. . . . It's an entirely open question what his response would be if the president asked him to cease and desist."
Sometimes he goes too far, even for his commander-in-chief. Two years ago, after Carville declared his "war" on independent counsel Starr, the president privately asked him to cool it. The Louisianian toned it down for a while, but Clinton later told him the attacks on Starr had been good politics.
Last fall, when Carville began beating up on then-House Speaker Gingrich, aides to Minority Leader Dick Gephardt sent word that he should chill out. White House officials had Begala appeal to his old friend as well. But Carville balked. Even if the Vatican or the World Court got involved, he told Begala, "I ain't gonna shut up."
Not shutting up has, to put it mildly, been a good career move for Carville. His latest book, "And the Horse He Rode In On: The People Vs. Ken Starr," reached No. 3 on the New York Times bestseller list. Carville and Matalin, a veteran Republican strategist and former radio host, have combined on a hit book about their unorthodox romance, and regularly reprise their Bickersons routine on "Meet the Press."
"Politics never bothered our relationship, but this past year has been terrible," Matalin says. "He really believes these people my people are out to get Clinton. He's almost Clintonesque, almost to the point that none of this would have happened if not for the evil Republicans." Still, she says, "he knows politics works better when you have a villain. Newt goes away, you've gotta string up a new one.
"I said to him, 'You're making a fool of yourself. You're making a parody of a caricature of yourself.' But you can't argue with the guy."
Matalin says her husband is "learning disabled" and that his mind works "like a ping-pong ball." He was, after all, kicked out of Louisiana State University (though he enlisted in the Marines, finished LSU and got a law degree there to boot).
James Carville was hardly an instant success. At 40, after a string of losing campaigns, he was depressed and out of money. But then he won a few races, signed on as Clinton's top 1992 campaign strategist and burst into the big time. These days, of course, he shares a sprawling Shenandoah County farm with his wife and two young daughters they had a hog slaughter the other day and is looking for a suitable home in Old Town Alexandria.
Carville and Matalin have become big-league commercial pitchmen, lending their celebrity to Alka-Seltzer, American Express, Cotton Inc. and Heineken. Carville gave 75 speeches last year, a few with his wife, for roughly $25,000 a pop.
But there is an inescapable irony in this success. Since Clinton was elected, Carville "the best campaign strategist this country has ever seen," boasts Begala no longer plies his trade in American politics. He says he would immediately become an issue for any candidate who hired him. "Once you become a famous person, the only way you can make a living is by being a famous person," he says.
Carville was dumped from the Democratic National Committee payroll, along with Begala and Greenberg, after the party lost Congress in 1994. Since then, he's signed a number of Democratic fund-raising letters but advises Clinton gratis.
At the moment, he is working for a presidential candidate in Argentina and a contender for Israeli prime minister, after handling campaigns in Ecuador, Honduras, Brazil and Greece. At home, he remains a ripe target for cartoonists and late-night comics. Carville was thrilled when a Washington Post cartoon portrayed him as a Doberman, telling anyone who would listen that the paper had attacked him as a "wild animal."
Comedian Dennis Miller calls him "a snake oil salesman who actually looks like a snake."
Carville's mouth can get the White House into trouble. When he famously derided Paula Jones as trailer park trash, he helped fuel her determination to press on with the sexual harassment suit that ultimately led to Clinton's impeachment.
Yet Carville is also a certified insider who regularly checks in with the White House. When Kathleen Willey was about to make her charges of presidential groping on "60 Minutes," Clinton asked Carville whether he should release the friendly letters that Willey had written him after the alleged incident. The letters were made public the day after the broadcast.
When he's not engaged in political combat, Carville occasionally surfaces in Hollywood. He's appeared in the NBC sitcom "Mad About You" and in the 1996 film "The People Vs. Larry Flynt." The latter role, though, has come back to haunt him. When the Hustler publisher began paying women for sexual dirt on Republican politicians, critics tried to tie the effort to the White House by saying that Carville had appeared in his pal's movie.
"It was not his movie, it was Milos Forman's movie," Carville says. "It was nominated for three Academy Awards." While Flynt says they are "friends," Carville says he met Flynt once on the movie set and once a year ago while lunching at the Palm, and has never called him.
Still, Carville has passed up several televised opportunities to criticize Flynt's sexual investigations. Even Matalin told her husband on "Meet the Press" that "you've been stony silent on that pornographer Larry Flynt."
Carville's view is that Hyde, DeLay and other Republicans who investigated Clinton's sex life "created" Flynt's power. "Intelligent people should have known that you empower people like Flynt, because they said go after people's sex lives. I didn't do this. The mainstream media did this."
Pressed further, he says: "I don't have anything to do with Larry Flynt. I don't think people ought to go after people's sex lives. I don't think it's relevant. I don't try to destroy people personally. I'm trying to beat them. What in hell could anyone find offensive about that?
"I don't think we've seen the end of this yet. Flynt is just the tip of the iceberg. . . . We are in the abyss."
But Carville knows something about fighting at the bottom of the pit. He casually dismisses the president's affair with Monica Lewinsky as nothing more than "a grown man acting foolishly with a young woman and not wanting anybody to know about it." He says the House Republicans who led the impeachment drive "don't care what you think. They tried to overturn the '96 election. They ignored the '98 election."
In one TV interview after another, he names names. Hyde "became a captive of the right wing." The Republicans "decided to succumb to the will of Jerry Falwell, and Bob Barr, and a 'concerned conservatives council,' or whatever this racist outfit calls themselves." He is referring to the Council of Conservative Citizens, whose white supremacist views Barr renounced after disclosures that the Georgia congressman addressed the group last year. Barr, for his part, accuses Carville of "condoning and encouraging" Flynt.
At this stage of Carville's career, it might be tempting for the millionaire strategist to relax a bit. But he is still sinking his teeth into his opponents' legs.
"This is what I love and hate about him," Matalin says. "His strength is his curse. Those aren't affectations he really is a nut. He takes it as a point of honor that everyone thinks he's a wack job."
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