DC People: Mary Matalin and James Carville

Claire Handscombe

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When your passions lie somewhere in the Venn diagram intersection between politics and books, DC is a magical place to live. In the first eighteen months after I moved here in 2012, I saw and had books signed by Michelle Obama, Al Gore, Sonia Sotomayor, and former Senator Olympia Snowe, and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head.

All of those events were organised by Politics and Prose, one of DC's oldest independent bookstores. One weekend in 2014, though, I got to go to the prestigious National Press Club for another book event. The speakers were Mary Matalin and James Carville – political strategists who have been married for nearly 30 years now, remarkable for the fact that she is a rabid Republican and he a rabid Democrat. (Remember “It’s the economy, stupid” from the Clinton campaign? That was Carville.) The woman sitting next to me quipped that their wedding in 1993 was probably the last bipartisan event in DC.

It was Saturday morning, and raining, but I got there, on time, which just goes to show, I dunno, something about what is really important to me and vindicates my granny, who liked to say that quand on le veut, on le peut: when you want to do it, you can do it. It sounds better in French, with the rhyming and stuff. 

At first, they waffled, started stories and didn’t finish them, and generally sounded a bit off their game. Not that I know what they sound like when they’re on their game, but it didn’t seem like this was it. 

I thought maybe it was just me – since I'm British, I struggle  a little with Carville’s thick Louisiana’s accent – but the woman behind me in the book-signing queue concurred. We concluded charitably that they were probably just tired of these events (one of many from their book tour for Love and War, I imagine).

It didn’t help that the moderator was trying to be original with his question about cats – cats! – but the questions from the floor were much more in line with what I wanted to hear from them.  “What do you think of Kenneth Starr now?”, “What one thing would you changed about Chris Christie’s press conference?”, “What’s one piece of advice you would give to your respective parties?”, “What advice would you give a young person wanting to get into politics?”. 

They spoke for a total of an hour, and got progressively funnier as the caffeine presumably kicked in. In true American style, the event finished right on the dot of twelve, which was a shame, because they had warmed up by then and there were a couple of questions left from the audience, which had elicited some great responses from them. (I didn’t get to ask mine; I was fourth to the microphone. Lesson learned, yet again: never ever hesitate. This country is ruthless towards those who hesitate.) 

Carville, on campaigning in the 90s: “cellphones were as big as George Stephanopoulos”. Mary Matalin’s advice to the Republicans was to stop apologising, to be unashamedly Conservative. (This as 2014, remember. A very different time.) To stop being simply reactive to the Democrats’ accusations of them.

Matalin’s advice to aspiring politicos was to be there, to make coffee, to do everything you can. To know you will never be as idealistic as you are now – there are great advantages of that. You make up with passion for what you lack in wisdom and experience. A mentor can help with the latter; experienced people love to help out people just starting out. On the other hand, Carville countered, you’re you – follow your passion. Don’t aspire to be another person.

 Worth getting up on a Saturday morning and trudging through the rain for? Yes, definitely. 

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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