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Los Angeles Times Interview

James Carville

On Conventions, Campaigns, California and the Role of Government

August 25, 1996|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is project director at the Hajjar/Kaufman New Media Lab. He interviewed James Carville from the political consultant's offices in Washington

It's hard for anyone who didn't grow up in Louisiana to understand just how important politics is there. Virtually every government position is either an elected office or a patronage job--right down to the dog catcher.

And in Cajun southwest Louisiana, political fever is particularly fervent, fueled by both culture and history. Cajuns, descendants of French-speaking Acadian exiles, have a well-known propensity for partisanship. They lived for generations among the bayous in isolation, until a Depression-era politician named Huey P. Long got himself elected governor, in large part by appealing to the poor, long-ignored and disenfranchised Cajuns. The Kingfish rewarded his loyal supporters with schools, hospitals, roads and bridges. It was a clear message to people in towns with names like Napoleonville and Grand Couteau that government, even one as corrupt as Long's, can bring benefit and positive change into people's lives.

Chester James Carville was born and raised in one of those towns, which just happens to be named Carville. Thanks to schools that Long built, Carville grew up to graduate from Louisiana State University Law School, with a stint in the Marines and a few years of teaching at a junior high in between. He started working on small political campaigns, and, by 1990, Carville had rung up a string of state house and congressional victories. But it was in 1992 that Carville burst onto the national scene, as chief field marshall in Bill Clinton's successful presidential campaign.

Carville was loud, quick, crass and he talked funny. TV talk-show hosts loved him, because he always had something wild to say. After the election, he amazed all Washington by marrying his professional nemesis, Mary Matalin, a George Bush political strategist. The newlyweds wrote a book together about the 1992 campaign, "All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President," and 13 months ago produced a baby girl, Matty.

Carville knows how to get attention. He caused a stir in San Diego when he showed up on the floor of the recent GOP convention. He works every medium, even writing a column for the hip Internet zine, Salon. He's forever bashing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.} and GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, promoting his own book, "We're Right, They're Wrong," and insisting that government is not evil and actually can accomplish important things. In an early morning conversation from his office in Washington last week, he talked about conventions and campaigns, his belief in government and the failure of progressives to counter the rhetoric of the GOP right.

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Question: What's happened to political conventions, why are they so boring, and why should we even pay attention to them?

Answer: First of all, the Republicans achieved what they wanted to achieve. Boring conventions are what political parties want. If there is some such thing as a news god in this country, it's Ted Koppel. And he decreed there was no news at the Republican convention and went home.

Now he was probably right--because the political parties are trying not to make news at their conventions. In 1968, the Democrats made a ton of news. In 1992, the Republicans made a ton of news. They were interesting conventions--but not particularly successful.

Q: The Republicans managed to pull off a show of unity, but there are deep divisions between the right and moderate wings of the party. Regardless of what happens in this election cycle, do you see trouble ahead for the GOP?

A: What happened in the 1996 primaries was that every facet of the Republican Party was represented by a candidate. The supply-siders had Steve Forbes. The nationalistic right was there with Pat Buchanan. The hard-line revolution guys had Phil Gramm. The moderate, gubernatorial wing of the party had Lamar Alexander. And Bob Dole ran as none-of-the-above. You don't have to pick and choose with Bob Dole.

So the party--the Republican primary voters--chose not to choose. They drummed out the supply-siders, but what's amazing is that they turned around and got their guy, Jack Kemp, nominated as the vice-presidential candidate, and they got Dole to run on their program. Amazing! After Steve Forbes spent $40 million or whatever, and got beat decisively, they embrace his philosophy. I'll give the Republicans one thing--enormous political resiliency.

But the religious conservatives, who supply a lot of kerosene for this Republican fire, are not real excited about all this. They're for prayer in school, but they're for the minimum wage. They're against gay marriages, but they're also against Medicare cuts. That crowd ain't big on entitlement reform.

Q: How is the Democratic convention going to be any different than the Republican gathering, in terms of scripting and careful control of events?

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