It was another lost day, another disaster. We had a message to get out, to tell the good people of the state of New Hampshire who Governor Bill Clinton was, what he stood for, and why they should vote for him in this leadoff primary. But were we doing it? No. We'd spent almost a month dogged by Gennifer Flowers and the press hounds on the trail of the smoking bimbo. The Republican party had played no small part in that parade of trash and now, when we had almost put it to rest, all of a sudden ABC News shows up with this twenty-two-year-old letter from Bill Clinton to the head of the University of Arkansas ROTC program. Now how the hell did they get that?
Mark Halperin of ABC said, "We have this letter that Clinton wrote to Colonel Eugene Holmes in 1969. We want to show the letter to the governor, do an interview, and get his comments."
It was the Thank-you-for-saving-me-from-the-draff letter. When George Stephanopoulos read it he said, "That's it, we're out of the race, we'll never survive." But that's George, he has a strong streak of pessimism that he's got to run through before he kicks into gear.
I read it and said, "Partner, this is a hell of a letter. This letter is our friend, this letter will save us. This is a torn man. People will understand this.
"We have to want questions on this letter," I said. "We're going to publish this letter. We are going to be very aggressive about it --"
"Look, I'm telling you, if you let them take excerpts out of this thing it'll kill us. If you read this letter in its totality you say, 'Geez, I want a president who could write a letter like that when he was twenty-one years old.'"
ABC didn't go with the story on Monday, which was fine with us. We had spent the night in western New Hampshire, away from our headquarters in Manchester. Tuesday morning on our way back I was driving on a highway with George and my partner, Paul Begala, and we got beeped.
Our van was cruising in a major-league hurry for a telephone. We passed the Hillbrook Motel in Bedford, New Hampshire, but it didn't have a pay phone. We needed privacy. "Look, just give us a phone. How much is a room? Ninety bucks? Here's the money, here's the credit card, just give us the room, I don't care what it costs." This was a phone call worth the price of a motel room. Ted Koppel had gotten the letter from another source and was talking about going with it on Nightline.
The governor called Koppel the next morning and they had a discussion about the letter. Nothing got resolved. We weren't sure what Koppel was going to do.
But each of us knew what the results would be. Very soon that letter would get out and all hell was going to break loose. Was the media going to tell the voters about Bill Clinton's position on health care or what he could do to strengthen the economy? Of course not. All the networks and local stations would lead with another take on "Slick Willie." That was all you'd be reading about in the papers or hearing on talk radio. It would be another day, couple of days, or a week off message. If things kept on the way they were going we'd never get our message out; we'd never talk about anything important or anything that could help Bill Clinton get elected president.
Governor Clinton asked, of course, but Koppel wouldn't say where he'd gotten the letter. He wasn't going to reveal his sources. But Koppel did tell the governor that he was under the impression the letter had come from somebody at the Pentagon.
All right. Now we had some evidence that they were monkeying with the election here. Now I had an enemy. Something out of his files? They'd taken something out of Bill Clinton's files? Those are confidential. I called Koppel and said, "We've got to blow this damn thing up about the Republicans using the Pentagon."
Nightline didn't go with the letter on Tuesday, which was a big break for us. We wanted to be there with the news first.
So Wednesday at noon we held a press event in an airport hangar in Manchester and released the letter ourselves. After it was over there was a spin session and the media just went crazy. So did I.
"What is the Pentagon doing leaking something -- Lemme finish! The larger question here is, What in the world business does the Pentagon have in the middle of a political campaign?"
"Why did the Pentagon release the letter?" a reporter asked.
"Let's try a case of rocket science," I told him. "Here's an article in The Wall Street Journal on Friday and here's a story that looks like it might be going away. And somebody says, 'Aha! Look, we have something that can kick this story an extra day. Because if Clinton is talking about the draft, he's not talking about the fact that we've had the lowest GNP growth under this administration than we've had under any administration in the history of this country; he is not talking about the fact that George Bush has had four different positions on the civil rights bill in two months; he is not talking about the fact that taxes have gone up for the middle class while services have gone down....So, what we will do is we will leak this to the press and we will get the microphone in Bill Clinton's face talking about something that is not particularly advantageous to him...and we will block him out from talking about the things that made him the leading candidate.' You understand? That's what's going on here. And if nobody can see that, I can't explain it to you."
Of course, as it turned out, I was wrong; the letter came from somewhere else. But, hell, I was angry. And it made the evening news. In fact, as disruptive as that letter was, it kind of turned a corner for us in New Hampshire. It lit a fire, raised the bloodlust, gave us something to fight.
In various corners and offices of campaign headquarters, campaign chairman Bob Teeter, chief strategist Charlie Black, director of research David Tell, field director David Carney, and press secretary Torie Clarke had all been watching CNN. The TVs were on pretty much all day. Not mine. I was on the phone, preoccupied with endless catastrophes. The campaign hierarchy stampeded through my office door like wild elephants.
"Mary, Mary, hang up, get off the phone. Look, you have to see this!"
"What? What's going on?"
"Your boyfriend has lost his mind! He's having a nuclear meltdown! Turn on CNN!" They flicked on the television that was perched on top of the little icebox I moved from campaign to campaign.
Of course by the time they got in there we'd missed it, so we had to wait for the replay, which, on CNN, wasn't very long in coming. All the while they were trying to describe this bizarre scene to me. Finally it reappeared.
They were screaming, "There it is! There it is!"
That was James, all right, in the middle of a ferocious media feeding frenzy. Unshaven. Hair, such as it was, askew. Standing in this ripped-up ratty old Burberry with the torn collar and Frankenstein stitching. Wearing some goofy T-shirt. There were huge dark circles under his eyes and he had the hollow-eyed look he gets when he's in full rant. His long arms flailing, he was screaming demonically into their faces.
The reporters were all yelling questions at the same time and his head was snapping from side to side like he was getting smacked. David Gergen was leading the inquisition. NBC's Andrea Mitchell asked him a question and he screamed at her. Syndicated columnist Ben Wattenberg and all these big-time network and political reporters were after him.
"If you let the Pentagon dictate the course of a presidential election," he told them, "you are missing something big."
And from all sides of me my GOP sisters and brothers were laughing. "See him? Oh, my God." "This man has lost his mind. He's in meltdown." "Mary, we love you but your boyfriend's imploding!"
Now, Teeter and Carney and Torie and Charlie and Tell had never met James. It was early February 1992; he was just some political consultant I was consorting with that they'd heard about. My assistants, who had come with me to the campaign from the Republican National Committee and who had just run into my office to see what all the shouting was about, knew him better. He was the guy who was in and out of the RNC every day bringing me tuna sandwiches, doting on me, keeping my office stocked with a fresh supply of flowers.
Everybody was standing there huddled around my little TV and I just had to laugh. It had never occurred to me that he could be perceived as a crazy person.
"Look at that face," said the new guys. "He's a madman. He's demonic. He's a serpenthead!"
Okay, as media guru Roger Ailes put it, sometimes Carville does look like a fish who's swum too close to a nuclear reactor. But he was my man.
I had seen it all before. I had seen James fake a heart attack to get a good table at a chichi restaurant. He can be a little theatrical.
The three women who worked with me at the RNC kept waiting for what it was these guys were seeing as unusual behavior.
"Yeah," they said. "So?"
"That's how he always is," I said. "But forget how he's acting, listen to what he's saying."
We weren't paying much attention to the Democrats at this point; we had enough trouble dealing with Pat Buchanan and figured we'd just let Clinton and Kerrey and Harkin and Tsongas and Brown beat each other up for a while. We'd get involved when the time came.
But I could see where Carville was going with this outburst. This was a preemptive strike. He was going to charge the Republicans and the entire government with dirty tricks. Ever since Nixon it's been a charge that's worked against Republicans. We had taken a lot of heat for our paid media in the 1988 presidential campaign, and now here was my boyfriend trying to create another smokescreen and cut into our ability to hit Bill Clinton hard. It was a winner's tactic. For all of his seeming lunacy, you had to admire his technique.
But the campaign was so freaked out over his appearance, they missed the content. They thought he was a total nut case and dismissed the possibility that he could do anything sane or productive. Inside the campaign, it became a joke. People would make fun of me because James was so crazy. They kept creating names for him and trashing him when he showed up on TV.
Torie Clarke, who was my good friend, would always talk to her mother about characters on the campaign. Her mom called up one day and said, "I'm very concerned about your little friend Mary. Every time I see that man on TV he just...sweetheart, he looks like he eats small children."
From then on, in Republican campaign lore James was the Man Who Eats Small Children.
I wasn't so sure I wanted to do a presidential race. I had lost consistently, didn't win my first statewide campaign until I was forty-two years old. Now I had a pretty fair winning streak going in the states: Bob Casey had won governor of Pennsylvania; Wallace Wilkinson, governor of Kentucky; Frank Lautenberg, senator from New Jersey; Zell Miller, governor of Georgia; and now Harris Wofford had beat Richard Thornburgh to become senator from Pennsylvania. I knew how to do it. I liked the hands-on way you could run a state, the fact that you could talk to everyone who needed to be talked to, that if something really needed to be dealt with you could jump on a plane and get anywhere you wanted in a couple of hours. I like to control a campaign, and you lose touch when it gets too big. Too many Washington insiders get their fingers in the pie until there's nothing left of substance or political nutrition.
Paul Begala and I weren't saying, "Gee, if we win this we can get in the presidential race and go up the ladder and some day get on Good Morning America." I wasn't looking for flight attendants to know who I was, or for strangers to get up from their meals to come shake my hand. Just professionally, I wanted people in the political consultant business to know that I was good.
I always felt that because I was from Louisiana and didn't go to a prestigious school, and was older, and my candidates were not glamorous or high-visibility national figures, somehow or other I was being professionally slighted.
I'm a runner. I run hard for a half hour every day, rain or shine, on the campaign trail or in the mountains. And any runner will tell you: When you run you dream.
I'm giving a talk to a bunch of political professionals and they're milling around out in the hallways, and they say, "Carville is speaking, let's go in and see what he's got to say." I'd dream about that. That was a big dream for me.
There's a great old Fats Domino, New Orleans rhythm-and-blues song that goes,
I'm gonna be a wheel someday
I'm gonna be somebody
I'm gonna be a real gone cat
Then I won't need you.
When you're toiling out there, particularly when you're not winning, you dream of being a wheel someday, dream of being somebody.
When Harris Wofford came from 47 points back to beat George Bush's cabinet member Dick Thornburgh, candidates came calling. Paul and I talked with Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, and Bill Clinton. It was there if we wanted it.
I knew Mary didn't want me to run a presidential; it takes all of your time. She should know, she'd worked for Reagan in 1984 and been pretty high up in Bush's 1988 campaign, which she never let me forget.
By November 1991 we'd been going out for about a year, but with one campaign after another, I hadn't been home much and we'd never really got settled in. She would come visit me at campaign headquarters in Pennsylvania; I'd disrupt her day at the Republican National Committee. We didn't see each other a lot but we thought about each other all the time. We were neither of us youngsters; this wasn't puppy love.
It was like I told Mary: I wasn't that interested in running the race. I liked what I was doing; Paul's wife, Diane, was going to have a baby, and Paul didn't want to be an absentee husband or a telephone daddy; I had a girlfriend who seemed like the real deal.
But Paul and I had a hard time saying no. Neither of us felt any sense of destiny about hooking up with Bill Clinton. He just seemed like a good guy, someone we could work for. In the end I went to work for a presidential candidate for the same reason that I went to law school: I never really wanted to but it was sort of expected of me. It was the next stage. I was a political professional, and that's what political professionals are supposed to do, run their guys for president.
When Harris Wofford beat Dick Thornburgh in November 1991 lots of people in the Republican party started wringing their hands. When our polls showed that only 41 percent of Americans thought George Bush deserved to be reelected, it got worse.
"We've got to start the reelection campaign now. We can't wait another minute."
President Bush didn't really want to start. He liked to govern and he wasn't interested in disrupting the important work of his administration until it was absolutely necessary.
This was my dream job, to be political director of the campaign, to help put a man I totally respected and really did love back in the most important position in the world.
But meanwhile here was James Carville -- to Republicans he was pretty much the devil and I was big -- time smitten with him.
We hadn't seen half enough of each other almost since we'd begun going out. First he'd been in Georgia running a governor's race; then he'd been in Pennsylvania "discovering the health care issue" and kicking the bejeezus out of a good Republican who deserved to be in office. He had this really annoying string of successes, putting Democrats in places that without him would probably have gone to Republicans. If we talked politics we'd just have these screaming fights, so we avoided the obvious areas of conflict and found that just about everywhere else we were simpatico.
It was the beginning of Thanksgiving weekend and I was supposed to meet James at i Ricchi, this loud, to-be-seen kind of Washington restaurant. I hated this kind of scene. We never got to see each other and now we were having a group dinner with Joe Klein and Mandy Grunwald.
I had met Mandy through James. She is a very tough Democratic media consultant. Joe Klein is a good reporter, a New Paradigm kind of guy, what's now called a New Democrat. He's very hip, a lot of fun to banter with, Lee Atwater liked him and I think he liked Lee. He was just sort of a pal, not the kind of reporter you have to watch every little wiseass remark you make or it'll show up in a headline and cause trouble.
I walked in and started cringing. The three of them were sitting at the most visible, most embarrassing front table, the kind powerful people barter for, and it seemed like everybody in the place was fawning over James after his Pennsylvania upset victory. I wished that just once we could go out to dinner alone instead of with reporters or his Democratic friends or some liberal sycophants who wanted to tell James how wonderful he is.
The conversation went on and the clock was ticking.
Klein asked me whether I'd seen his latest column, a mock strategy memo from the recently deceased Lee Atwater to President Bush about how Lee would handle this election if Lee were still alive.
Lee Atwater was a genius, a best friend, and one of the most wonderful people the world has known. He had died of brain cancer that March. I had been thinking a lot about what Lee would have done, and every time anybody brought up his name that entire year I'd get teary-eyed. Talking about his column, Joe brought Lee back to life for me for a second. I was really moved.
Maybe he saw me get a little choked up. So Joe gracefully changed the subject.
"So, James," he said, "when do you officially start the Clinton campaign?"
If I'd had something in my hand I would have dropped it. I felt like I'd been kicked in the chest. I couldn't catch my breath.
Maybe it was a fake. Joe wasn't one of those guys who go fishing for a story over a friendly dinner, but he was a reporter, and nothing was impossible. Presidential candidates had been calling the house since the first weekend James had gotten home from Pennsylvania.
I looked at James and expected something to the contrary to come out of his mouth. "I'm not doing a presidential campaign" would have been good, especially since that was the last thing he'd told me on the subject. Instead he had a sheepish, guilty, I-meant-to-tell-you, there's-more-to-it-than-this kind of look.
I excused myself, got up. I thought, I'm not going to make it to the bathroom.
I got there and leaned against the sink. In my pretty little blue silk picked-out-for-Carville Anne Klein dress, I caught my breath and then threw up.
It took me a good ten minutes to get it back together.
I must not have done such a good job, because when I returned to the table Carville gave me a once-over.
"You okay, honey?"
Every once in a while it would just wave over me that he was going to do this race and I would start to tear up, then I'd blow my nose and Joe and Mandy would wonder what was the matter. Klein thought I was crying over his Atwater column.
I didn't say much for the rest of the dinner. James felt very guilty, which was manifested by his yakking on and on. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
In the car I couldn't even speak at first, but in short order I was screaming at him.
"How could you do this? I can't believe this! Why didn't you tell me? You don't know what this is like, you've never done a presidential race, it's not like a state race. You don't know what this is going to do to us. You don't know what it's going to do to you.!"
He tried to calm me down. "Well, you know, we'll probably lose the primary or something. You don't know what's going to happen -- it might not be a whole year."
I said, "This guy is going to win the primary. You're going to be running against us. We're going to be working against each other!"
"You don't know that."
"Yes, I know it!"
And before me flashed the whole next year. Something that had never happened in the annals of presidential politics: a boyfriend and girlfriend working against each other. We were just starting the campaigns; he's on one side, I'm on the other. In a couple of weeks we're going to be at each other's throats.
On top of that, this was the weekend the Republican boys were going to the mountain to make their choices on the key jobs for the reelection campaign.
"If this story gets out, that you're running Clinton's campaign, before they make their decision -- I will not get my job." They could leave me as chief of staff at the RNC, where no Bush loyalist could complain about my "traitorous" relationship. It was a good job; it just wasn't the one I wanted. "You call Klein and you tell him that if he's writing, he can't write this until after they make the campaign assignments. If this gets out I've got no chance."
"Oh, that's not true. You're so good, and everybody knows you're so good."
"Look," I told him, "there are a lot of good people without the baggage of you. I wouldn't pick me to work in the job I want on the campaign knowing that you were going to go work for Clinton. I wouldn't!"
This was Thanksgiving weekend and we were visiting his mother and family in Baton Rouge. So James was going to call Klein from Louisiana. I said, "I want to hear every word of this conversation."
James picked up the phone. "Hey, it's Carville. Can you hold off writing about me and Clinton for a while? Mary feels it might cause a problem for her. Can you not break this story till we get back?" Klein agreed.
The whole weekend I was a wreck -- (a) there was no time to be alone in the one and only last opportunity we were going to have to be together before the campaign started, and (b) I was waiting to find out if I got the job of my life. I could really have shot him between the eyes.
There was also the issue of whether James had lied to me. A bad omen.
I said I never wanted to do a presidential. I didn't say I wasn't going to do one. I never said that. I only said that I didn't want to do one and I could see all the problems with doing one, but I never said I wasn't going to do one.
You can spin The New York Times but you clearly left me with the impression that you weren't going to do one. For weeks you'd been saying you and Paul don't want to do one, and these candidates are calling and you've met with them and you don't like them, or "This is all Washington hype, I don't want to go to a bunch of meetings and hang out with a bunch of people who don't know what they're doing."
And plus, you never told me. I had to hear it from Joe Klein!
So then James went into his customary second-phase defense: "That's my story and I'm sticking to it. You're wrong."
And his third phase: "I don't want you to work in a presidential. I want you to stay at the Republican National Committee."
"What? What?! You get to work on a -- I've worked my whole life for this job and you're going to do one and I'm not? Get out of here!"
"You've worked on one. You've worked on two! Why shouldn't I work on one? You're the one who should stay at the RNC. You love Clayton Yeutter and that's a perfectly good job you can do and be just as involved from there." (And, P.S., pay attention to me.)
I was disgusted. "You must be out of your mind."
I got the big spin.
The next week I got the big job, political director of the campaign to reelect President George Bush. And we were off.
Copyright © 1994 by Mary Matalin and James Carville