Mary Matalin is the Bush campaign’s hard‐driving political director. At a youthful 38, the blue‐jeaned, working‐class Matalin breaks the mold of the white-shirt‐and‐red‐tie WASP males who dominate the Bush re‐election effort.
In this interview with C&E’s Jamie Raskin, Matalin describes the ‘first time” she was fired by her friend and mentor, Lee Atwater, and maps out the themes and strategies the Bush campaign is contemplating for the fall slugfest. Matalin’s legendary workaholism and fierce party loyalty make her a hot – and durable ‐ commodity for Republican presidential politics in the years to come.
C&E: What is your general election strategy?
MATALIN: To win, that’s all.
C&E: Give me your impressions of Bill Clinton.
MATALIN: He’s very clever and a great speaker. He’s a first‐rate politician.Those are all positives and negatives, you know.
C&E: Are you going to use the character issue against Bill Clinton?
MATALIN: No. The character issue has been given a bad name because it’s often used in connection with Clinton, and in a derogatory way. We have no plans to illuminate or draw attention to Clinton’s problem.
But, in a broader sense, character is very important. In the final analysis people really are moved by and their vote is influenced by the character of the candidate. That’s how we think of the character issue.
I think it will be important in this election. It is a very scary time when we’ve gone from enemies abroad to this global economy world. And people want to know that somebody is there who understands it.
C&E: Will there be no tactic then of trying to drive up Clinton is negatives in the way that Dukakis’ negatives were driven up after the Democratic convention?
MATALIN: Well right now this is a sort of suspended animation environment because Clinton may not be our opponent. Right now he’s crawling to New York on his belly, being in third place in every poll in the country except for his own home state.
With his negatives there’s no point in wasting resources or taking any attention off of whatever else you may want to be doing at that time by campaigning against Clinton. I don’t know if he’s even going to end up being the candidate, for Pete’s sake.
C&E: It seems like both political parties are waiting for the other to smoke out Ross Perot on the issues. Meanwhile, he’s running away with votes and media.
MATALIN: But the very nature and dynamic of the campaign will smoke him out. I’m not afraid he’ll get off scot free. The movement that is propelling him will ask him for answers. The American people are not so brain‐dead that they’ll follow a pied piper.
C&E: Do you think that the practice of negative politics is partly responsible for the cynicism and apathy prevalent in
MATALIN: No, I don’t think that. I think that all the writing and proselytizing and pontificating and punditry and elite hand‐wringing over this is cow‐pie. People respond to comparative campaigning. They want to know the difference between the candidates. And what y‘all call negative campaigning ‐ which is really contrasting campaigning or comparative campaigning ‐ is really what helps people to draw differences, make a distinction between the candidates.
C&E: Are you paying more attention to who are chosen as the electors in various states because of the possibility the election could be won or lost in the electoral college itself?
MATALIN: Yes, but we always pay attention to them the same way we pay attentionto delegates and standing committee membership. Generally, the electors are awarded that position by virtue of their loyalty and longtime support. It has been traditionally an award position. Those people by definition are very solid Bush loyalists.We are not concerned that one of our electors is going to have a schizophrenic attack.
C&E: Will you guys use Buchanan in the elections? Or will he be persona non grata?
MATALIN: If Pat Buchanan wants to support the president we welcome his support and we welcome his voters. We always thought Pat was an effective, articulate spokesman for the Republican Party. We certainly will not work with him in the fall if he’s not supporting us, but if he is we would hope that he would be engaged in the campaign.
C&E: Would the president ask him for his support?
MATALIN: No. I don’t want to be too quick about it, but the president doesn’t pick up the phone and say, “Please support me.” We’ve made it very clear that Pat Buchanan needs to endorse us. I don’t think he would think it appropriate or necessary that he be called by the president of the United States to ask for this.
C&E: Was the specter of communism the glue that kept the Republican Party together?
MATALIN: The specter of the threat of communism was a unifying force, and it was overarching enough to minimize other differences. To the extent it no longer exists, we need to find another unifying issue of that magnitude.
Atwater’s Protege Comes of Age
C&E: What was your formative political experience?
MATALIN: Well, this is 10 years into my doing it, which wouldn’t make it formative, but I really loved the ’88 primaries. I love open races. I think that it’s so close to the people and it’s such “hands‐on” campaigning, and the individual acts of a good team can really make a difference, and sometimes in a general election or in an incrimbency race like this, you don’t have that same sort of cause-effect on an hourly basis. I like the closer to the ground [type of campaigning], grassroots, finding people one at a time, lifting them and setting up organizations from scratch. That’s the kind of stuff I love.
C&E: Do you have any cardinal rules about running a political campaign?
MATALIN: Cardinal rules, hmm? You know, you forget how much you know.
C&E: When Lee Atwater was asked the same question four years ago by the magazine he said that loyalty and honesty within the campaign were very important to him.
MATALIN: Oh! Those kinds of cardinal rules. Yeah, I would absolutely start there. A campaign is only effective if it’s synergistic, and I hate to use that word ‐ it’s so 60’s, it’s so hip, babe. But it’s true.
The reason why this campaign is working despite our [DRY CHUCKLE] somewhat volatile environment out there is that everybody here can totally, unequivocally, without a doubt count on each other. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. But more important than each other, here’s no thought that someone is behind your back undermining you or going off in different directions or championing their cause over yours.
Our sort of cardinal rule, if not our mantra, is: Whatever you’re doing at any given moment of the day, if it’s not garnering votes for George Bush, it’s a wasted effort. So, if you want to call home, do it on Sunday.
C&E: At the end of his life Lee Atwater seemed to repent – a little bit – for some of his more hardball tactics. I wonder if he primarily will be remembered as a ruthless political player or for the change of heart he experienced at the end of his life when he sent apologies to a number of Democratic politicians including Dukakis.
MATALIN: I don’t think the way Lee came to reconcile his life at the end is inconsistent with how he lived it. Not to dissect with too fine a scalpel what he said in those apologies, but if he had the opportunity to do it again, if he had lived, he would have done it again.
There wasn’t a change of heart, vis‐a‐vis what it takes to run a successful campaign. It was: “If this hurts you in some personal way, I apologize, but it’s the nature of the beast.” I think his sentiment was, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. That’s how campaigns are, and I’m sorry for any personal offense, but that’s the nature of the beast. The American public has the right to know everything about you before it casts its vote.
I don’t make this distinction between Lee and the person he was at the end of his life. I don’t think that as he was dying he was remorseful or regretted anything. I was there when he was thinking about those things. He just sort of wanted to say, “Hey, this is my job. The best man was elected and we are sorry you had to go through that process.” But we’re always sorry. Nobody likes to be the cause of someone being hurt. But somebody always loses and somebody always wins in a campaign.
C&E: Nevertheless, do you think that Atwater would have hesitated to play the same kind of hardball negative politics to get Bush rat‐elected?
MATALIN: No! You all put on the tag of hardball negative politics. These guys, the Dukakis’ campaign, did not do a good job of defining themselves or defining us, and the negative connotations of hardball and negative are sort of silly.
It is comparative, it is definitional, and that is the essence of a campaign, you’ve got to compare and contrast the two candidates. Given the plethora, the explosion, of information and how people get their information, it causes you to have to inform people in a strident way. I don’t think thats necessarily negative, I think it is definitional.
C&E: Can you give me a memory of Lee Atwater?
MATALIN: I’m remembering the first time he fired me in Ames, Iowa.
I was working on the straw ballot the September before the Iowa caucuses in 1987. I’d been at it all summer, and I was telling him we were likely to lose because Pat Robertson’s below-the-radar stuff was more than anyone had ever seen. And we did lose to him. I think we came in third in the straw poll, behind Dole.
Lee was first shocked, then devastated. I saw him with the vice president, and he looked so pale and ghost‐like. Then he called me and fired me. Then he called me back and fired me again in a conference call with all the regional political directors.
I went back to the office on Monday to get my stuff, and someone said, “You’re just fake-fired. It’s not real.”
So I hung around for six weeks, and he didn’t talk to me, but then it was ok. As punishment, I was sent to Michigan where I lived for six months in the Radisson.
Michigan was so complex and the deals were so bizarre that Lee had me explain everything directly to the vice president. Other people didn’t like this system of direct access, but Lee backed me up 100 percent.
That was Lee: very passionate about winning ‐- and not losing ‐‐ and very passionate about loyalty to his friends.
Everything in Lee’s life was a campaign. He was cutting this blues album on the weekends at the RNC, and we would have these strategy sessions on how to mix the album. All the musicians wanted their own cut, their own way. It was very much like putting together a campaign organization.
What Me, Worry?
C&E: What was the biggest political mistake you ever made?
MATALIN: I’ve made so many I can’t choose. I make mistakes every day.
C&E: Do you have an ethical code in the practice of your profession?
MATALIN: Do I personally?
MATALIN: Yes. I always try to be honest, do what I say I’m going to do, and not over commit. One of the very bad characteristics, and destructive characteristics, in politics is to over commit. I never say anything I don’t think I can follow through on.
I don’t lie to people, and I’m not graciously harmful or Machiavellian my own personal ethic is to be as direct as possible and to employ as few game‐playing methods as possible. A lot of people in politics get caught up in the sheer game of it, manipulating people around. It’s not my nature.
C&E: Do you have any advice for people who are just getting into the political campaign business?
MATALIN: My best advice to anybody who wants to seriously work in this field is to do anything anybody asks you to do at any time. I don’t care if that’s getting coffee, stuffing envelopes, or returning dumb phone calls. No job is too small.
The very essence of an effective political person is that they never become so big‐headed or caught up in their own self that they don’t kick in and do whatever needs to be done. That’s another reason why this whole group works together. Everybody does everything. I’ve seen Teeter at the typewriter doing his own thing. There is some sort of weird work ethic that has happened in the 10 years where people have come into business or other workplace sort of making a stand that unless they’re a policymaker, or sitting in all the meetings, or being a big shot, then their efforts don’t count and they’ll do nothing less. That’s not appropriate for politics, where it only ‘works‘ if you’re willing to do whatever you’re asked to do.
That’s not some female thing. Every time I say this it is usually characterized as some subservient female attitude. I’ll tell you right now my assistant is a man, and he does everything. It is not a gender thing; it is a political thing.
My other advice to college kids or people who want to get into this is: Try to learn something about every aspect of the campaign.
C&E: I have a personal question you should feel free not to answer. What do you see in James Carville ‐ as a boyfriend?
MATALIN: As a boyfriend? [LAUGHS] Well, his skills as as a boyfriend are very different form his skills as a politician. [LAUGHS AGAIN] He’s very sensitive, very thoughtful, and he’s got a great family. And he’s the funniest man in America. He makes me laugh all the time.
C&E: Are you guys going to get married after the election?
MATALIN: My plan every day is just to wake up the next day.