Stickin': The Case for Loyaltyby James Carville
It's been said that if you want a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog. Unfortunately, there's some truth to that: there are few places in the world where the turncoats and careerists are so highly rewarded and where loyalty is equated with stupidity.
Luckily, another bit of wisdom about the Beltway is also true: the people in Washington aren't
It's been said that if you want a friend in Washington, you should buy a dog. Unfortunately, there's some truth to that: there are few places in the world where the turncoats and careerists are so highly rewarded and where loyalty is equated with stupidity.
Luckily, another bit of wisdom about the Beltway is also true: the people in Washington aren't like the ones in the rest of the country. The American people treasure loyalty. They stick by a friend when he needs them. They forgive him when he's wrong. They understand the difference between politics and friendship. They are true to their ideals and their schools, loyal to their families and their God.
In Stickin', the always colorful and insightful political strategist James Carville, who has been accused of being loyal, examines this much-maligned and misunderstood political good. Along the way, he looks at loyalty in the family and among friends, in theory and in practice. He praises some loyal people and skewers some deserving backstabbers. And, of course, it wouldn't be a Carville book if he didn't provide recipes for some good home cooking.
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When you are as outspoken as I am, and you dish it out a little, you have to be able to take it when someone takes a swipe at you in the press. I've been called a lot of things in my time. To name a few, I've been called a court jester, a clown, a comedian, serpent head, gamecock, a slimy little worm, a hatchet man, an attack master, and a bottom-feeder. For some reason animals, and particularly dogs, tend to suffer in comparison to me: I've been called a rabid dog, an attack dog, an aggressive pit bull, a junkyard dog, a presidential Doberman, and a political rottweiler. I'm called a totalitarian, a loyalist, a foul-mouthed bore, a hack, and a sight to behold. And instead of saying "Carville said such-and-such," people write that I "spew," "snipe," "crow," and "froth."
Now, I am a grown man and I don't mind most of this. Some of the labels I find funny and get a kick out of, like when I'm described as "the aging enfant terrible in midlife crisis" or "the charismatic love child of Danny DeVito and Mr. Clean." Some of the labels even come from a member of my own family. And others come from the most venerable and reputable of sources. I was called a "buffoon" in the paper of record, the New York Times, and the Washington Post described me fondly as "Clinton's gunsel, his button man, the odious James Carville." I am proud of these distinctions.
Amidst all of these insults is the word "loyalist." These days the word "loyal" and its variations is used as the coup de grâce of insults, as if to point out a weakness of mind or character. Or it's used when they can't think of anything good to say -- "yes, but he is very loyal." You know what I'm talking about.
Now why is this? At what point in history have we gotten to where loyalty is not a positive thing, where it is not valued? To me, it's key -- loyalty is one of the essential attributes a person must have and must demand of others. Now you may think the old Cajun's just Ragin' again, but I'm serious, and I think there's something badly wrong with what I see around me. Where I come from and what I believe strongly in is that loyalty, though a complicated and many-splendored thing, is still a virtue. In history and in literature, the snitch has always been a comic or pathetic figure, so when did the snake-in-the-grass become so revered and the tittle-tattle so venerated? Why is nothing more beloved than a turncoat?
I think we can look to the nation's capital for a clue. Nowhere in the entire world is disloyalty more rewarded and rewarded well than in Washington. There is simply no faster way for you to join the ranks of Washington society or the media elite than by running to the press with a backstabbing story -- and recently, it's no secret, that means you need to be a rabid Clinton-hater. Heck, if Brutus lived today, there would be a monument to him on the Mall. If you go on television to say something negative, hateful, and Clinton-bashing, by God your mailbox will be filled with black tie invites and requests for cable television appearances.
I think the problem is at its worst in Washington and this is where we must tackle it head-on. To some extent, disloyal, unprincipled backstabbers are encouraged by a media Beast that can't get enough treachery and deceit in its diet. What I call the Commentariat is sneaking around all the time trying to smell a rat so they can interview it on background. The Beast has to be fed, and there are plenty of people with conflicting kinds of agendas shooting off their mouths. It's a difficult enough place to do business without having to worry about watching your back every minute of the day.
Until I started being called "loyal" in the media, and started getting letters about it, I'd never really thought that much about my sense of loyalty one way or the other. If someone is going to be calling you something, it might behoove you to think about it a bit. Gamecock and Doberman I can figure out, but loyal is something else. So I thought about it a bit and this book is the result. Some people came up to me and said, "I don't agree with Clinton, but I admire the way that you stuck with him." This is the way most people talk about this, so I'm going to call my book Stickin'.
As it turns out, loyalty looks pretty simple on the face of it. Setting yourself aside, sticking has to start with the family, right? I'm from a big family, the oldest of eight children, and the first thing you learn is, you don't go and rat on your siblings to your parents. That's basic. You're loyal to your brothers and sisters and to your family as a whole. The stickin' starts at home and you take it from there.
That sounds pretty simple, yes? Well, it's really not so easy. Dogs are famously loyal -- and that's probably one of the "negative" connotations of calling someone a junkyard dog. I have three dogs and they're very loyal to me, but that's not real loyalty; that's obedience. Nor is it the "omertà" stuff you see in Mafia movies. People don't seem to appreciate that there's a difference between being loyal and being a sycophant or an idiot. The sycophant has an easy job. He or she just determines who's in power and then sucks up to them. In our campaigns we had a name for a sycophant: "Ditto." "Ditto" is not being loyal, that's being an opportunist. (Ditto Boland was a character in The Last Hurrah by Edwin O'Connor, which, in my opinion, ranks second only to All the King's Men as a political novel.)
And an idiot's just an idiot.
Genuine loyalty has to be based on something substantial. To begin with, you have to be true to yourself and your own principles -- who could disagree with that? But is loyalty one of your principles? That's the question. (I'm not saying that principles are never applied in Washington. People resign "on principle" all the time. But for the life of me, I can't recall hearing about someone in a tough spot who stayed out of principle.)
Where loyalty comes into play is through difficulty. Loyalty not taxed is really not loyalty. If you loan a friend money you know you're going to get back, that's not a demonstration of loyalty, that's an investment. If you loan them money and you hope you get it back -- that's loyalty.
There's a quote about this that has been attributed to a bunch of people. One version has a politician saying to the nineteenth-century British prime minister Lord Melbourne, "I will support you as long as you are in the right." To which Melbourne said, "That is no use at all. What I want is men who support me when I am in the wrong." (Some say Sam Rayburn said it. Others, Earl Long, governor of Louisiana. I am loyal to my home state, so I give credit to Earl Long. It's a good line; maybe they all said it.)
Now I really believe people in America have a yearning to stick with something. They themselves want to stick with someone, or see others stand up for somebody even when they are wrong once in a while rather than stabbing them in the back. The world can be a harsh and lonely place and you need something you're connected to. So we need to step back here and look at what does connect us.
It's easy to see that we are quickly becoming a less rooted society. Not so many years ago, three and four generations of families lived together and looked after each other from cradle to grave. Like in Carville, Louisiana, where I grew up and where my great-grandmother was the postmistress (oops, maybe I should have said "postperson"), and my grandfather and father were postmaster. There, an entire family lived in what is now the same zip code. Nowadays people are more mobile and families break up and move apart. You'll go to college out of state and move to the city to find a job. And when you are employed you'll find that companies don't hire people for life anymore -- they "outsource" and hire temps and the like. One half of all jobs last less than one year.
If you do go back to your hometown, you probably won't recognize it. The corner stores are gone and there's a mall where the park used to be. You don't even have to go to a bookstore any more, let alone a library.
My family used to run a country store in Carville. We were definitely aware of the people that shopped there and the people that didn't. Over time, you develop relationships with local merchants and the tradespeople who work out of your hometown, so if something goes wrong, people are more inclined to take care of you. They help you and you help them. You stick together.
In the Shenandoah Valley where we live now, we try to trade with the smaller, local stores. I usually go to Ken's True Value Hardware store. They can help you find whatever thingumijig or whatyoumicallit you need. At one of those giant mall stores, lots of luck. There's a level of friendliness and service there that takes me back to our country store in Carville.
But I feel we've moved away from that type of living, and we've lost the sense of community that was its greatest benefit. There are busted connectors all over the place. The everyday stuff that we had in common often isn't there anymore. People stay in touch by e-mail. I have as much chance of turning on a computer as I have of flying a 747. And e-mail's not a real connection to me. It's words on a screen.
I do think you need a group of relationships so you can live and thrive. You need things that you feel you belong to. Things you want to stick with. I think Washington has it wrong: People really do want to reconnect to places and each other. And people respect someone who sticks with someone or something through rough times. Or, as Barry Goldwater might say, opportunism at the expense of loyalty is no virtue. What I want to try to do is make a case for loyalty for all the people who want to stick with things.
But as I said, it isn't easy. People are going to have conflicting loyalties and there are no absolutes we can point to as moral guidelines that must be followed. It's not a 100 percent thing. Also, it's easy to see that you can be extremely loyal to something bad. Loyalty is not a virtue when it is misapplied -- I'm sure a lot of Nazis thought they were very loyal people. Nor do I want to set myself up as an icon of loyalty. I'm not writing this book because I am a shining example of a loyal person, because I'm not sure that I am. I can think of times in my life that I've betrayed or let down people I shouldn't have.
What we are going to be able to say is that untested loyalty is just a bromide. For it to be meaningful, you have to put something at risk. We are going to talk about different things that we are loyal to. We are even going to delve into a few things out of literature and a fine book on loyalty written by, believe it or not, a Columbia University law professor.
By and large this is a book about stickin', and we are going to try to stick to the simple things and some of the things that you are going to confront in your life. If you stick with me in this book, we'll try to get into some lively things about this subject. And for those of you who have stuck with me in the past and bought my other books, you know that you will get a recipe or two, a few anecdotes, and not a lot of highfalutin philosophizing.
Copyright © 2000 by James Carville
Chapter One: Why I Stuck with Bill Clinton
Throughout the whole period that the president was being investigated, on occasions too numerous to count, people would approach to give me an opinion. They'd come up to me on street corners, in hotel lobbies, in airports, just about anywhere, and they'd say: "Man, you are really out there for Clinton." Some people liked that fact; some people said, "I don't agree with you, but I like the way you have stuck with your guy"; and others didn't like it from any perspective. Some of these people thought I was just being a sycophant or they thought Bill Clinton had a picture of me with a sheep or something. But on the whole, I think a majority of the comments were favorable. And everyone did seem to have an opinion one way or the other about my vigorous defense of the president.
Some friends of mine thought that I should put a little distance between me and the president, or at least get a little wiggle room. I didn't know where this was going to end, they would tell me, and I didn't want to be on the wrong side of history. People are going to look at you and think you are just sucking up. I think my friends were well intentioned. I was an older parent with one young girl and another kid on the way, and they were thinking of the long term. But I rejected their advice.
Up to now, I've never really had the opportunity to explain to people how it got to be that I was the guy sitting on Meet the Press or Larry King Live or Crossfire defending the president. So what I thought I'd do first here is answer the question: Why did I stick with Bill Clinton?
I think it's important to put what I did in context. It just didn't spring up one day. There was Bill Clinton; here was James Carville, and James Carville defended Bill Clinton. You have to go back and learn a little bit about where I came from and how my relationship with Bill Clinton was forged. And you have to look at what I felt I owed him, and what I felt had been done to him.
I grew up sixty-five miles north of New Orleans in Carville, Louisiana, a place on the river they used to say was so far in the sticks you had to pipe sunshine in. This is a hard thing to conceptualize perhaps, particularly in the America of today, but I actually grew up loving politics. Even as a little boy, I was fascinated by it. It might have been an odd thing for a kid, but I liked the excitement, and back in Louisiana in the mid-1950s, politics was very colorful. I would mimic the more flamboyant politicians much the way other kids mimicked entertainers or musicians.
I can vividly remember being a runner for the Fidelity National Bank in downtown Baton Rouge. (I got a job there as a result of my grandfather being on the board of directors -- a lesson in loyalty here, or, should I say, just plain old nepotism.) I was fourteen years old and one of my assignments was to run stuff over to the State Capitol. I loved going there. I was totally fascinated by the legislature, by the ringing of the bells and crash of the gavels, by the smell of the printer's ink and the cigar smoke. It was my version of the theater.
I dreamed about being a part of the place but never really did very much about it. I did some work for people running for the state legislature. I would help put some signs up and, maybe just as often, tear the other guy's signs down. I'd distribute literature and generally help with the campaigns. But I never really figured on making a life of it.
After an undistinguished academic career and a stint in the Marine Corps, where I attained the rank of corporal (hence half the reason for my self-assigned moniker of Corporal Cue Ball), I went to law school. I was an okay law student -- I wasn't law review or in the top 10 percent of the class or anything like that. I started practicing law in Louisiana and I was, quite frankly, less than a mediocre lawyer.
One day, when I was thirty-seven years old, I was sitting at my desk, looking out the window. I thought to myself, If I had to hire a lawyer, I wouldn't hire me. So I'm not going to ask anyone else to. I went into my boss's office and quit.
I don't think the people I was practicing law with were very sorry to see me leave. But they said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "All my life I've wanted to be a political consultant and I'm going to take off and try to do it. I'm single. If I don't try it now, I'm just never going to do it."
And as the result of the intervention of Peter Hart, who helped get me a job running a Senate campaign in Virginia, and with the encouragement of Mark Shields, who is now a nationally syndicated columnist and co-host of The Capital Gang, I set off on a career as a political consultant. Both of these men remain my dear friends.
I had a very slow start in my new profession. The Senate campaign in Virginia was the first experience I had outside of Louisiana and we lost. Next I got work running a Senate race in Texas and we lost that race too. So I was forty years old and I was 0-for-2.
I reached a pretty low point in my new career. I was in Washington, D.C., on Massachusetts Avenue, Northeast, and I will never forget what happened. I had all the clothes I owned in a garment bag. At this time, I was knocking on doors looking for a job. If any of you have ever done this, you know what I'm talking about. I'd be told, "Mr. so-and-so's in but he can't see you. He's kind of tied up." I'd sit and wait for three hours. People wouldn't take my phone calls. I was begging and scrapping and I couldn't get anyone to see me or take my telephone call.
So I was standing on Massachusetts Avenue. It was late March or April. It was cold. It was raining real hard. And the strap on my garment bag broke. Everything I owned ended up in a mud puddle. I sat down and started crying. I was forty-one years old and I was a broken man. I had no money, no health insurance, nothing. I was close to having to crawl back to Louisiana and ask somebody to take me in and give me some make-work. Remember Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire? She went to live off the kindness of strangers; I was going to have to live off the generosity of my friends. I was going to have to go home to admit failure.
But the last thing that dies in somebody is a dream. You can be a broken person, but as long as your dream is intact you'll keep going. And somehow, I kept it together. Months later, someone told me about a guy running for the office of governor of Pennsylvania. They said he had run three times and he had lost three times. He couldn't find anyone to run his campaign. Like the two ugliest people in the class the night before the prom, we just kind of stuck with each other. It was 1986 and the man was Bob Casey. We worked hard and we won that race.
Life started picking up for me a little bit. I got my first credit card. In nineteen hundred and eighty-seven, when I was forty-three years old, I qualified for a credit card for the first time. I was working at what I wanted to be doing and, all told, I was a happy man.
But in the political business there's one office that overshadows everything else and that's president of the United States. Not everyone knows who ran the governor's race in California or the Senate race in New York, but everyone knows the people who work in presidential politics. It's the gold, the silver, and the bronze. That's the big show and you're always waiting for the call.
In 1991 I got a phone call from a dear friend, a man who, years later, basically married Mary and me, the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller. He said, "I've got a man here running for president that I want you to talk to. He's the governor of Arkansas." So I got on the phone with Bill Clinton. We met and I thought he was a nice enough man. I thought this was a man I could work with. So I went to work for Bill Clinton on December 1, 1991. I was one of four or five people on the campaign, a general consultant.
We go through the primaries and we have our ups and downs. I had a pretty good job on the campaign in Little Rock. I got to go to meetings and if I said something, people took what I said seriously, even if they didn't always do what I said. But life was going pretty well for me when I compare it to where I had been. I was cruising along; I had a little money in the bank. Things were not too bad at all.
In late May or early June 1992, I got a call. The governor and Mrs. Clinton wanted to see me in the mansion. I wondered what they wanted but figured it was a big meeting of some kind. I drove over to the mansion and walked in and sat down. And they walk in and it's just the two of them, the governor and Mrs. Clinton. There's three of us sitting at a table.
The governor said, "James, we've been thinking, and what we want you to do is to take over the campaign."
Now right there, seven years after everything I owned was lying in a mud puddle in the middle of a street in Washington, D.C., I was being given the biggest job in the entire world of political consulting. Nothing else is even close. And that's the opportunity these people gave me. They put it right in my lap. I was dumbfounded and then I was terrified, and I went back to the office and worked my ass off for them. But I never forgot the trust they placed in me.
I was the first person to eat with the Clintons after the election. It was just the three of us. A bowl of vegetable soup, a tuna sandwich, and iced tea with the sugar already in it (we were still in Arkansas). It was an incredibly nice gesture. They asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and they thanked me for the great job I did. We shook hands. I hugged the president and kissed Mrs. Clinton and left. Eventually I went to work for myself, but I never, ever forgot what these people did for me.
Over the years I developed a personal relationship with the president. He would call me if something big or tragic happened in my life. He called my mother from time to time. He did the kinds of things that friends do for each other. I'm not going to say my best friend in the entire world was the president of the United States, but he was a friend of mine. He and his wife still are friends of mine.
So my friends went to the White House. And the next thing you know, they started the investigations. There was the FDIC investigation, the RTC investigation, the independent counsel. They spent $20 million, $25 million. There were hundreds of investigators: lawyers, special prosecutors, FBI agents, private detectives. They subpoenaed every tax return the Clintons had filed for thirty years, every check, every scrap of paper. They unleashed the entire power of the Establishment on them -- not only the federal legal establishment, but the Washington press establishment, too. They found people who were in business with the Clintons and they started squeezing them and asking them for anything they had. "Give us anything and we'll let you go."
I was watching this and things were going great for me, let me tell you. That first Tuesday in November, I had gone to bed an ordinary person, and I had woken up the next morning a genius. James Carville was suddenly the smartest person you had ever met in your life. They were making movies about me. I was getting all kinds of money to write books and make speeches. I would walk into a restaurant it takes most people three months to get into. They'd kick someone out and say, "Get out of here, you rube, that's Mr. Carville's seat. Get this man what he needs." I went to California and movie stars and God knows who would call me. Everything was wonderful for me. Everything was just great.
But I could not sit by and do my thing and just watch what was happening. These people were friends of mine. I mean, they took the president's wife down to the grand jury and I thought they were going to put her in jail. They drove the president into a legal debt of millions of dollars. They leaked all sorts of half-baked facts and accusations to the press.
And five years and $50 million later, Eureka. We got him. SEX!
On August 17, the day the president testified, his wife called me and asked me to come down to the White House. I sat down next to her and she held my hand. She said, "James, I don't know how we're going to get through this, can you continue to help us?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am. I can help you."
I would have been a big person in Washington if I'd turned my back on them. There would have been a nice column about me, saying that I was a person of great integrity. The Sunday morning crowd would have said, "Carville exhibits a refreshing independence. He's not under the yoke of the White House anymore. He's speaking his mind." I would have been the toast of Washington for about a week, but then I would have had to live with myself. And after everything was done and they'd all gone home, years later I would still have had to live with myself.
So I did what I had to do. I really don't apologize for it. I think the president is a good man who did a bad thing and he's entitled to a defense. If I played any small role in defending a good man who has done more for this country than the last two presidents combined -- let alone what he did for me personally -- then I am truly honored. And what he had done for me was give me my opportunity of a lifetime and become my friend.
We say that loyalty has to be tested. But in this case, when it came down to it, I decidedly did not think that this was a tough test. Bill Clinton is a friend. He's a good man and he has a good heart. He's not a perfect man, but he is a good man and a great president. When I call someone "good" I don't do it lightly -- that's not something I sling around. So let me say it again: This decidedly was not a very difficult question for James Carville to answer. I did not feel tested in any way by that. I did not have to anguish or agonize very long over that decision. It's clear that in my world, you don't abandon a guy over sex. You stick with him.
I don't feel I owe people a justification for doing what I did, but I do feel that in a book on loyalty, an explanation is in order. In the end, sticking with the president does not make me a really loyal person. But had I not done this, I would have been a backstabber of the first order.
When all is said and done, it is the law of the playground that applies. You mess with my friend, I'm coming after you. It was an instinctive obligation that I felt. It has nothing to do with the intellectual posturing, the pontificating, or anything else. When you've been unsuccessful your first forty-eight years and you hit the lottery your forty-eighth, you're not likely to change.
I did what I knew I had to do. I had to stick with my friend. It was never really that close a call for me.
At the height of the Starr fiasco, around January 1999, I was getting a lot of mail and a lot of questions from people. One of the questions I would get most often would come along these lines. I would be giving a speech and someone, generally a woman, would say to me, "You know, Mr. Carville, I saw you on Meet the Press with your wife and two children and I've got to tell you you've got gorgeous young girls. I'm sure you've thought about this, but these girls are not going to be young forever.
"They're going to read about all of this, and not just about Bill Clinton. They're going to read about their Daddy and what he did; the things he said and the names he called people. They are going to come to you and say, 'Daddy, why did you do those things back then?' What I want to know, Mr. Carville, is: What are you going to tell those girls?"
That is a difficult but, one would have to say, a fair question. I would respond that I will tell my girls this: "There was a time in your Daddy's life when he had a good friend. And that good friend did a bad thing. And your Daddy did everything he could to try to forgive the bad thing and remember that this was a good friend. There will be times in your life when you are going to have good friends that do bad things. If you can, your father would like you to try to forgive the bad thing and stick with the good friend.
"But the most important lesson that I want you girls to take from all of this is that your father knows that you are good girls. And your father knows that sometimes in life even good girls do bad things. If that ever happens to you, the thing I want you to remember the most is that you come tell your Daddy about it. You know for sure that he'll stick with you."
Copyright © 2000 by James Carville
Meet the Author
James Carville is the best-known and most-loved political consultant in American history. He is also a speaker, talk-show host, actor, and author with six New York Times bestsellers to his credit. Part of a large Southern family, he grew up without a television and loved to listen to the stories his mama told. Mr. Carville lives with his wife, Mary Matalin, and their two daughters in New Orleans.
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