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Jewish World Review Oct. 10, 2003 / 14 Tishrei, 5764

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

Bush adviser girds for a tough fight ... 10 minutes with Mary Matalin | Mary Matalin -- the nonsense-free Republican operative, White House strategist, TV commentator and now co-star of HBO's new "K Street" political reality show -- has been at the epicenter of big-time presidential politics for more than 20 years.

Matalin, who's visiting Pittsburgh next week to deliver a speech and stump for a local judicial candidate, has worked in six presidential elections, was President George Bush's campaign manager in 1992 and recently left her dual-job as assistant to George W. Bush and counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney.

A former co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," she is married to her political opposite and frequent TV-debate mate, Democrat operative James Carville. She is the author of several books, including the best-selling "All's Fair: Love, War, and Running for President," written with Carville.

I talked with her by telephone Thursday:

Q: So what is your main career these days -- are you a star of "K Street," a speaker, a mother?

A: My main career and my career of choice is mothering. So all of my other assignments, except when I'm on the road, have to fit into a time frame where I can get my kids off to school in the morning and be there when they come home at night. So "K Street" is in there. Writing a book is in there. I'm still advising the White House. And I'm doing speaking.

Q: What's your take on the alleged leak by the White House that revealed the name of a CIA officer?

A: I don't have a take. The facts are not clear. It clearly looks a feeding frenzy, but what the actual facts are remain to be seen. I've been through feeding frenzies like this before, and the end product never looks like it starts out to be. Other than that, I wouldn't know. I wasn't there at the time.

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Q: Who do you think is going to win in California?

A: If you go with the polls, I guess Arnold is going to.

Q: By the way, do you have any explanation for what happened to Arianna Huffington? She was once a conservative, almost a libertarian. She's at least 178 degrees from that.

A: I think she's a pretty classic publicity seeker. It's pretty hard to get attention in California as a conservative, so she went with the glamour crowd. When she was in Washington, I never took her as a serious conservative -- more like a party thrower. I don't think she's a figure in politics, period.

Q: What have you learned about politics, good and bad, during your recent stint in the White House?

A: I think that changing the tone of politics, which was very much a goal of the president's, is really like moving a huge steam ship. It's just hard to do. But the I think the country -- voters -- are ahead of the politicians, because when I was campaigning in the midterm elections, they don't want to hear it.

I guess there is an extreme wing in each party, but the bulk of at least the people I was campaigning for, and with, were about solutions. We have real-life problems today. We have an economy that's coming out of a recession. It was a bumpy recovery anyway, and then it got hit with unparalleled events -- an attack, a war, homeland security, a lot of expenses. And not to mention the terrorism itself.

I think people are not going to put up with a campaign of mudslinging and pettiness. They just really want to hear your grasp of the problem and your solution for it. I didn't learn that in the White House, I just think that's how it changed since 9/11.

Q: Is the Bush administration getting worried about the effect on the 2004 election?

A: I know the vice president and the president and the senior staff don't look at Iraq as "a political" issue. I know there is (laughs) ... there's just a detachment from what continues to be the reality of the war on terror and the reality of what's going on in Iraq and what's being reported on it.

Now this is not in any way meant to be media bashing, but perhaps to some extent we need to do a better job explaining. But every day the president, the vice president, the senior staff looks at the threat matrix and the kind of things that are still going on out there. So they start their day with a little bit different perspective and they come at it with the point of view that they've got a job to do -- which is to protect America.

And Iraq, being a critical part of that war on terror, needs to be stabilized and built to some sort of representative government. And everybody who goes over there, everybody, to a man -- congressmen of either party, reporters of all stripes -- comes back and says the same thing. A Democrat congressman did an op-ed in The Washington Post (on Wednesday) saying that what is happening on the ground versus what's being reported is an enormous disparity.

Q: Who does the Bush administration want to see win the 2004 nomination for the Democrats?

A: We get that question a lot. A., we're really not in the campaign mode yet. But, B., it doesn't really matter, because when you are an incumbent, you have to run on your record. And they're going to attack the record. They're all going to attack it from the same way.

Right now, it's a referendum and when it becomes a contest and a choice, then it will be our policies versus their policies. Whatever their policies are has yet to be revealed, because the Democrats are in the midst of an all-bash-Bush-all-the-time mode, which is how primaries work.

It seems to be more aggravated in this instance because their analysis is that Howard Dean surged ahead because he's the biggest Bush-basher. I think that's an incorrect analysis. I think Dean surged ahead because he feels and sounds more authentic, and since 9/11 people want authenticity in their public officials.

So it's less about what he's saying, because voters are wanting to judge the character, and the character definition, in my mind, in this cycle, has less to do with honor and integrity, which is always a piece of character, but has to do with having a very low b.s. component. I don't know how else to say it.

I think their Bush-bashing analysis is wrong ... . We have to get a candidate to know what the Democrat Party positions are. They are unclear at this point, and it really doesn't matter to us. This is a very divided country, a very polarized country, and we never expected that that wouldn't be the case come election time. We were always prepared to fight a tough race. I think whoever will come out of their primaries will be a formidable candidate. It's going to be tough race.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald