Quick Drawl


There is little to call James Carville that he hasn't been called already:

Serpent head. Slimy worm. Bottom-feeder. Court jester. Hatchet man. Pit bull. Corporal Cueball. Product of the love scene in Deliverance. Fish that swam too close to a nuclear reactor. Odious. Foul-mouthed bore. Frothing rabid dog.

His deeds, views, looks - it's all fair game, he says. Having done his share of jabbing, Carville's willing to take his licks, or even an occasional pummeling.

"I might be," he admits, in good ol' boy drawl, "the single most unsympathetic character in American politics."

Make no mistake: While his attention these days is more divided than that of a mosquito in a nudist colony, Carville is still flitting about the political arena - sometimes just being annoying, sometimes drawing blood.

He may not be advising a presidential administration, like his wife, Mary Matalin. Or managing any political campaigns, at least not in this country. And he may not ever, so he says, run another U.S. presidential campaign, as he became famous doing for Bill Clinton.

But the Ragin' Cajun - the nickname bestowed by one of his early clients and the one that has stuck best - is everywhere.

He's published his fifth book, Buck Up, Suck Up ... And Come Back When You Foul Up, written with his former political consulting partner, Paul Begala. And, though he admittedly "ain't no writer," he's contemplating a sixth.

He is co-host of CNN's newly revamped Crossfire in which, though he admittedly "ain't no TV host," Carville verbally jousts with conservative foes before a studio audience.

And he is making big money as a public speaker, getting five-figure fees for his appearances, despite having the articulation - some, including him, might say - of a tobacco auctioneer with a mouthful of marbles.

Today, he will be the keynote speaker at the New York state Democratic convention. Tomorrow, he comes to Baltimore for what will be his 756th speech since hitting the lecture circuit in December 1992.

He will address the annual, $110-a-plate Luncheon for Literacy, which benefits Literacy Works, an agency that promotes adult literacy in Baltimore County - and Carville is quick to point out the incongruity of him appearing before that particular group.

"Now that's kind of like havin' NEE-ro address the fiyah-fituhs, ain't it?" he says, flashing his squinty-eyed trademark grin.

While a wizard at playing dumb, Carville's self-deprecating portrayal of his own intellect, or lack thereof, isn't entirely a sham. He says he probably has attention deficit disorder, though he's never been diagnosed - at least not by a doctor.

"I'm learning disabled. I can't spell. I can barely read. I sure can't type," he says. "But I can talk into a tape recorder."

That is how his books are made. Carville dictates his thoughts, and his remarks are later assembled into a book, including his latest - a how-to-succeed tome in which he and Begala reveal the secrets of the Clinton campaign's so-called "War Room." The authors' 12 winning techniques and tactics - "battle-tested and proven in the white-hot crucible of politics," but applicable to the rest of life, they say - include "Kiss Ass," "Kick Ass," and "Work Your Ass Off."

Carville has also written, or dictated: Stickin': The case for Loyalty; ... And The Horse He Rode In On; We're Right, They're Wrong; and All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President, written with his wife, who is now chief political strategist for Vice President Dick Cheney and adviser to President George W. Bush.

All's Fair was published in 1994, one year after they married and two years after the 1992 presidential election in which Carville worked for Clinton and Matalin for the elder Bush.

While much has been made - and they have made much - out of being political opposites, Carville said life at home in Old Town Alexandria, while hectic, is not the constant fireworks display some might suspect.

Between fatherhood (their daughters are 4 and 6), political consulting, which he has done in Argentina, Ecuador, Greece, Israel, Honduras and Bolivia, and a packed speaking calendar - "I'm a scheduling slut," he says - there's just no time.

"We have two children. OK? I'm going all over the place. She works in the White House. It's 'Who's going to pick up this one?' and 'Who's going to pick up this one?' and, 'OK, you didn't want butter on your toast, sorry.' By the time you get through the jet lag and the day and the life, who ... has got time to sit around and argue about the minimum wage or anything else?"

Nor does Carville see time for another presidential campaign - even if there were a Democratic candidate that floated his boat. None seems to yet.

"I'll be 58 in November," he said. "It's not a game for people my age. There's just too many other things going on in my life. It wouldn't be fair to my children. To be good, you have to be completely consumed by it.

"When I did that, I didn't have one other thing on this Earth I thought about, and I can't do that now."

Getting his start

Chester James Carville Jr.'s first foray into politics was as a teen-ager, when he posted signs and went door to door for Price LeBlanc, a Louisiana car dealer known as the "Tradin' Country Boy," who was running for the state legislature. He lost.

But even by then, Carville was wily, having learned the power of persuasion from his mother - known as Miz Nippy - with whom he would tag along as she sold the World Book Encyclopedia door to door.

Carville was born in 1944, the son of two postmasters and the first of eight children. He grew up in Carville, La., a small town on the Mississippi River named after his family.

Miz Nippy- who was given the nickname as a child after she befriended a hobo named Nippy, bringing him food and visiting him on the bayou regularly - died last year. Carville dedicated his latest book to her.

Carville attended Lousiana State University, where his performance was less than stellar and interrupted by a stint in the Marines. He returned afterward and graduated from law school. He took a job with a Baton Rouge law firm. After three years, he decided he didn't like lawyering.

He began political work in earnest in 1979, with the first in a string of losing campaigns that left him, by age 40, broke, unsuccessful and looking for work.

In 1986, things turned around. Carville was hired to direct the campaign of Robert P. Casey, an underdog candidate in the Pennsylvania governor's race. That come-from-behind victory led to jobs with Wallace G. Wilkinson, who was elected governor of Kentucky in 1987; Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, who was re-elected in New Jersey in 1988; and Zell Miller, elected governor of Georgia in 1990.

In 1991, through Miller, Carville met and signed on with Clinton - a relationship that would help make Clinton president and Carville a full-fledged political guru, movie star (he's in the documentary The War Room, has been a guest on TV sitcoms, and had a role in The People Vs. Larry Flynt) and personality people either love or hate. He hears more often from the latter.

"I actually like the clever ones," Carville said of the insults hurled his way. (Corporal Cueball is actually his own invention, and "frothing rabid dog" came from his wife.) "But if 'bald-headed liberal' is the best you can do, don't waste your time."

Latest assignment

Since April Fools Day, Carville has been fielding and firing barbs on CNN's Crossfire, a nightly shout-fest that received an overhaul this year.

Carville and Begala were hired as the lefties (facing righties Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson). The show was stretched to an hour, given a live audience, and, when it comes to marketing, appears to have borrowed several chapters from professional wrestling.

Last week, Carville - whose contract has him appearing on one of every four shows (Begala does the rest) - arrived an hour late, striding into Jack Morton Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University in blue jeans, tennis shoes and a white T-shirt.

He quickly glanced at the six televisions in the lobby, most of which were asking what the president knew, before Sept. 11, about possible terrorist attacks. It was a huge story, if you were James Carville. It was a trifling non-story, if you were Robert Novak.

Upstairs, Carville perused the contents of a file folder prepared by a researcher and marked "Who Knew What?" He had both feet propped up on the desk and read between interruptions - phone calls, questions and Novak walking in. Looking every bit as formal as Carville did casual, with thumb behind suspender, Novak asked Carville to read an announcement on the show about the birth of his seventh grandchild.

Carville agreed, smiled and congratulated him, then returned to his notes, debating who should be thumped - the president? CIA? FBI? - and how hard that thump should be.

"I never know what I'm going to do until I get out there. There's a lot of things going on, and it's only the first day. This stuff always becomes clearer later on. But there's this Phoenix memo, this other memo. I dunno. Do we need hearings?"

He knows the debate on the show will be heated - it always is - "but sometimes, through all the heat, a little light can come out."

Ten minutes before the show starts, as he and Novak wait to do a live "tease," Carville kids with the audience, which, by happenstance, is evenly divided between liberals and conservatives - at least according to a show of hands.

The auditorium is nearly full, and senators are having make-up applied backstage when Carville looks down at his microphone, says "I better check this out," and produces a loud belch, then another.

Hamming it up, Carville is politically and behaviorally incorrect before the show even starts - and grammatically incorrect from the get-go.

"It's not been a very good day inside the Bush White House," he says as the show begins. The senators come out, and the four have at it. Novak asks Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, why Democrat leaders were "bleating" about what the president knew and when. Carville says hearings or an investigation might be in order, and when George Allen, a Virginia Republican, tells Carville that could compromise national security, Carville responds, "What is the security reason? The building's already been knocked down."

Carville seems to still be learning the art of interrupting. Novak just does it. Carville squirms in his chair, points his finger, says "Know what I think? Know what I think?"

When he feels he's not getting his time, he says so. "There are two hosts on this show," he repeatedly told Novak. "You're not the only host."

During commercial breaks, make-up artists come out. They powder Novak's forehead, Carville's entire head, and then touch up the senators. During one break, Carville tells an associate producer she's beautiful. "I just want to feast my eyes on you." During another, he plugs the Washington restaurant he co-owns. "They've got great corn chowder, a nice fish, a great steak. It's on West 24th, between M and N ... "

He stops to belch again.

"And they always have a lot of good-lookin' women at the bar."

For information about Luncheon for Literacy, call 410-887-2001 .

For free tickets to Crossfire, call 202-994-8266 or e-mail CNN@GWU.edu.

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