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Breakfast With

Mary Matalin

Monday, October 20, 2003

By Patricia Sheridan, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Former assistant to President Bush and counsel to Vice President Cheney, Mary Matalin is the ultimate Beltway insider. She is married to James Carville, and the couple are currently appearing on HBO's "K Street." They live in Virginia with their two daughters. Matalin was in Pittsburgh recently for a talk co-sponsored by Buchanan Ingersoll and Chatham College.


Q. As assistant to President Bush and adviser to Cheney, what exactly did you do?

A. Those titles mean something in the federal government. They mean a certain level, but what I did, and do in a more informal way now, is I'm kind of a troubleshooter, you know. I've been around town for over two decades and I'm kind of a utility player.

Q. Do you advise Cheney on how to approach certain questions from the press ?

A. No, not at all. The man is an intellectual. He's just so smart. He's cerebral and contemplative and very thorough in his answers. So I don't tell him what to say or anything like that or what to avoid. He's going to answer every question. One of his great assets is he never doesn't answer a question. So basically what I do is anticipate the question, and most of the time I make it. Sometimes I'm a little off. You know how the press thinks something is relevant about a particular incident? It's like, here's the policy reality, and here's what they're obsessed with, and it's usually something way off the mark. Like the 16 words, which was just stupid. The fact of that matter was Iraq had -- and still has -- 500 tons of yellowcake. So I don't know what everybody was upset about.

Q. Do you think the prospect of an election interferes with the work of an incumbent president?

A. I've worked with the two president Bushes, so about them I have the same observation when it comes to campaign years. They do the kind of work they are supposed to do and go to the events they are supposed to, but they very much ran for office because they want to govern. They focus on governing. So I would say the opposite, that continuing to focus on their job interferes with the campaign.

Q. Who do you see as the strongest Democratic opponent to President Bush in the next election?

A. You know, we don't really look at that, because it's irrelevant. When you are running as an incumbent, you've got to run on where you've been and where you want to go. They [the Democratic contenders] have the luxury of just flapping their jaws. They don't have any real solutions. So I'd say they are all good, and there are clearly two tiers there. It remains to be seen, the depth of their candidate's skills, 'cause I can't go off of their message right now. They don't have a coherent Democratic message.

Q. Is image or policy more essential to the life span of a politician?

A. Particularly since 9/11, you've got to have substance. Personally, for all the movies made about politics and the cynicism surrounding it, I have never met anybody in politics that lasted that was just a fluff-head. You've got to be grounded, and people aren't going to re-elect you if you are not delivering. As Lyndon Johnson used to say, and I quote him, "You can't shine [expletive]." That's just the reality.

Q. It seems that cynicism has created a lot of apathy regarding politicians.

A. Well, that's just stupid. I mean, it's clear who's sitting in the Oval Office makes a difference in these life-and-death issues. It makes a difference on economic issues. It makes a difference who's sitting in your local office. People who think that not only are uninformed, they are ignorant and a blight on our culture.

Q. How do you and your husband manage such diverse points of view in your private life?

A. We've got regular family things, and we don't sit around saying, boy, what do you think about Wes Clark getting in the race? We are just so burned out on the topic when we get home. On the things that I care about he's so far off the mark, it would be like talking to a doorknob. What's the point? We very much love each other.

Q. Does art imitate life on "K Street?"

A. No, this is an extraordinary show. All we are doing is playing ourselves. They put us in hypothetical situations, and we do what we would normally do.

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