Carville, Matalin preach optimism

Commencement: Political odd couple entertain University of Maryland, College Park graduates.

May 25, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- James Carville was on a roll yesterday morning -- his eyes narrowing, his arms flailing and his voice rising as he addressed a nearly packed house that was using makeshift fans to battle a humid, stifling heat.

As the noted political strategist filled the room with his Louisiana cadences, it was easy to imagine you were in a revival tent listening to the circuit preacher warn of the dangers of perdition, not in Cole Field House where most of the nearly 5,000 members of the University of Maryland, College Park's class of 1999 were enjoying their commencement.

These new graduates were sent on their way into the world with words of wisdom not from a sedate elected official or a distinguished academic star, but from an odd-couple tag team of political consultants -- Carville the liberal and his conservative wife, Mary Matalin.

Carville and Matalin have nothing in particular to do with the University of Maryland. Though both have impressive political credentials -- Carville just advised the successful campaign of Ehud Barak for prime minister of Israel -- they were not honorary degree recipients.

Carville and Matalin are instead regulars on the lecture circuit. University officials plucked them from a speakers' bureau catalog months ago before the couple's busy calendar filled up.

Despite their professional standing, both said this was no ordinary speech, that they have done only a couple of commencements.

"I was up all night with this one," Carville said. "I tore up what I had prepared and went with something else.

"If you're talking to a convention or a business group, you figure they're going to be at a meeting like that every year or two," he said. "But this is the only time in their life these people are going to be at their commencement. You want to tell them something."

Matalin got things started with a talk that seemed off-message for a conservative commentator. She told the graduates they are about to embark on "one endless spring break." That brought cheers from the crowd.

"It's a different kind of spring break, when you head out with no maps, no destination and just get on the road."

She urged the graduates not to be so obsessed with goals, something she said she was even seeing in her preschool children.

"To use a phrase from my generation -- chill out," she said. "Take time to think about where you are, not only where you are going."

Matalin did take a shot at her husband's academic career -- "He spent less time in K through 12 than he did in college" -- and Carville, who followed his wife, began with some self-deprecating remarks of his own.

"I was driving around the campus of Louisiana State University with my nephew the other day," he said. "I told him, `The best four years of your Uncle Jim's life were spent here as a sophomore.' "

He said his success in his career and "getting a beautiful woman like Mary to marry me shows that all you stupid, ugly guys should hang in there."

"If you've got zits and C minuses, I'm your guy. Stick with me," he said.

But then his volume increased and his cadence took on an evangelical beat. Carville was getting serious. "This is my pitch. I want to sell you on an attitude -- optimism and involvement," he said.

He told the students that the cynics were going to tell them not to get involved, that politics were fixed, that nothing could be accomplished, that you should just lead your own life and ignore the rest. "It just ain't true," he said.

Carville went back into history, noting that things look pretty rosy in 1999 compared with 1862. "It was one of the darkest years in the history of our country," he said. "We were killing each other."

He pointed out that in that year, a senator from Vermont named Morrill introduced a bill that led to the land-grant colleges and that the University of Maryland was one of the first to take advantage of the program.

"I'm sure people were telling him that he could not make a difference," he said. "But look what that stubborn Yankee did in one of our worst years. Imagine what you can do in some of our best."

Carville and Matalin were popular with graduates who gave them huge ovations. "I think they did a great job," said UMCP president C.D. "Dan" Mote Jr., presiding over his first spring commencement. "You could see that from the response.

"In the future, though, I think we might change the way we choose speakers, to get more input, to get the faculty involved, to get just the right people," he said.

Ruppersberger tells UB graduates `do some good'

Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger challenged University of Baltimore graduates last night to not only be successful in their work and personal lives, but also "to do some good" in the world.

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