James Carville and Mary Matalin brought their punditry tag team to Vermont Wednesday, living up to a reputation for pungent political insight, intelligence, wisdom and wisecracks — not to mention two very divergent viewpoints.
Before a packed house at Norwich University’s Plumley Armory in Northfield as part of the Todd Lecture Series, the famed married duo took turns turning their practiced gaze on all things political: Congress and President Obama, the GOP presidential field, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, American history and the current climate in Washington and across the country.
Along the way, they offered humor and memorable one-liners as salty as the popcorn you’d find in a local politician’s bar, which this “Conversation with a Washington power couple,” as it was billed, had some of the flavor of, despite occasionally malfunctioning microphones and the echoing acoustics of a big hall with hundreds of people.
Take this winner on the laughometer: Carville saying he’d wished New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had decided to enter the GOP presidential primary because then it would be a race featuring “the mount, the Mormon and the moron.” (That would be Christie, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry).
Or Matalin on the GOP’s endless search for someone who could inspire the right, which she dubbed the race between “Romney and not-Romney.” “He’s the guy your mother wanted you to go to date in high school,” she quipped.
Carville and Matalin, who married in 1993 when both were highly successful political operatives and gained fame as pundits and authors from the opposite ends of the political spectrum — he’s a liberal, she’s a conservative — are opposites in more ways than one.
Carville, lanky and tall with a shiny shaved head, drawls and slurs his words with a New Orleans growl, jumbled thoughts erupting together as if his brain were going to explode if he didn’t get them out. Matalin, bracelets hanging off her arms and immaculately coiffed, tall with long expressive hands, pauses thoughtfully and then speaks in clear, concise sentences.
While dubbed “strange bedfellows,” they also talked about what binds them together: their shared political passion and a working-class upbringing, and they showed obvious respect for each other’s insights and skills. It doesn’t hurt that they can take their shtick on the road (for a nice fee), which Carville said they do several times a month.
Sitting in three large orange arm chairs on a big dais, political science professor Jason Jagemann led the couple through the current political thicket and off into adjoining fields, which included their marriage and two surprising romps connected to Vermont.
The pair both described the climate in Washington as “toxic,” which is why they moved back to New Orleans four years ago. Matalin said: “I think about this a lot… I think it’s more simple than all the talking heads… it’s obvious, and sometimes you have to state the obvious. They once asked Ray Charles what the worst thing was about being blind, and he said, ‘You can’t see.’”
The problem, she said, is that both sides don’t socialize and talk anymore, because families don’t move to Washington, and that leaves the town without the “civilizing impact of women” whose kids go to the same schools and who gather to shop or do their hair together. Everyone goes to their own parties and listens to only their own side now.
“It is no more complicated than relationships that are built on trust, that are based on respect and listening and empathy, and all those things that make you a good friend or leaders.”’
“If you’re not ever exposed to each other, it gives you the latitude to say stupid things and mean things that you would never say to each other’s face,” she said.
Matalin cited the example of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Vice President Dick Cheney, an unlikely pair she said were able to work together because of trust and mutual respect they built in their working relationship.
“The town used to be replete with them,” she said, even though people had disparate views. But no longer. “James and I would not be able to date today. We wouldn’t even be able to meet today,” she said. Back when they met, it was “know your enemy,” she said, and folks made an effort to fraternize. That’s gone now.
Carville agreed, adding as factors congressional redistricting that makes winning elections harder and our glut of information today, which he said is doing more harm than good. When he needed news growing up, he said he had four-day-old New York Times and TV anchors to listen too. Today, he said, the kids he teaches at Tulane have unbounded information, but he’s not sure they know anything more.
“Everybody uses information today like a drunk uses a lamp post: For support, not illumination,” he said.
“Everybody wants to be told how they’re validated or were right in the first place. The information is actually hurting us, because people are just using it to buttress their own particular views,” he said
As proof that two sides can always come together, Carville said his favorite example is Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, who managed to get the Land-Grant College Act passed in 1862, establishing many of the nation’s finest universities.
“How bad was that year?” he asked, then answered his own question. “How were people not getting along? They were killing each other” in the Civil war.
But Morrill, “just through sheer persistence,” won passage of the law. “Even when you’re in times of great stress, great people do great things,” he said.
Their personal life
So how do they manage to maintain their own relationship?
Said Carville,” I’d much rather be married to someone who thinks passionately and differently than I do than someone who doesn’t think about things.” Plus, he added, “I was 49 when we got married, and I’d made enough decisions in my life. So now I’ll be 67… and I haven’t made a decision since I was 49.”
After the laughter died down, Matalin quipped: “I don’t read his books. I haven’t read his half of the book we wrote together.”
But she said when they met, what counted for her was that he loved his family and treated his “momma” well.”
“That really was all I needed to know,” she said.
Matalin said she was attracted to him because he was turning “red states blue” all over as a Democratic operative. They met in a bar and didn’t talk polling numbers, though he did criticize her “Republican bun” hair.
“We drank a lot,” she joked. “We were young and crazy.”
“We started drinking and eating french fries, and I literally knew that night that I loved this man,” she said. She kicked out her boyfriend of seven years — while Carville left to go to Philadelphia to help beat another Republican.” That was 1991, and they got married in 1993.
The GOP presidential primary
The days of smoky back-room presidential picks and “arranged marriages” are over, and it’s going to be a long process, said Matalin. Noting she doesn’t “have a dog in this fight,” the key dynamic for the GOP is a “unitedness about beating Barack Obama.” But the GOP is struggling with finding a reliable conservative who is also electable.
The dynamic in the Republican race is it’s Romney versus not-Romney, she said. Romney’s poll ceiling is also his floor (between 23-25 percent), indicating the lack of enthusiasm. Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, Matalin said, is not as weak as it seems, and ex-businessman Herman Cain is “stronger than the mainstream press thinks.”
As for Ron Paul, she called him the “quintessential bee-sting-and-die” third-party type who is smart, has very dedicated followers but hasn’t a clue when to use “common sense.”
Carville chimed in that you have to give Paul credit for staying on message and being consistent. That said, “He just can’t get a vote.”
Her issue with the candidates is what she calls their waffling and a lack of perceived leadership, which is why Cain appears to be doing well with a simple tax plan and straight-shooting style.
In Swampville, Louisiana, if you know the capital of Vermont, you are some kind of genius.”
– James Carville
Her advice for Perry? “Embrace your inadequacy! Just say you’re the worst debater but you have the best jobs record… Make it your own and live with it: ‘I stink as a debater, but I can govern.’”
Carville said Romney’s remarkably steady poll numbers are a flat line, and he compared the GOP’s dance with Romney to a familiar high school situation. “They don’t want to go to the prom with him… they looking for anybody else.., they speed dialing, they calling around.” But, he added, “You gotta give him some points for just tenacity, because he knows it.”
Which led to this exchange:
Carville: “He’s an accommodationist technocrat … and to his credit he doesn’t really try to be much else.”
Matalin, emphatically: “That’s his problem. Just be what you are. Whatever an accommodationist technocrat is, embrace your accommodationist technocratism, whatever that is.”
Carville, shouting to laughter: “He has a 59-point plan! How do you have a 59-point plan? How do you come up with that number?”
Despite the weaknesses of the GOP field, Obama has a rough road, they both said, citing a raft of poll and other numbers.
“If he wins the election, it will be a very stunning accomplishment,” said Carville, citing high unemployment and low consumer confidence figures that usually don’t bode well.
But polls for Congress are lower than Obama’s, and he said the election is still a long way off. “You look at the climate out there, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my political life,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if someone still jumped in to stir up the race, even as a third party.
Matalin said presidential elections are always a “referendum on the presidency” but didn’t discount a third-party entry either, noting that while Republicans and Democrats wouldn’t welcome a third-party candidate, polls show 70 percent of independents say they would.
As Carville colorfully put it,” There’s a lot of itching out there. How much scratchin’ gets done between now and next election, I’m not sure,” he said.
“I think that the country I grew up in is a fundamentally different country now, and I think we’re in real danger of losing the middle class, and I just think the very essence of who we are depends on how we maintain that,” Carville said. As an example of how much things have changed, he noted he was able to go to LSU law school practically on money pulled out of his pocket, $95 a semester.
Carville called “young people” the country’s biggest asset. “We have terrific young people, and I see it every day.” He said they fuel his sense of long-term optimism despite worries about the short term.
Matalin, too, sees a critical time ahead. “We are at a crossroads — this is not a talking point. We are in transition from a country that was, to the country that we want it to be,” she said. She said the time for “cutting the baby in half” to make a deal is over, and fundamental changes are needed.
“Measuring accountability and transparency, so many things at the federal level are never measured… everybody is equally guilty of this,” she said, adding that the same problem exists in the private sector. “The free market can’t work if it’s opaque,” she said.
While we’ve made huge technological advances – Matalin recalled excitement at once being able to flash-fax 120 people, yet now millions are on email beck and call — we’ve lost the art of the simple message and leadership, she said.
“People are sick of inauthenticity — like John Edwards: You want authenticity? I can fake that,” she said.
She said we’re unfortunately stuck with presidential campaigns that are long and extended: “There is a permanent campaign because it’s become an industry,” she said, suggesting folks just tune it out.
Matalin had scorn for the leadership that has taken over the Tea Party, saying “The dumber you are, the easier it is to get on TV.”
I think Bernie Sanders is the kind of politician that Jamie and I love. He doesn’t shrink from what he is. But don’t put me down as a supporter of Bernie Sanders.”
– Mary Matilin
Added Carville, “What you communicate is always the single most important thing.” Carville added: “Be leery of the big idea. Usually the experience is that that gets you in a lot of trouble.”
He went back to the Bible to describe one of the most famous sound bites, arguing sound bites work and something simple can be catchy and powerful: “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you. A four-second sound bite. There hasn’t been another thought on human relations since then. That’s as simple as it can be, but its probably the most profound utterance ever,” he said, drawing perhaps the evening’s loudest applause.
Carville and Matalin in a private interview said they thought Vermont had a good congressional delegation. Matalin had praise for Sen. Bernie Sanders, despite Sanders’ leftist political leanings.
“I think Bernie Sanders is the kind of politician that Jamie and I love. He doesn’t shrink from what he is,” she said, then added wryly: “But don’t put me down as a supporter of Bernie Sanders.”
Carville, on his comic zingers and one-liners, said some just come to him and he has help with others. “I’m a big believer that the mark of a successful appearance is if I can give people three things to laugh about, I’ve succeeded. He likes giving talks, he says, which aren’t exactly a rough life: “It ain’t bein’ a riveter.”
Carville said in his talk that Montpelier, Vt., played a big role in his early life helping his mother sell educational materials in Louisiana — “she was such a good salesman.”
She would drag him along, and to impress in her sales pitch, they picked the “most arcane-sounding” place they could think of to ask for a question. So she would ask him what the capital of Vermont was. When he replied Montpelier, “People were just blown away,” and it would help seal the deal.
“In Swampville, Louisiana, if you know the capital of Vermont, you are some kind of genius,” he said.
“Our biggest seller was the capital of Vermont. We closed more sales with Montpelier than anything else.”
Carville praised Vermont’s beauty, saying, “I hope you understand what a beautiful part of the world you live in.” But he said to laughter he did find one thing strange: “We come from New Orleans, and it was sort of odd to have people complain about the hurricanes in Vermont. It’s the topsy-turvy world we live in. “