Matalin stands by her man Outspoken: You'd expect this loyal and articulate GOP advocate to zing Bill Clinton. But she also sounds off against those she sees leaping from Bob Dole's ship.


November 01, 1996|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Finally, some fun. Finally, in a presidential race that has had all the excitement of back-to-back reruns of "The Lawrence Welk Show," someone is firing up the dialogue.

Right now, for instance, Republican partisan and radio talk show host Mary Matalin is offering her analysis of President Clinton. Let's tune in:

"Bill Clinton's the worst human being I've ever seen," says Matalin, who was George Bush's deputy campaign manager in 1992 and now is an ardent volunteer in Bob Dole's presidential campaign. "Clinton is the emptiest suit, the most convictionless, coreless, phony baloney, take-credit-for-everybody-else's work, take-a-stand-on-nothing, commitment-to-nothing guy I've ever seen. And this guy is winning!"

She pauses. Is that a trace of foam at the corner of her mouth? No. Probably just a crumb from the bread she's snacking on.

And her thoughts on Bob Dole? How does she respond to all those political pundits who are writing him off, saying he can't articulate the issues and is a "bad" candidate. Even conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer recently called Dole the worst candidate he's seen in 20 years -- and he included Michael Dukakis and George McGovern.

It is a question that obviously annoys her. Her brows knit together under the red cap she is wearing. Her sultry, low-pitched voice rises, emphasizing the nasal twang of her native Chicago.

"I say to Krauthammer and anybody else: Would you just stop and think about what you're saying? Here's a guy -- Bob Dole -- who's had this incredible career: substantive, honorable, dedicated, accomplished, confident. He's clearly got leadership ability. So what are you looking for? Somebody who can go on a sitcom?

"This to me says something about the process; a process in which a guy as honorable as Bob Dole cannot win, because he can't give a fake speech he doesn't believe in. But a guy who can do this Geraldo made-for-TV, cry-on-command, bite-your-lip stuff that Clinton's so able to do can win. But we're not voting for a performer. You know, we've really lost sight of what this thing is about."

This is vintage Matalin -- the kind of hardball rhetoric she learned from her political mentor, the infamous Lee "Take No Prisoners" Atwater.

It should be noted that the guy Mary Matalin is married to works for the guy she describes as "an empty suit." Her husband, liberal Democrat James Carville, is a senior adviser to President Bill Clinton; in the 1992 campaign he served as Clinton's lead strategist.

He's also the guy who, during the Republican National Convention, suggested this theme for the event: "Republicans -- We're Not as Mean as You Think We Are."

The unlikely romance between Matalin and Carville, set against the backdrop of their opposing roles in the 1992 presidential election, cast them as the Tracy and Hepburn -- some said the Bonnie and Clyde -- of politics.

After marrying in 1993, having a daughter in 1995 and earning a $900,000 advance for a joint memoir based on their oddball relationship in the 1992 campaign ("Spin Doctors in Love" was the headline on Newsweek's excerpt from their book), Carville, 52, and Matalin, 43, are once again on opposite sides of the political fence. On her nightly radio show -- which airs in Baltimore on WBAL-AM at 11 p.m. -- she often refers to her husband as Serpent-head. At other times she describes herself as "someone who sleeps with President Clinton's chief strategist."

Such a description accounted, in part, for the brief dust-up that occurred last spring when Matalin announced she would work on Bob Dole's presidential campaign. Within days she withdrew because some Republicans, she says, "had this Cro-Magnon reaction about my husband. 'How could they hire her? What about pillow talk?' You know, all this stupid Cro-Magnon stuff." Her lips curl in disdain.

"So I did the honorable thing. I said, 'Dole doesn't need this. I'm just a volunteer. Tell him I'm not volunteering anymore."

But when Dole called her and asked, "Well, are you still going to work with us?" Matalin reconsidered. Without any fanfare she's been delivering speeches for the candidate and, of course, using her radio talk show as a forum for Republican issues.

Sitting in her cluttered, disorganized CBS Radio office on Pennsylvania Avenue, Mary Matalin is dressed for radio: She's wearing jeans, a T-shirt and hiking boots. It's one of the things she likes about radio -- not having to be coiffed and dressed to the nines as she had to be when she was a co-host of a daily cable-TV show, "Equal Time." She has, however, made up her strong, interesting, angular face for a photographer.

Her feet up on the desk, swigging bottled water, Matalin comes across as a complex woman. She is: smart, honest, abrasive, intensely partisan, argumentative, warm and engaging. She has a tendency to interrupt, sounding at times like Ross Perot: "Can I just say this? Can I finish? Can I just say something?" she'll ask -- rhetorically, of course.

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