Mary Matalin—the Republican political operative-turned-TV talking head—announced earlier this month that she would be joining George W. Bush’s White House staff, thus turning herself into a political operative-turned-talking-head-turned-political operative. Her decision was a surprise to her current colleagues at CNN, where she co-hosts the nightly gruntathon Crossfire, and to her colleagues-to-be among the Bushies. For the rest of us the move is more than a surprise: It seems an affront to the traditional arrangements by which Washington celebrityhood is measured and awarded.
Failing upward is a common form of getting ahead in certain corners of corporate America, but nowhere is the method as sure-fire as it is in Washington. Many of the capital’s most recognizable personages sashay through town trailing a long history of fuck-ups. Think of Oliver North, whose idiocy and ineptitude almost destroyed the administration he worked for and who received, as compensation, a nightly TV show and five-figure speaking fees; or Warren Christopher, whose bungling of the Iranian hostage crisis under President Carter catapulted him to the job of secretary of state in the next Democratic administration; or think of the Monster of the Mess-Up, the Icon of Incompetence, the Big Bopper of the Blooper, Robert McNamara, whose achievements include not only blood-soaked rice paddies in Vietnam but also, and almost as bad, the Edsel. For this he was awarded the presidency of the World Bank, and we honor him still.
In this company of stars, Mary Matalin holds a special place. So great is her success, so large (by Washington standards) is her fame, and so unidentifiable is her talent that the rest of the capital’s strivers can only gawk in wonder. Matalin first came to public attention as a lieutenant to Lee Atwater, the gifted, despicable political operative who led George Bush’s successful 1988 presidential campaign and later became chairman of the Republican National Committee. Matalin served Atwater until his death from brain cancer in 1991. By then she was well connected in GOP politics, and President Bush named her political director of his re-election campaign. The choice was controversial among some Republican mossbacks. Her boyfriend at the time was James Carville, a Democratic consultant about to take over Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign and easily the equal of Atwater in his manic energy and his gift for promoting himself as a talented eccentric. To appease the mossbacks, Carville and Matalin announced to colleagues and the press that they would put their romance in abeyance for the duration of the campaign.
They were fibbing. They continued to see each other in secret throughout 1992 and to trade intimacies in nightly phone calls when cruel fate kept them apart. That little bit of disloyalty aside, it is difficult to convey to normal people how touching some professional Washingtonians—those whose lives are otherwise consumed with cold-blooded political careerism—found the story of the Matalin-Carville romance. In a city built upon the will to power, this is what passes for a fairy tale come true, suggesting the transcendent nature of love itself. Mary and James proved that even people whose soul-deep obsession was party politics, the bloodier the better, could be tamed by romance.
This isn’t true either. Of course, political warriors in Washington like to pretend to the ideal of comity. “We’re all friends after five o’clock” was the often quoted and utterly insincere motto of Tip O’Neill. In fact Democratic and Republican true believers cleave almost exclusively to their own—as unmingled as Hutus and Tutsis, though with better table manners. Why it should to be otherwise? If politics is truly the encompassing passion of your life, no one should be surprised if you seek friendship and conviviality and love (especially love) among people whose politics are similar to yours. They should be surprised if you don’t. Solemnized a year after Election Day 1992 in an elaborate New Orleans wedding, the union of right-wing Mary and left-wing James thus raised an uncomfortable question. Which were they faking—the love or the politics? It would be unseemly to question their love, so let’s assume the answer is politics, but with an important qualification. There are two kinds of politics. One involves the clash of dearly held ideas, a contest between defining views of the world. The other has to do with buzz and gamesmanship, tactics and maneuvering. In this second kind of politics, ideas and worldviews are mere instruments, a board game accessory, as exchangeable as Monopoly money.
By sheerest coincidence, James and Mary rose to celebrity just as cable TV was metastasizing a kind of chat show dedicated precisely to politics as they understood it. Following such ‘80s successes as Crossfire and The McLaughlin Group, it was the mission of Hardball and Talk Back Live and Hannity and Colmes—and to a lesser extent, the new Meet the Press, where they were soon appearing regularly—to trivialize politics into a compulsively entertaining freak show. It was a parody of idea politics. Two sharply drawn sides, conservative and liberal, sputter across a desk, and Carville and Matalin obliged by becoming the Battling Bickersons of the Beltway. Matalin herself debuted her own cable show, Equal Time, in 1993. She and her co-host Jane Wallace mingled semi-serious interviews with chit-chat about their troubles with cellulite. Even by the subterranean standards of cable, the show was too creepy to catch on; Wallace left after a year, and Matalin followed a couple of years later. (The show survives, much altered but no less creepy, with new hosts Paul Begala and Ollie North.) Now certifiably famous, Matalin and Carville followed the career path of pure celebrity—a short-lived radio show, lucrative endorsement contracts (for Alka Seltzer, American Express), a best-selling memoir, and endless Bickerson performances in front of trade groups, corporate seminars, universities, and the other chumps-with-too-much-money who lubricate the nation’s gab circuit. They opened a restaurant. They had a couple of kids.
All this activity serves to obscure the important question of why Matalin and Carville should have become famous at all. It’s a funny thing about failing up in Washington. People who fail up here are not failures in the conventional sense; they’re failures only at what they’re supposed to be good at. McNamara, for example, was held to be a genuis at “strategizing” (the term was new then) and organizing large bureaucracies; he failed miserably at both while excelling at the far more valuable art of bum-bussing and knowing whose bum to buss. Carville and Matalin are reputed to be crackerjack political operatives. The evidence is slim. Matalin’s signature political experience was as an architect of George Bush’s re-election campaign. Carville went from failure to failure as a consultant until he engineered the upset win of a Pennsylvania Senate seat, after which Bill Clinton plucked him from obscurity. In short, one of them helped design what is widely understood as the worst presidential campaign in modern memory, and the other ran against the worst presidential campaign in modern memory and managed to win only 43 percent of the vote.
Their genuine gifts are the gifts that Washington truly prizes. Chief among these is their willingness to promote themselves as easily graspable caricatures. It has brought them to the pinnacle of Washington celebrity. And this is why Mary’s move to the White House does such violence to the conventions of success. Any way you look at it, her new job is a demotion. By tradition, a White House job is what one fails at while one is on his way to ever greater things—screw up there, end up as an analyst on ABC. The process is not supposed to run backward. Rumors have circulated at CNN that network brass were unhappy with Matalin’s performance on Crossfire; ratings for the show have declined since she assumed the right-wing chair in 1999. It is just possible that a personage famous for failing up is doing the inconceivable—failing downward.
George W. Bush promised to change the culture of Washington. He’s off to a promising start.