The Carville report : Rollin' up his sleeves and rollin' back into battle
Interview by Eve Zibart
James Carville is beginning to sound like Lamont Cranston's evil twin. He knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, but he has no intention of using any old Tibetan mind-clouding methods to make himself invisible while tackling it. This is one up-front, in-your-face Shadow, and if he is practicing a sort of verbal incantation, he's certainly doing it in public, out loud, and with a sort of deadpan folksiness that takes no edge off his words.
"You know something?" begins his new book, And the Horse He Rode in On : The People v. Kenneth Starr, with the sort of companionable frankness of a guy buying you your second beer, "I don't like Ken Starr. I don't like one damn thing about him. I don't like his politics. I don't like his sanctimony. I don't like his self-piety. I don't like the people he runs with. I don't like his suck-up, spit-down view of the world, how he kisses up to the powerful and abuses the life out of regular people. I don't like his private legal clients. I don't like ..." well, you get the idea. And if you don't get it right off, Carville will make sure you get it a page or two farther along.
Impossibly impolitic and irresistibly quotable, James Carville is the President's most unabashed, adamant, and flamboyant advocate. His intentional lack of polish may be an anomaly in the political consultant-cum-talking head circles (and may in fact be as much pose as some people's polish), but it plays to the hilt outside the Beltway, as Washingtonians say. And Carville's hot-off-the-presses tract, with its last-minute appendix addressing the release of President Clinton's videotaped grand jury testimony, is as much an indictment of the anti-Clinton forces as it is a rallying cry for his supporters.
"I'm trying to get the Democrats fired up, so they'll get out there and vote," says Carville. "The press is so anti-Clinton : Where can the people who like the President go?"
Horse is written in the same conversational style, a mix of "straight stuff and a little commentary along the way," that he used in his last book, We're Right, They're Wrong, which like Horse trumpeted the economic and social victories of the Clinton administration. It's also a mix of demonstrable fact and reprinted legal criticism with partisan argument. After all, as Carville cheerfully admits, "People don't look to me for objectivity."
"A lot of the straight stuff is already out there, so it's sort of lists, talking points," Carville says. "My readers really want to have the information; I see them all the time with my book, and the pages are dog-eared and stuff is underlined. But they like a little sizzle with their steak, too, so I have to give them some of that."
And once you get beyond that thigh-smacking style, it's a horse of a different color : furious, yes, somewhat redundant, and occasionally ingenuous, but also deeply disturbing in its litany of conflicts, constitutional breaches, and at best ill-considered actions he lays at the door of Starr's office. It may not win him any "Mr. Congeniality" titles from the Republican leadership, but then, as Carville would undoubtedly say, a man is known as much by his enemies as by his friends.
Besides, Carville, the most famous Clinton advisor who has neither been impersonated by Michael J. Fox nor sucked toes in the Jefferson Hotel (well, actually, I didn't ask about that), already has a list of sobriquets to treasure. From the relatively benign "Ragin' Cajun" jokes (he is in fact a native Louisianan) and marital "Mad Dog" jibes of the early '90s (Carville is famously married to the equally blunt-spoken former Bush campaign maven and staunch Republican Mary Matalin), his critics have long since passed to "Clinton hatchet man," "pit bull," "henchman," "spinner," and the snider "political op," Washingtonspeak for "hired gun."
But no one can accuse Carville of backstabbing, ambushing, or entrapping his prey. This army announces its campaign plan in advance. He is "Cpl. 'Cueball' Carville rollin' back into battle," as he put it on Meet the Press.
Much of Horse came right out of Carville's files. Carville has been stewing over Starr since he was first appointed as independent counsel in April 1994; he wrote a letter to the White House urging that he be allowed to take on the man he already saw as unacceptably partisan, "to warn the American people about who Ken Starr really was," but was persuaded to sit it out.
Carville takes aim as well at the national media pack he thinks has given the baying Starr his head in return for a daily ration of scraps, i.e., news bites. One of the funniest (well, in a grim way) sections of the book just quotes one newspaper or news magazine story after another that as weeks and months passed each announced that Starr's investigation had "reached a critical stage." He has a telling nickname for the "journalists, editorialists, reporters, columnists and sycophants" of the Washington establishment: JERKS.
On the other hand, Carville stands by the handshake rule -- your word should be your bond -- and is ungrudging in acknowledging the fair players among the press (in particular, the late Ann Devroy, a Washington Post reporter who agreed not to release the copy of that April 1994 letter secret when Carville asked to withdraw it).
Interviews and quotable jokes notwithstanding, Carville has more serious pre-2000 campaigning to do. "There are some books you want to do, and some books you have to do," he says. "This is a book I had to do, but now there's a book I really want to do." Tentatively titled Five Smooth Stones, he describes it as a more optimistic take on progressive policies, one in which he hopes to return to the politics of ideas rather than individuals. That's the sort of politics, in case you think he's going soft, in which you prove your enemies are merely fools, not criminals.
Incidentally, Carville has no interest in filling any elected office himself. "I couldn't stand the kind of scrutiny everyone comes under these days," he says flatly -- and for him, seriously. Then, "The only thing I'm running for is the state line."
One reason Carville immediately sniffed at Starr's heels was that he had already met him -- or rather, been accosted by him. In what may be the single strangest episode in Carville's book, he tells of waiting for Matalin, whose flight was late, in an airline club at Washington National Airport in October 1993. An "intense, bespectacled man" sidled up to Carville, and when Carville nodded at him, thinking perhaps they had met during the 1992 campaign, "this guy started spouting an unsolicited and shameful tirade against the President. 'Your boy's getting rolled,'" the man said with evident glee. Carville shrugged him off as "just another hate radio fan," and forgot about him -- until ten months later, when a TV clip announcing Starr's appointment revealed him to be "the weirdo from the airport."
Eve Zibart is a feature writer for the Washington Post.