Man Behind the Man
03/09/1992 at 01:00 AM EST
HIS MAN IS ON THE MARCH IN GEORGIA, but on this gray Washington, D.C., afternoon, political consultant James Carville is holed up in "the bat cave"—a musty basement apartment on Capitol Hill. With Super Tuesday fast approaching, Bill Clinton's spin doctor is immersed in political alchemy—trying to turn fence sitters, naysayers and disaffected defectors into Clinton voters. Working the phones, scheduling TV spots and parsing speeches, Carville is doing what he does best—planning surprises for the opposition.
"We've proven very adept at crisis management," drawls Carville, 47, who recently guided Clinton through a couple of political alligator pits. Now, he says, he wants to "create 'em for some other people." Possessed of a bare-knuckle, confrontational style, Carville has been hailed as the Democrats' Lee Atwater. "Fightin's fightin'," says the consultant, who helped spike Bill Scranton's 1986 gubernatorial bid in Pennsylvania with a hard-hitting TV ad: It showed a youthful Scranton as a hippie wanting to "bring transcendental meditation to state government."
When disaster struck Clinton in the form of Gennifer Flowers and of the candidate's ROTC letter, Carville and company counterattacked aggressively. After falling 15 points in some polls, Clinton finished just eight points behind Paul Tsongas in New Hampshire—establishing himself as the "Comeback Kid."
"He's probably the first person on the Democratic side in a long time who spooks the Republicans," says Carville's friend, pollster Peter Hart. A man with a golden gut, Carville has an occult ability to plumb voters' deepest fears. "I'm a little like a piano player in a whorehouse," says Carville, who often walks the aisles of discount stores trying to gauge the mood of the electorate. "Somebody out there hums something, I try to pick it up."
A bachelor who favors jeans and high-tops and watches reruns of The Andy Griffith Show, Carville is an eccentric, by his own admission. "I'm weird," he says. "I'm a disconnect. Yet my whole ability to earn a living depends on my ability to connect with other people's everyday lives." Willing to sacrifice almost anything for his career, he has agreed with girlfriend Mary Matalin, 38—political director of Bush's re-election campaign—to put their relationship on hold until November. "I still think very highly of her," he says wistfully. "She's obviously very important to me. I like her a lot better than I like her politics."
The public first picked up on Carville last November, when he engineered Harris Wofford's stunning upset of Republican Richard Thornburgh in the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race. Wofford started out as a 44-point underdog; Carville and his partner, Paul Begala, were able to turn that into a 10-point victory—and a wake-up call for George Bush—by playing on economic fears, anti-Washington sentiment and the desire for national health insurance. The opposition credits Carville with deceptive charm and an unerring instinct for hitting the hot button. "He has a style and a personality that enables him to operate this way," says Thornburgh's campaign consultant, Greg Stevens, who claims that Carville unfairly blamed his client for "the mess in Washington." Says Stevens: "He really is entertaining. Funny. But mean as a junkyard dog."
Although Carville asserts that he never told the Clintons how to portray their relationship on 60 Minutes, it has been reported that he lobbied for discretion-advising them to acknowledge the Governor's infidelity implicitly but to withhold details because of what Hillary would call a "zone of privacy." Yet behind Carville's clear-eyed tactical maneuvering is a strong emotional attachment to his candidate. While Bill and Hillary Clinton were taping the 60 Minutes segment in a Boston hotel, Carville was moved to tears. "Sometimes you're a consultant, and sometimes you're a human being, and I was a human being then," says Carville. "I have genuine affection for these people. I told the Governor, 'You know, you pay for my head, but I throw my heart in for free.' "
An unlikely candidate for the role of kingmaker, Clinton's key adviser is a "quintessential country kid" from the hamlet of Carville, La., named for his paternal grandfather. The eldest of eight children born to the town postmaster and a mother who had once taught school, he spent his childhood riding horses, reading the encyclopedia and serving as an altar boy in the chapel at the noted leprosarium nearby.
Entering LSU in 1962, Carville "drank, chased a lot of coeds and got into a lot of fights. I made John Belushi look like a scholar," he says. Invited to leave, he spent two years in the Marines, then taught junior high while he was finishing his degree. In 1970 he entered LSU's law school but was bored after graduation when he went to work for a law firm in Baton Rouge. Says his mother, Lucille, 73: "He was the worst lawyer in the world."
His true vocation emerged when a lawyer from his firm who was running for city judge appointed Carville her campaign driver. Galvanized by politics, he joined a group of local media consultants in 1980. The early years were tough: He toiled for losing senatorial candidates, briefly joined Gary Hart's 1983 presidential campaign and lived from paycheck to paycheck. At 40, he said he was a "stoned-ass loser" who had to sell his life-insurance policy "to keep the VISA people from lynching me." The turnaround came in 1986, when Carville was interviewed by Democrat Bob Casey, who was making his fourth bid for Governor of Pennsylvania. As Carville has told it, Casey hired him because he, too, was a loser. When Casey won, Carville said, "It was the best night I've spent so far on this planet."
Although he now pulls down about $250,000 a year, Carville sees himself as a political gun for hire: He'll work for anyone as long as they are "Democrats...not bigots...and not crooks." Even when he's riding high, though, Carville is haunted by the specter of failure. Superstitious and obsessive, he has been known to wear the same underwear in the last days of a winning campaign, lest he turn the karmic tide.
Even now, the consultant of the moment telephones friends up to a dozen times a day to obsess about the details of the Clinton campaign. At this point, he won't speculate on his chances for victory. "I don't want to jinx anything," he says. "There's an old saying: A statesman looks to the next generation. A politician to the next election. And me? I just look to the next tracking poll."
MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C.