On Sunday night, James Carville, who touts himself, perhaps accurately, as the best-known political consultant in the country, sat down with Dan Rather at the 92nd St Y to discuss the 2008 presidential election.
But he was at his most passionate, by far, when talking instead about the 2000 campaign, and denouncing the way it was covered by the country’s two leading national newspapers.
The New York Times’ coverage of that race “was borderline criminal—and The Washington Post’s was worse,” said Mr. Carville, joining a growing list of commentators who have argued lately that the media was overly focused on superficial issues, and exaggerated Al Gore’s flaws while giving a pass to George W. Bush. Mr. Carville went on: “You couldn’t defend [Post reporter] Ceci Conolly if you tried,” and also singled out Times scribes Kit Seelye and Frank Bruni, who covered Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush respectively, for scorn.
When Mr. Rather observed that the targets of his interlocutor’s ire weren’t there to defend themselves, Mr. Carville shot back: “They don’t need to be here, they need to shut up.”
Explaining that he’s not over the 2000 election, “and I’m not ever gonna be,” Mr. Carville declared of The Times and The Post: “What they oughta do is just apologize to the country for what they did, and we’d all be over it.”
Mr. Carville—who parlayed a key role in Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign into a near-constant presence as a Democratic political analyst on cable television—also offered some surprising, and characteristically colorful, insights into the current race. Asked whether Mr. Gore, in the wake of his Nobel Peace Prize win, might still jump into the fray, he observed that “running for president is like sex: you don’t do it once and forget about it.” Still, he said he thought Mr. Gore would run only if Barack Obama’s campaign collapses entirely—and perhaps not even then.
Since the start of the year, most commentators have described the Democratic race as a three-way contest between Hillary Clinton, Sen. Obama, and John Edwards. But lately, Mr. Edwards has been dogged by anemic fund-raising, and declining poll numbers, and Mr. Carville confirmed that, barring an intervention fom Mr. Gore, it’s essentially a two-person contest. “John Edwards is not gonna be the Democratic nominee,” he told the audience.
Like most observers, Mr. Carville thinks his party is well-positioned. “I’ve never seen the Democratic party more unified than it is now,” he said. Still, he said he frets about another challenge from Ralph Nader, who could siphon key votes from the Democratic candidate, as he did in 2000. “I really worry about the Nader stuff. It’s something to be concerned about.”
Mr. Carville had a surprising answer when asked who Sen. Clinton might pick as a running mate, should she win the Democratic nomination—he named Kathleen Sibelius, the popular centrist governor of Kansas, as a “dark horse.” “They can’t take one woman? Hell, give ’em two,” he said. “You heard it here first.”
As for the GOP, Mr. Carville predicted that if the party nominates Rudy Giuliani, the current frontrunner, the Christian right will run an alternative candidate. He also advised the crowd not to discount Mike Huckabee, the socially conservative governor of Arkansas.
And he floated an intriguing possibility. Senior G.O.P. figures could decide in the coming months, Mr. Carville suggested, that the only figure capable of uniting the party is Jeb Bush—and they might urge the Florida governor to join the race.
Still, said Mr. Carville, “It would be a remarkable feat if the Republicans were able to win this election.” Because of rifts within the party, “this thing is going to get very dicey and very problematic for them,” he said. “It’ not just gonna sort itself out.”
Mr. Carville wasn’t the only star on stage, of course. For the most part, Mr. Rather—who in 2005 was forced out of the anchor chair at CBS News after airing a flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard service, and recently announced he’s suing his former employer for $70 million—played the neutral interviewer. But, towards the end of the evening, he seemed to refer obliquely to the controversy that marred his final months at the network, telling the audience to “hold the press accountable—particularly the people who own and operate the major media companies.”
Since announcing his lawsuit. Mr. Rather has suggested that his efforts to corroborate the National Guard story were stymied by CBS executives. And on stage, he asserted the need for journalists to continue to conduct aggressive enterprise reporting, even in the face of obstacles. ‘There are powerful people,” said Mr. Rather, “who are going to look at that coverage and say: ‘you know what, that coverage is dangerous to our interests, and we need to get in there and choke it off.’”
It wasn’t hard to guess whom he seemed to have in mind.