Carville on loyalty: It ain't a federal case

January 23, 2000|By Paul Taylor | Paul Taylor,Special to the Sun

"Stickin': The Case for Loyalty," by James Carville. Simon & Schuster. 176 pages. $16.95.

I'm a fan of James Carville, but I wish he hadn't written "Stickin'." The book opens with an attack on a strawman -- the idea that loyalty is somehow a character flaw -- and closes with a chapter on Carville's grandma's recipe for Oyster Loaf. If you don't get the connection, it's because there isn't one. The book offers itself as a case for loyalty. It's really a celebration of celebrity, as in: I'm one, you're not, have a recipe.

The irrepressible Carville was President Clinton's famous campaign manager in 1992 and his most ferocious on-air defender during the awful Year of Monica. Now comes his defense of that defense. I'd be happy never to read another word about that scandal, but I made an exception for this book for a couple of reasons. First, I've wondered why not one of Clinton's high command had resigned. And second, I've known James casually for the past 15 years and consider him to be -- behind his wildly amusing and slightly rabid public persona -- a thoroughly classy guy.

This book is a disappointment. Carville provides no fresh insight into the scandal. His treatment of loyalty starts from the backward notion that our culture disapproves of it and never pushes beyond a simplistic formulation that goes: He stuck by me so I stuck by him, and besides, messing with an intern ain't no federal case.

I agree. But I also believe, as most people do, that there are times when loyalty asks too much. Clinton's behavior, though not impeachable, was reprehensible. Was there ground for a loyal supporter -- say, a Cabinet secretary -- to resign on principle? Perhaps. My guess is that the reason none did had less to do with loyalty than with a bunker mentality generated by the excesses of Clinton's pursuers. But it's just a guess; Carville's book offers no guidance.

Instead, it meanders through a string of anecdotes about why James Carville is loyal to his party, to his family, to his country and -- clearly running out of gas toward the finish line -- to his favorite stomach medicine (Alka-Seltzer), credit card (American Express), snack (Little Debbie's Snack Cakes), restaurant (The Palm) and sneaker. ("Nike. But I have done some work for Reebok. Don't tell.")

I don't doubt for a moment that it was passion, conviction and loyalty that drove Carville to Clinton's defense in 1998. But I also suspect he knew it was a good career move. Ranting and raving on television is what he does for a living now. Monicagate was a great gig.

That's too cynical, but it's the kind of reaction provoked by a book on loyalty that works its way to Little Debbie's Snack Cakes. Before I read "Stickin'" I wasn't sure whether loyalty had asked too much of James and other Clintonites during the Year of Monica. I'm still not sure. But I do know there are times when celebrity asks too much. James, you shoulda given this one a miss.

Paul Taylor, a former political reporter and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, is the director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns, a non-partisan public interest group seeking campaign reforms.

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