Quick Drawl

Liberal wag James Carville likes to play dumb. But his aw-shucks delivery doesn't blunt the sting of his political shots

May 22, 2002|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

There is little to call James Carville that he hasn't been called already:

Serpent head. Slimy worm. Bottom-feeder. Court jester. Hatchet man. Pit bull. Corporal Cueball. Product of the love scene in Deliverance. Fish that swam too close to a nuclear reactor. Odious. Foul-mouthed bore. Frothing rabid dog.

His deeds, views, looks - it's all fair game, he says. Having done his share of jabbing, Carville's willing to take his licks, or even an occasional pummeling.

"I might be," he admits, in good ol' boy drawl, "the single most unsympathetic character in American politics."

Make no mistake: While his attention these days is more divided than that of a mosquito in a nudist colony, Carville is still flitting about the political arena - sometimes just being annoying, sometimes drawing blood.

He may not be advising a presidential administration, like his wife, Mary Matalin. Or managing any political campaigns, at least not in this country. And he may not ever, so he says, run another U.S. presidential campaign, as he became famous doing for Bill Clinton.

But the Ragin' Cajun - the nickname bestowed by one of his early clients and the one that has stuck best - is everywhere.

He's published his fifth book, Buck Up, Suck Up ... And Come Back When You Foul Up, written with his former political consulting partner, Paul Begala. And, though he admittedly "ain't no writer," he's contemplating a sixth.

He is co-host of CNN's newly revamped Crossfire in which, though he admittedly "ain't no TV host," Carville verbally jousts with conservative foes before a studio audience.

And he is making big money as a public speaker, getting five-figure fees for his appearances, despite having the articulation - some, including him, might say - of a tobacco auctioneer with a mouthful of marbles.

Today, he will be the keynote speaker at the New York state Democratic convention. Tomorrow, he comes to Baltimore for what will be his 756th speech since hitting the lecture circuit in December 1992.

He will address the annual, $110-a-plate Luncheon for Literacy, which benefits Literacy Works, an agency that promotes adult literacy in Baltimore County - and Carville is quick to point out the incongruity of him appearing before that particular group.

"Now that's kind of like havin' NEE-ro address the fiyah-fituhs, ain't it?" he says, flashing his squinty-eyed trademark grin.

While a wizard at playing dumb, Carville's self-deprecating portrayal of his own intellect, or lack thereof, isn't entirely a sham. He says he probably has attention deficit disorder, though he's never been diagnosed - at least not by a doctor.

"I'm learning disabled. I can't spell. I can barely read. I sure can't type," he says. "But I can talk into a tape recorder."

That is how his books are made. Carville dictates his thoughts, and his remarks are later assembled into a book, including his latest - a how-to-succeed tome in which he and Begala reveal the secrets of the Clinton campaign's so-called "War Room." The authors' 12 winning techniques and tactics - "battle-tested and proven in the white-hot crucible of politics," but applicable to the rest of life, they say - include "Kiss Ass," "Kick Ass," and "Work Your Ass Off."

Carville has also written, or dictated: Stickin': The case for Loyalty; ... And The Horse He Rode In On; We're Right, They're Wrong; and All's Fair: Love, War and Running for President, written with his wife, who is now chief political strategist for Vice President Dick Cheney and adviser to President George W. Bush.

All's Fair was published in 1994, one year after they married and two years after the 1992 presidential election in which Carville worked for Clinton and Matalin for the elder Bush.

While much has been made - and they have made much - out of being political opposites, Carville said life at home in Old Town Alexandria, while hectic, is not the constant fireworks display some might suspect.

Between fatherhood (their daughters are 4 and 6), political consulting, which he has done in Argentina, Ecuador, Greece, Israel, Honduras and Bolivia, and a packed speaking calendar - "I'm a scheduling slut," he says - there's just no time.

"We have two children. OK? I'm going all over the place. She works in the White House. It's `Who's going to pick up this one?' and `Who's going to pick up this one?' and, `OK, you didn't want butter on your toast, sorry.' By the time you get through the jet lag and the day and the life, who ... has got time to sit around and argue about the minimum wage or anything else?"

Nor does Carville see time for another presidential campaign - even if there were a Democratic candidate that floated his boat. None seems to yet.

"I'll be 58 in November," he said. "It's not a game for people my age. There's just too many other things going on in my life. It wouldn't be fair to my children. To be good, you have to be completely consumed by it.

"When I did that, I didn't have one other thing on this Earth I thought about, and I can't do that now."

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