Political insiders don’t make good comedians. James Carville — the lethal-mouthed one-time Bill Clinton campaign strategist — was often a naughty exception.
Take his classic quip. “Pennsylvania has Philly on the east, Pittsburgh on the west and Alabama in between.”
So when Carville told The New York Times right before Easter that Bill Richardson’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was comparable to “when Judas sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver” — ah, was this a joke or a hatchet job?
Carville reasoned that Richardson was a lowly congressman before Bill Clinton appointed him U.N. ambassador and then secretary of energy. Richardson is now governor of New Mexico, a crucial electoral state. He is also influential in international diplomacy, and in Democratic Party power circles.
Richardson was often mentioned as a possible vice-presidential choice by either Hillary Clinton or Obama or as a secretary of state in either administration.
Richardson had something to lose by endorsing Obama, if Carville made his Judas remark with a straight face.
But whoever he owes, Bill Clinton is not running for president, Hillary is. So Carville meant to say Richardson was not acting personally beholden to the extended political family.
Carville is not one to leave bad enough alone. In fact, this is the same person who designs scorched-earth campaign strategies. “Take no prisoners. That’s how you win elections,” one Democratic National Committee staffer said about him in 2003.
If Carville wants us to think he’s earnest this time, that’s difficult. He’s married to Mary Matalin, a powerful Republican campaign adviser. So tell me again: How is siding with Obama a disloyalty and marrying your political enemy who supports John McCain isn’t? Are we to believe there’s no political pillow talk at the Carville-Matalin household? The truth is, the power couple are really just political mercenaries. They are spear-carriers for their clients. They believe whatever they have to believe that’s convenient at the moment.
And like any good act, it works if it’s dramatic, piercing, draws laughs or enrages.
There is no contradiction in this pathology. They wear the playhouse mask of tragedy and comedy on the same face.
That’s why it was surprising Carville would write another piece on the same topic, March 29 in The Washington Post.
The laugh line this time was “I believe loyalty is a cardinal virtue.” You can just see Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” talking to you about loyalty and family.
In the next scene we have a flashback of little Jimmy. He says, “I was a little-known political consultant until Bill Clinton made me.”
Then, like lyrics from Pagliacci, he declares, “When he (Clinton) came upon hard times, I felt it my duty — whatever my personal misgivings — to stick by him.”
Gosh, this almost sounds compelling were it not from a consultant looking for a meal ticket. The problem, according to Carville, was that Richardson wasn’t.
“I would have stayed silent. And maybe that’s my problem with what Bill Richardson did. Silence on his part would have spoken loudly enough.”
Maybe the political calculus of a governor, former U.N. ambassador, former energy secretary, former platform chairman of the Democratic National Convention and former presidential candidate is different from that of a political calculator.
Interestingly enough, while Carville was writing his stage lines, Pennsylvania’s U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, after some reflective moments, much as Richardson had, came out from behind a veil of neutrality and endorsed Obama, too. Hillary Clinton has been running well ahead of Obama in his state. But expediency didn’t stop Casey.
Maybe, just maybe, Casey and Richardson took that unusual leap to another loyalty — “to thine own self be true.” At least they were saying they were going to wear one mask with one face on it.
Carville was gleeful in his Post article that Keith Olbermann, Diane Sawyer and even Bill O’Reilly mentioned him on the air.
He still has it. There’s still kick in his word. They paid attention. They really paid attention.
“Heck, I give myself some credit for managing to get the Clinton and Obama campaigns to agree on something — that neither wanted to be associated with my remarks.”
It’s like seeing a Lenny Bruce on stage near the end. The stale jokes, the disembodied one-liners.
(Jose de la Isla writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail joseisla3(at)yahoo.com.)