The president’s chief political strategist has blue-collar roots, is a one-time beautician and a self-described “chick” –everything the Republicans WASP stereotype is not. Jane Mayer reports on Mary Matalin’s life among the White Boys.
August 1992
Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Matalin, works the phone at home in Washington, D.C. Her job is to build a campaign for President Bush in every state. "I just react all day to hourly events," she says. "In a campaign, nothing unfolds smoothly."

Photographer: Mary Ellen Mark

Mary Matalin has about as good a gut as anyone for national politics. At the age of only thirty‑eight, after a meteoric career in the Republican Party, she holds the lofty title of political director for George Bush's presidential campaign. Personable and energetic, she seems to have lines into every congressional district, and she's been known to work four phones at once. And so Matalin, of all people, is not used to big surprises of a political nature ‑especially when they concern her.

But late last fall, at a small dinner at a trendy Washington restaurant with a few professional friends, Matalin was caught off guard. The man she'd been dating for months, James Carville, a political consultant known as the Ragin' Cajun for his Louisiana roots and spicy antics, let slip that he was about to sign on with her most formidable Democratic rival: Bill Clinton. Worse, Matalin received this thunderclap of news with no private warning, at the same time as everyone else at the table. Excusing herself quickly so that no one would notice, Mary Matalin, political superwoman, one of the only "chicks," as she calls herself, to infiltrate George Bush's Boys' Club, suffered what you might call the ultimate political upset.

"I got sick to my stomach," she admits.

Since then, Matalin has regained her political equilibrium and taken her spot at the center of the Bush campaign. Meanwhile Carville has come as close as any adviser can to Bill Clinton's inner ear. And in a kind of nineties version of the Tracy/Hepburn classic, Adam's Rib, the two dedicate each day to trying to destroy each other. "Sometimes it's hard to detach my James from the guy whose face I'd like to rip off," she says nonchalantly. To be fair, she admits that Carville says he tried to warn her of his plans. "But if he did," says the woman who has the husky voice of Debra Winger and some of the gutsy style to match, "I must not have wanted to hear it. "

Since then, she's heard about little else. Her romance with the man she clearly loves but now refers to archly as the Ax‑Murdering Consultant from Hell has been dissected on the front page of The New York Times. It has become the stuff of rearguard criticism from colleagues ‑among them former White House chief of staff John Sununu and Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who argued unsuccessfully that she should be fired. Matalin has even had to put out an official statement on the romance, suggesting that while the campaign is on, it is off... more or less. (In truth, no one who knows either of the pair well believes this for a minute. As one former beau says, "When Mary falls for someone, she is very intense. I don't know which airport they're meeting at, but I know it's somewhere. " And a longtime friend to Carville admits, "Of course the moratorium is bull. I've never seen him so engaged by anyone in his whole life as he is by her.") The irony about all this is that Matalin, a woman who has put almost everything in her life on hold in order to win one election after the next, is now in danger of becoming best known simply for sleeping with the enemy.

Part of the problem is that neither Matalin nor Carville seems able to resist talking about the other. And maybe because they can't afford to be together, they're stuck having to carry out a red-hot romance by proxy, through the press. In our interview, Ma­talin even offered that "if James ever proposes to me, I will accept." Asked about this, Carville laughed and then said coyly, "Well, if I do propose, it sure won't be in some magazine."

"It's gotten," as White House deputy assistant to the president and Matalin friend Tony Snow puts it, "so that every story ends up being about what she calls her 'dangerous liaison.'”

While Washington insiders seem fixated on Matalin's predicament, scarcely a question is raised about Carville's. The double standard hasn't escaped Matalin. "I love these guys, but I really can't believe the way they always assume that I'd be the one to spill my secrets," she says. "It's the guys who are the big braggadocios. You don't have to go to bed with them to hear what they're doing ‑they can't wait to tell you!"

There are plenty of people who agree with Newsweek correspondent Joe Klein, who says, "If anyone can get away with it, Mary can." Maxene Fernstrom, a Republican consultant who gave Matalin her first job in 1980 and later introduced her to Washington, suggests that Matalin is changing the rules with her own free‑spirited behavior. Whether dating whomever she wants, or wearing curlers in the office, as she has been known to do, says Fernstrom, "When she does it ‑that's the standard. She's a superstar."

Certainly Matalin seems unvanquished in her corner office on the top floor of the Bush/Quayle campaign, a guarded suite in an office building best defined in Washington's omnipresent power grid by its address: three blocks from the White House. Just back from a trip to California overseeing campaign business with Bush pollster and chief political strategist Robert Teeter, Matalin professes to be "sleep‑deprived" and "cranky" but in fact seems to spread an infectious kind of prankishness around the office.

In a town where political people take themselves and their titles extraordinarily seriously, she has hung someone else's name on her door. Playing against type, as usual, Matalin is unexpectedly warm, hip, and casual in lanky black jeans, beat‑up cowboy boots, and a button‑down shirt that she wears with men's cuff links and a menswear vest. Her dark hair is loose and long, invoking George McGovern and the seventies more than George Bush and the nineties.

On the wall behind her is a map of the United States stuck with more pins than a voodoo doll. Near it is an impressive array of political tributes. But thrown in with the White House photos of herself with every notable Republican from Bush on down are more telltale mementos. One is a candid shot of herself with her great mentor, former Republican party chairman Lee Atwater -the two of them jumping midair, hair defying gravity, above a stage, in the midst of one of his famous rock‑and‑blues performances. You might think that winning the presidency was the high point of the last campaign, but she says as big a thrill may have been helping Atwater cut an album in Nashville with B. B. King and Isaac Hayes. Inscribed across a framed album cover are words made poignant by Atwater's untimely death from brain cancer: "Dear Mary, you have gotten me through many storms. I deeply love you, Lee."

Atwater is missed sorely by the Republican Party, which has yet to find anyone of his demonic strategic acumen to fill his shoes. But for Matalin, who was Atwater's chief of staff and frequently the tactician translating his strategies into action, the absence is far more personal. "I don't go through a single hour of a single day without missing him,” she says. As he grew sicker, she was the person who carried business to his bedside at the beginning and end of every day. Her own mother had died only a few years earlier, and so the experience must have been all the more painful. It was Matalin's ability to keep the party running smoothly under such a strain that particularly caught the eye of her superiors. "The party's trying to do the same things Lee was," ' she says, "but what's missing is the voice. There's no one now who is above the radar quite like he was. He was so brilliant. You know, he was twisted in the best sense of the word."

In keeping with that twisted tradition, on the wall behind her desk is a recent and particularly unflattering photo of Hillary Clinton with a balloon drawn above it cartoon‑style, quoting the Wicked Witch of the West: "I'll get you, my pretty!" It was Matalin who, by dint of being the only one still in the office at nine on a night this spring, had to answer Mrs. Clinton's charge that the press wasn't adequately investigating George Bush's romantic life. "Total rubbish," 'she says. "We've been through this a gazillion times." ' Rising to the partisan fight, she can't resist adding that Mrs. Clinton is "beginning to be a little like fingernails on a blackboard."

Further up on her office wall, in a more permanent‑looking frame, is a more permanent joke on Matalin's life: a reproduction of one of Roy Lichtenstein's tragic cartoon‑strip characters shedding a tear into a handkerchief with the mock legend: “I can't believe it! I forgot to have children!” Matalin will turn thirty‑nine this year, has been married and divorced without having children, and admits to having "baby dreams."

It used to be that campaigns were so thrilling, they were the most fun she thought she could have without risking jail. Now she says the cost of the long hours, endless travel, and public scrutiny seems awfully high. "Year after year after year after year‑it's horrible," she says in one outburst. “I have no life. I have no lifestyle. All I have is rotten cheese in my refrigerator!"

If this isn't what most would expect of George Bush's political director, that's exactly why Matalin is such a power to be reckoned with. The stereotype‑shattering advantages of having Matalin on board aren't lost on an administration battling charges that it's out of touch with the problems of real people. The granddaughter of Croatian immigrants, Matalin attended public schools and grew up in a bungalow on the South Side of Chicago. Her father was a steel‑mill worker, and her mother operated a string of beauty parlors. As they began to climb toward the middle class, they taught their daughter to appreciate hard work and self‑reliance, which is a major reason Matalin says she became a Republican. "We were lower middle class, but not starving," ' she recalls, "but if you wanted something, you had to work for it."

In the midst of George Bush's brain trust of middle‑aged millionaires, this makes Matalin unique. She may be the only one who has ever bounced a check ‑and not been a member of Congress. She is also probably the only major power in either party to have worked in a beauty parlor before going on to receive a B.A. in political science from Western Illinois State. She jokes that learning how to cut and color hair has been more useful in politics than anything she learned in one unhappy year of law school, though her own preferred hairdo these days is most often "in a pencil."

In a year when Republicans are facing a mounting female backlash over abortion and the treatment of Anita Hill, Bush big shots are so eager to showcase Matalin that when the time comes for campaign group photos, the boys jockey to shove her out front. On December 6, the day President Bush introduced his 1992 campaign team, onlookers could literally see them propelling Matalin forward. "It's become a running joke,” she says. "They're just so proud of Their Woman."

How much clout she has on social and sexual issues, however, is in question, since friends suggest that her views are much less orthodox than those of her boss. In private, Matalin, like many of the top campaign officials, is said to favor choice on abortion. And she acknowledges that she kept a copy of a book of Robert Mapplethorpe's controversial and explicitly homosexual photos on her coffee table at home ‑even though he and the National Endowment for the Arts, which funded him, were under attack from President Bush. Mortified by this discovery, she gets uncharacteristically flustered. “I don't know how that book got there," Matalin finally says, proving that even augurs of the New Politics aren't above an occasional old‑fashioned political dodge.

Useful though she has been to the party, Matalin hastens to say, "There is no such thing as tokenism in this business. The jobs are just too important.” Indeed, her opponents on the Democratic side warn that to dismiss Matalin as window dressing would be a perilous mistake.

Exactly what Matalin does at the campaign changes almost every day, as one fire is put out and the next one lit. While Atwater was infamous for bad‑boy strokes of genius, Matalin is known for diplomacy and efficiency. It's a side of her that she calls "the Good Girl Syndrome” ‑the urge to neatly cross every item off the day's list before leaving the office.

Under the circumstances, it’s a challenge. ”I just react all day to hourly events," she says. "In a campaign, nothing unfolds smoothly." In essence, her job is to build fifty separate campaigns for George Bush, one in each state, from helping to select the delegates to the convention and building the phone banks on up. On an average day she handles between sixty and one hundred phone calls, with everyone from party big shots down to grunt-like Republican field coordinators, returning them according to a personal triage system that starts with the crisis of the moment, turns to the most recent project, and then last and, as someone occasionally accused of leaking would have you believe, very least is the press.

A typical but unexpectedly early crisis she had to face this year was the strong showing by Pat Buchanan in the New Hampshire Republican primary. With Georgia, the heart of Bush's Southern strategy, looming two weeks ahead, Matalin went into high gear. She made sure that two and often three "surrogate" speakers for Bush were stomping the state daily and that his message ‑jobs, family, and peace"‑ was chanted with the regularity of an Orwellian creed. Within days, the state's campaign funding machine had gone from snooze control to full‑alarm financing. Mail was sent to every "favorable," as they call the probable Bush voters, and phone calls placed to each one as a follow‑up. Matalin also insisted that Bush be routed out of his Rose Garden and into Georgia for two appearances. As Buchanan grabbed at the so‑called Bubba vote ‑redneck whites with reactionary social views‑ Bush pointedly attended services at a blue‑collar, fundamentalist Baptist church in Atlanta. If this was pandering of the most obvious kind, Matalin makes no apologies. "The majority of voters in Georgia are Baptist,” she says matter‑of‑factly, “and 60 percent of the GOP electorate live in Atlanta."

On the job, some of the men accustomed to Matalin's saucy talk have been surprised to find her demure and almost shy in action. "I'm not a confrontationalist,” she says. On a recent television appearance on C‑Span, she seemed almost shaken by a barrage of hostile calls from viewers. She kept her cool on issues of policy. But when one caller asked, "Why does she smile all the time? She's like a typical Republican, she always has a smirk” ‑Matalin's hurt expression belied her tough‑girl act. She stammered, "Ma'am, my mother taught me to always smile. Besides, it helps more of your facial muscles."

The combat is likely to get much rougher as the campaign progresses. With Ross Perot casting a long shadow over the Bush campaign's sunbelt strategy, Matalin's work has tripled. She is now preparing three campaigns, one against Clinton, one against Perot, and one against some continued combination of the two. In the early spring, Matalin argued that Bush shouldn't panic over Perot or legitimize him by direct attack but instead wait and see what was left of him after the press had worked him over. By June, Matalin was making some direct hits herself. Trotted out to comment on a poll showing women's support for Perot lagging behind that of men, she told The Washington Post: "There is something strident and authoritarian about [Perot's] character that women discern ... at a subliminal level. Women have an intuitive sense of a person's character, and there's something anachronistic about his outlook on women ‑maybe it's not quite tangible yet‑ in the comments he makes about his female employees or his suggestion that men hide behind their women's skirts.” As the in‑house female, Matalin's usefulness to the campaign in such matters is clear, but her worry is evident. "No one's ever seen what $100 million brings to a campaign," she says. "And it's pretty hard to debate the issues with someone who has no position."

If Matalin and the White Boys pull off a winning campaign under these circumstances, insiders see an even brighter future for her. "Her generation is next to the seat of power now‑ they're the colonels, not yet the generals,” says Eddie Mahe, a longtime Republican strategist. "But in 1996, they will be it. When that happens, I can see Mary Matalin being party chairman."

But can she?

"I've never had a career plan," she says. “I just do what feels right." So what does that mean? "Probably I'll be waitressing," she says, collapsing into a throaty laugh. "Or no ‑I'm going to marry James Carville."