Love & War

James Carville and Mary Matalin defend and explain their famously bipartisan marriage.

Love & War, by James Carville and Mary Matalin, Penguin Group, 352 pp.

Mary Matalin and James Carville begin their second memoir, Love & War, with a page of Frequently Asked Questions.

The top two are “Is your marriage a sham?” and “Is your marriage a political stunt?”

The answer, in brief, is no. Despite their dramatic political differences – she is a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, he is a cradle-to-grave Democrat – Matalin and Carville have been making it work for over 20 years. They married shortly after the 1992 presidential election, for which she was a campaign manager for George H.W. Bush and he was a strategist for Bill Clinton.  

Not long after, Matalin and Carville published their first memoir. It described what it was like to work on competing presidential campaigns while dating and falling in love. Now, memoir number two gives readers the opportunity to learn how the mismatched couple has fared in their last two decades together.

While the premise may be intriguing, those hoping for passionate, partisan sparring will be disappointed. Instead, “Love and War” is a her turn/his turn diary mostly focusing on the family’s move to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. 

Carville (“the Ragin’ Cajun”) grew up in small-town Louisiana, one of eight children in a working class Catholic family. He maintained his devotion to the state – and its sports teams – during the couple’s many years as political advisors and media pundits in Washington, DC.

Matalin’s family was working class Protestant from suburban Chicago. By her account, she has come to embrace New Orleans as much for its own charms as for how happy it makes her husband.

In her entries, Matalin writes compellingly about exploring her new neighborhood in the University District. She could be any 60-something woman, wandering unfamiliar streets and trying to make sense of life’s changes. Matalin also writes poignantly about mothering two daughters who occasionally resist their parents’ nest and eventually leave it.

Less compelling are Matalin’s passages about working as a senior advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney. She offers neither juicy gossip nor substantive analysis. Instead, she tells about the female staffers’ exercise routines and the pair of irksome high heels she happened to be wearing on Sept. 11, 2001, when she was spirited away by the Secret Service detail. The rest reads as talking points.

Carville’s entries are better on the political stuff – or at least more entertaining. He throws off some thoughts on why flat hierarchies are good for political campaigns, the benefits of birth control, and whether Barack Obama can really change Washington. (Spoiler alert: not a chance).

Carville’s narrative also meanders into how he copes with his attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and things he likes to eat. And both halves of the duo address at length Matalin’s interest in pets and decorative furniture.

In other words, a lot of “Love & War” is not terribly interesting unless you happen to be Mary Matalin or James Carville’s personal friend or close relative. 

Having said that, the reader who slogs through the minutiae of the Matalin-Carville household may be rewarded with some insights into their marriage after all. It turns out what is significant about their mismatched relationship is that it is so ordinary. They discuss their kids, what’s for dinner, money. Mary admires James’ loyalty; James likes Mary’s spunk. Mary has learned to live with – even appreciate – James’ sisters. James tolerates Mary’s dogs. They grieve for dead fathers and mothers and friends, throw dinner parties, hold hands.

They also support each other’s careers. Sure, Matalin suffered when Carville worked for the Clinton White House and Carville seethed when Matalin worked for George W. Bush’s. But both manage to say some nice things about each other’s party leaders and they appear to leave the bulk of their political differences at the door of their, in Matalin’s words, “grand vintage New Orleans home.”

In fact, although “Love and War” does not explicitly address the topic, the book begs the question of how much individuals’ professional lives matter in a marriage. Matalin and Carville’s experience suggests our spouses’ personalities and characters loom much larger than their work identities, however passionate they are about their jobs.

To be sure, one’s job – not to mention one’s politics – can inform personality and character. But Matalin and Carville seem to have found a sweet spot where fundamental values and attraction overlap, even if the policy conclusions do not line up. More power to them.  Hopefully, their publisher allows them to enjoy their hard-won happiness instead of encouraging them to defend it in a third memoir.

Kelly J. Kelly is a Monitor contributor.

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