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James Carville at Rhodes: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

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JACKSON BAKER

James Carville, the political guru whose strategic guidance helped convert a promising but obscure Arkansas Governor named Bill Clinton into a two-term president back in the early ‘90s, carried his patented blunt but honest act to Rhodes College Thursday, for a day-long visit that culminated with a speech to an audience of several hundred at the school’s cavernous Bryant Hall.

The man who, back in 1992, coined the war cry “It’s the economy, stupid” minced no words at Rhodes. Sample question during an informal afternoon session with students: “What happens [here] if you smoke dope?” The same candor was on display during his evening address when he confessed that Rhodes’ uniformly Gothic architecture had struck him as “fake” on first sight, “like some Potemkin Village.”

But Carville paid his host college some effusive compliments as well. As he’d said in the afternoon: “How fortunate you are to be in this kind of place.” He went on to warn: “Things that your parents took for granted, you aren’t going to be able to take for granted….Your future is not secure.”

That was Carville’s way of saying the forthcoming presidential election of 2008 would be as seriously important as any in the nation’s history. It can no longer be assumed that the U.S. is “the most dominant nation” in the world, he said. “History happens very quickly in this day and age.”

The celebrated uber-activist ventured some striking predictions for the election of ‘08:

*That long-presumed Republican front-runner John McCain would be gone from the presidential race by the time of the Iowa caucuses in January of next year. “He looks tired, he’s trying to be an Establishment guy but can’t play the role, he hasn’t raised any money, and the Republican s don’t care for him.”

*That both former vice president Al Gore and former House speaker Newt Gingrich would enter the presidential race. Carville noted that Democrat Gore had run for president before and likened the experience to having sex: “There’s a high recidivism rate.”

*That former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the current president’s brother, would be the eventual Republican nominee.

*That the presidential race would see the emergence of both a significant third-party candidate and a fourth-party candidate.

Carville noted the presence in the presidential field of a black (Obama), a woman (Hillary Clinton), an Italian (Rudy Giuliani), an Hispanic (New Mexico governor Bill Richardson), and a Mormon (Mitt Romney) and suggested the diversity of candidates reflected the country’s developing diversity.

Though in the afternoon session he had acknowledged his long ties with the Clintons and his general support for New York Senator Clinton, he rated her chances of winning the nomination as “less than 50 percent” though better than any other Democrat running. In the evening address, while doing a rhetorical turn on the Democrats’ “Obama and Mama” duo, he suggested, “Obama needs more seasoning; Mama needs more spice.”

Carville proved himself a ready man with a quip (though most of his sallies were standard parts of his repertoire).:

*Recalling former HEW secretary Joycelyn Elder’s suggestion in the ‘90s that masturbation might be taught in school, Carville said, “Damn. Just my luck! Now they come up with a course I could make an A in.”

*Complimenting the academic acumen of Rhodes students, he said, “The average IQ here is higher than my S.A.T. score,” though, he added, he, too, used to score 4.0. “But that was my blood alcohol level.”

*Reprising a joke once told on him by wife Mary Matalin (a Republican operative who doubles as Carville’s ideological sparring partner) and attributing the line Thursday night to film legend Milos Forman (who’d directed him in The People vs. Larry Flynt), the balding, gnome-like Carville said he’d been described as looking like he’d been “sired out of the love scene in Deliverance.”

*Dismissing conspiracy theories concerning President Bush’s Iraq intervention, Carville concluded: “Stupidity as an explanation is good enough.”

*Beltway veterans might measure their duration one of two ways, he suggested: “I’ve been in Washington so long I can remember when Arnold Schwarzenegger was a Republican and Joe Lieberman was a Democrat,” or “I’ve been in Washington so long I can remember when James Carville had hair and Joe Biden [the Delaware senator who’s had hair transplants] didn’t.”

Carville also waxed earnest, professing outrage at the country’s widening income disparities and excoriating Circuit City for the electronic chain’s recent decision to fire 3400 workers “just so they could replace them with lower-paid workers.” He cautioned his audience not to feel superior to the unsavory aspects of Iraqi culture and other foreign ones, noting America’s long experience with slavery and subsequent racial ills.

The test of any democracy, he said, was “how well the majority treats the minority.”

Carville concluded his evening remarks with an anecdote relating to former president Bill Clinton’s problems during the long-running Monica Lewinsky scandal. When a heckler asked him what he would tell his daughters about his own role in Clinton’s defense, he replied that he’d “had a good friend who did a bad thing” and that “I decided to forgive the bad thing and stick with my good friend.”

Whether good, bad, or ugly, Carville put on a good show at Rhodes. And his track record as a political sage suggests that his predictions might be worth remembering.

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