“Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest. ”
James Carville's Web site calls him "America's best-known political consultant," and it's hard to argue with that claim. A variety of prominent Democrats owe their come-from-way-behind victories to the "Ragin' Cajun," as he is widely known, and it's entirely conceivable that, without him, we would not have had a President Clinton--in which case, we might not now be seeing the possibility of another.
Though no longer an adviser to U.S. campaigns, Carville remains among the most provocative, memorable and ubiquitous commentators on the political scene. He cohosted CNN's Crossfire and continues to be a popular guest on that network. He has also worked on international campaigns, including those of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Israeli Labor Party leader Ehud Barak. In addition, he has authored and coauthored such books as We're Right, They're Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives and Take It Back: A Battle Plan for Democratic Victory.
All these accomplishments notwithstanding, he may be at least as well known for providing the world with definitive evidence that opposites attract via his 1993 marriage to Mary Matalin, a consultant to the first President Bush and numerous other leading Republicans. Together, Carville and Matalin wrote the best-selling All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President.
We talked with Carville about his unusual marriage and about politics, but we began by asking this former Air Force One passenger about another of his favorite subjects—private jet travel.
You fly privately via NetJets about 15 times a year. Is that for personal reasons as well as for business?
Yes. You get to the point where it's the ultimate. You know, people dream, "Boy, if I was really flush, I'd have a house in the Caribbean or the Alps." If my ship ever came in, I'd turn it into a plane that day. You can take every other accoutrement that really rich people have and it doesn't add up to one airplane.
What is it that makes flying privately so appealing to you?
Once you have sipped the sweet nectar of freedom,you don't go back. If I had to fly commercial and could stay in the suite in the top of a hotel or take a private plane and stay in just a room, I'd say, "Give me the plane." The airport experience is an ongoing, deteriorating horror story. I'm sure there's nothing they can do about it. I have a lot of good friends in the airline industry. Their safety record is stunning. They're good people. It just...
Yeah, it's a model that somebody's gotta rethink.
The only thing you don't like about flying privately, I understand, is that security restrictions make it difficult to do so out of Washington National Airport and you have to use Dulles.
I don't like the location. I don't like the buses that go out there. I don't like the crowds when all the international flights are leaving there. If I had a Republican running in my district and they said that they could [fully] open up Washington National to private aviation and the Democrat couldn't, I think I would vote for the Republican.
Like businesspeople, politicians often face criticism for flying privately. What goes through your mind when you hear that?
It is egregious that a politician could fly on a company [Gulfstream] GV for first-class airfare. That's not right. I don't care whether you support business aviation or you don't-that's a crock. There's nobody in the world who wouldn't pay first-class airfare to be on a GV. I can understand why a politician wouldn't want to give that up, because it's one hell of a deal.
The compensation issue aside, what about the suggestion that it's somehow wrong for a "politician of the people" to fly privately?
If you're running for president, you can't do it without private jets. Just like if you were running for mayor of Chicago, you couldn't use just the El. You couldn't get where you had to go. If I'm the campaign manager, if my candidate's had a 10-hour day in Iowa and has to take a two-and-a-half-hour flight to New Hampshire and has another four hours ahead of him, I want him on a plane he's comfortable on.
Why do you think you've been so successful as a political consultant?
It was a little bit of being in the right place at the right time. But you can't be in the right place unless you learn to put yourself in the place. I think that's one of life's great lessons-you can't hit that which you don't swing at. And I think I had some less-than-stellar experiences early and probably learned from my mistakes.
What career experience are you most proud of?
I was a lawyer one time and I remember looking out my window one morning in Baton Rouge and thinking, "You know, if I had to hire a lawyer, I wouldn't hire me." And in an act of some courage, I went in and quit. And I remember around 1988, going to work one morning and thinking, "You know, if I had to hire a campaign manager, I would hire me." For that moment in my life, I had the satisfaction of believing that I was the best at doing what I was doing.
What do you think made you so good as a campaign manager?
I was completely dedicated and I had accumulated really, really good people. And it was probably a three- to four-year window at most where I think it was true [that I worked so effectively]. It's a little like being an athlete-you have a time, and then that time goes.
Well, you still do it internationally.
Right. I have not taken on a domestic client since President Clinton. Once you become a famous person in America, the only way you can earn a living [in this country] is by being famous. If I was doing a domestic campaign and giving an interview to Business Jet Traveler, people would say, "Look at that guy. He's flying around..."
You must have considered running for office yourself at some point.
Well, it kind of crossed my mind like working in a coal mine crossed my mind. It was a pretty cursory examination.
You're a very public figure and seem comfortable in that role.
I am, but I was 49 when I got married and I don't think it would be very conducive to my children to look at the research file. I probably inhaled, if you know what I mean.
Did the Clinton years live up to your expectations?
Yeah, for the most part. And I'm really crazy about both of them. They're very warm, gracious people. I'm delighted to still have them as friends.
What has surprised you about the Bush years?
I guess the utter lack of any kind of shame. [You'd think] at some point someone would be embarrassed-if it was Katrina, if it was weapons of mass destruction, if it was conduct of the war, if it was climate change. If I were that publicly incompetent, it'd bother me.
You said for some time that Al Gore would get into the 2008 race.
Well, I think he'd like to. Running for president is like private aviation-once you do it, it's hard to go back to the other thing. Circumstances now don't seem to favor him getting in, but who knows? This year has already produced some startling events and it's going to continue to do so.
Do you have a candidate you'd like to see nominated?
Senator Clinton. Clearly.
When you coined the phrase, "It's the economy, stupid," did you have any idea how popular it'd become?
I'm always amazed at how that has become part of the national lexicon. What it meant was, don't try to be so clever with a lot of different things. Remember the basics.
[The Daily Show's] Jon Stewart attacked your old show Crossfire for engaging in "partisan hackery" rather than serious political debate. Any comment?
Crossfire was probably the most relentlessly antiwar show on television and I think we proved to be pretty perceptive. We probably did not discuss every issue with the greatest depth, but compared to what? I mean, when I think of all the ills that have been visited on the country, Crossfire is pretty low on the list.
Say one of our readers was considering a run for political office. What's the first advice you'd give?
Have a reason. When I interview someone who's thinking of running, my first question is, "Why?" Some people say, "Well, I've made a lot of money and I kind of get bored and it'd be exciting." Nah. The first thing you have to have if you run for office is a reason that you want to convey. Without a reason, you're doomed. You may get elected because the other person doesn't have a reason either and someone has to win. But then you get into office and you're going to be a failure. You've got to have principles, something you want to accomplish.
I have to ask about your marriage. Your Web site's explanation of how you and your wife deal with your political differences is impressive. You talk about how there's more to life than politics and how you respect each other's views. But then I saw the cover of one of your books, with its list of the top 10 things you don't like about Republicans, including "they lie like a rug," "they have no sense of humor" and "they're a pack of crooks." I wondered how you reconcile such a harsh view of Republicans with marriage to a Republican.
Well, it's how you reconcile selling books [laughs]. I think you have behavior of a party and then you have behavior of people who are members of a party. The Republicans have done an extraordinary amount of really stupid things. But I don't know if that taints every member of the Republican Party. Plus, I love my wife so I excuse things that I otherwise wouldn't.