Pundits Carville and Matalin riff
on nation’s troubles at Todd Series © Oct. 14, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

Renowned political strategists/commentators Mary Matalin and James Carville, seen here with Prof. Jason Jagemann (left), were all smiles when they visited Norwich University on Oct. 5, 2011.

photo by Jennifer LangilleRenowned political strategists/commentators Mary Matalin and James Carville, seen here with Prof. Jason Jagemann (left), were all smiles when they visited Norwich University on Oct. 5, 2011.

James Carville and Mary Matalin, frequently introduced as an “odd couple,” “strange bedfellows,” or even as the “Bickersons” (after a ’40s radio program) have shown they can agree on at least one thing: The atmosphere in Washington has become way too nasty.

At times comedic, acerbic and poignant, the famous Washington power couple used the word “toxic” to describe Washington as they visited Vermont as headliners of Norwich University’s Todd Lecture Series.

Matalin and Carville, polar political opposites who now live in New Orleans, became involved two decades ago while she was working to re-elect President George H.W. Bush and he was about to become Bill Clinton's chief political strategist. That was a very different time.

People use information today like a drunk uses a lamp post. They use it for support, not for illumination.

James Carville
Todd Lecture Series guest

“James and I, today, would not be able to date,” said Matalin. “Or even to meet.”

At the request of Norwich political science Prof. Jason Jagemann, moderator for the Oct. 5, 2011, event, Carville and Matalin traced how they became involved in politics; he as a liberal and she as a conservative.

“I just woke up one day and thought black folks were getting a bad deal,” said Carville. “I was not a big believer in unregulated markets.”

Matalin was working her way through school in the 1960s, doing odd jobs like pumping gas. “Seriously, who is this FICA guy?” she remembers asking herself upon viewing an early paycheck. “You know how hard you are working; you know how hard your parents are working.”

Matalin said she grew up a Kennedy Democrat, but in 1980 “pulled the lever” for Ronald Reagan.

Carville and Matalin are perhaps the highest profiled guests to date in the series, which started in the fall of 2008 with Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway. Designed to highlight leaders in fields where Norwich excels, the “Todd” features a major speaker in the fall and a series of events hosted by different academic schools in the spring. Guests have included environmentalist Bill McKibben and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker. Events are free and open to anyone.

In a freewheeling style, Carville and Matalin addressed topics as wide ranging as prospects for a third political party in America, the potential for democracy in Egypt and Tunisia and President Obama’s re-election bid.

“If he wins, that would be a stunning achievement,” said Carville.

Though introduced as “partisan pugilists,” by Jagemann, Matalin and Carville seemed more interested in illuminating than proselytizing. Matalin—once chief of staff for the late Lee Atwater, the GOP chairman known for a “take-no-prisoners” approach to campaigns—regrets the loss of civility in Washington. The manifest distrust is both the cause and the effect of diminishing opportunities for personal relationships, she said.

The children of families with differing views “are not going to school with each other,” and adult Washingtonians are inclined to stay within their own partisan circle of friends.

When you don’t know a person, “you can say2 mean, stupid and ugly things that you would never say to his face,” she said.

Carville said compromise has become difficult because members of Congress are beholden to partisan purists in their home districts, which over the years have been redrawn to reflect party kinship.

These days, he said, more information is moving more quickly through cable television, the Internet and social media, which leads people to falsely assume they are better informed. People look to programs and websites to self validate or buttress their own arguments.

“People use information today like a drunk uses a lamp post,” said Carville. “They use it for support, not for illumination.”

Both agreed Obama may be in trouble, but not because he is likely to face a strong Republican candidate.

Carville called frontrunner Mitt Romney an “accomodationist technocrat,” prone to tough-to-embrace messages, such as his “Fifty-Nine-Point Jobs Plan.”

“How did he come up with that number?” asked Carville to applause and laughter.

“Romney ain’t the guy you’d want to go to the prom with, but you have to give him points for tenacity,” said Matalin.

The audience, which filled Norwich’s Plumley Armory to capacity, was primed for witty banter, and the pair delivered.

Matalin told the audience, which included members of Norwich’s Corps of Cadets, that Carville had been a Marine corporal, which meant he was “the highest ranking military man in the Clinton Administration.”

Carville noted his disappointment that New Jersey’s hefty governor, Chris Christie, had decided against seeking the GOP presidential nomination. “I was hoping for that race between the Mountain, the Mormon and the Moron,” he said.

As the evening wrapped up, a member of the audience expressed weariness at the length of campaign seasons. “Is there anything we can do to shorten presidential campaigns?” he asked.

“Campaigns have become an industry,” said Matalin. “You don’t have to pay attention to the ‘permanent campaign,’ but it has become institutionalized.”