Matalin gets out the GOP message

Adviser: Mary Matalin, busy as a political strategist and White House insider, is likely to get busier.

May 15, 2002|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DETROIT - Mary Matalin is running late, which explains why she's doing an interview in her underwear. In the cramped ladies' room at a small airstrip here, she is up to her usual multitasking - promoting President Bush's agenda, plotting how to get her children to the family's farm in Virginia and, in the middle of it all, unzipping her Day-Glo yellow pantsuit so it won't wrinkle as she flies between Republican campaign engagements.

"You don't mind coming to the bathroom with me so I can change my clothes?" she asks as she disappears into a stall. The talk turns to politics and, sure enough, Matalin stays on message even while stripping.

Matalin, the former TV talking head, Republican campaign aide and current White House insider, is a one-woman show for the GOP. On this day, she is taking her act on the road, rushing to board a private jet to Iowa for a state Republican Party fund-raising dinner after infotaining wealthy donors for a Michigan congressional candidate.

Republicans hope her appeal as a working mother and a big-time Bush booster will charm crowds - especially women - this campaign season.

Talking to political contributors here, she quotes her young daughter as asking, "Do you make freedom with the president - is that your job?" She says she replied, "That's all our jobs," a line that all but writes the donors' checks for them.

Matalin is counselor and chief political strategist to Vice President Dick Cheney as well as an adviser to President Bush. But White House aides say her role might expand now that communications chief Karen Hughes plans to leave this summer.

No wonder the White House is deploying Matalin on the campaign trail, putting her on the women's patrol for a party still struggling to bridge the gender gap.

But instead of brandishing "women's issues" that make some Republicans blanch, the 48-year-old Chicago native is leaving it all to the visuals: Here she is, a working mother on a visit from Bush's inner sanctum. Enough said.

"Did you hear anything like `I am woman, I am strong' in that speech?" she asks after her event here, a fund raiser for Michigan Republican congressional hopeful Candice Miller. "No. I talked about the president."

Even so, Matalin's penchant for gab had some Republican Party insiders worried about her suitability for a top White House job. In the 1992 presidential campaign for the elder George Bush against then-Gov. Bill Clinton, for example, her glib spouting of the phrase "bimbo eruptions" got her a reprimand from her own candidate.

Such blabbermouth moments prompted critics to label her a liability. Others, suspicious of her marriage to Democratic pit bull James Carville, accused her of leaking.

It's striking, then, that Matalin wins praise for her performance in Cheney's office, considered one of the administration's tightest-lipped operations.

"When Mary first got that job, everyone said, `Wow, that marriage won't work. Mary's too much of a public person and the Bush guys hate leaks,'" says Ron Kaufman, a political adviser to the president's father.

"But Mary's truly changed political shapes, and she's gotten the trust of the Bush team's inner circle."

Matalin's history with the Bushes helped give her this entree. She worked with George W. Bush in the elder Bush's 1988 and 1992 campaigns, feeling comfortable enough around the son back then to call him "Junior."

The elder Bush calls her "the most loyal of the fantastically loyal people" around him when she served as his deputy political director in 1992.

"Loyalty means a lot to me and to my family," he said in an e-mailed response to questions about Matalin. "Let others carp and criticize. Not me, because she gave so much of herself in my all-out effort to be re-elected."

Nevertheless, Matalin still runs into static over her marriage to Carville, a union that was such a Washington novelty it inspired their best-selling book, All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President, and lucrative joint speaking engagements. In Detroit, most of her audience only wanted to do one thing: Grill her about her marriage to that man, now a regular on CNN's Crossfire.

"I don't know which one of them's real, and which one's show, but one definitely has got to be for show because otherwise they couldn't live together," groused Palmer Heenam, the 80-year-old mayor of Grosse Pointe Park, before tucking into a Cobb salad at the Detroit Athletic Club.

As much as her marriage might be politically awkward, it also enhances her celebrity and adds a dash of Tabasco to her political schtick. "My husband didn't say good-bye as nice as you said hello," Matalin jokes to her Detroit audience.

But for all her ease with sound bites, Matalin's role behind the scenes is one of substance. Since joining the White House, her job has broadened. Now she works as a trouble-shooter for the president himself.

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