April 18, 2004

From Campaign Trail to Celebrity Circuit

Carol T. Powers for The New York Times
James Carville in his basement office in Alexandria, Va.


WASHINGTON, April 16 — This fall, as attention focuses on the presidential race, James Carville, perhaps the nation's most visible political consultant, will be out promoting yet another of his money-making ventures — a children's book, "Lu and the Swamp Ghost," which was inspired by tales from his Louisiana childhood.

It's not that Mr. Carville has left politics behind. Hardly. It's just that Mr. Carville, largely by dint of energy and personality, has blended politics, entertainment and celebrity into a lucrative empire with a single product to sell: James Carville.

Mr. Carville is neither the book's author nor the illustrator. But he did provide the story and is the marquee name behind the book, which will be published in time to take advantage of the political season.

With the growth of 24-hour cable television and a vast appetite for political talk, Mr. Carville, who gained fame for helping engineer President Bill Clinton's 1992 victory, is at the head of a pack of political consultants who once toiled in obscurity but who are now finding fame and riches far from the campaign trail.

"James is a multimedia corporation, and he's been smart about it," said Joe Lockhart, a former Clinton press secretary and a partner at the Glover Park Group, a communications consulting firm in Washington. "He is a model of the future. This could not have happened pre-1992 when campaign consultants were viewed by a small audience. Now they are public celebrities."

Carol T. Powers for The New York Times
James Carville

And in that cult of political celebrity, Mr. Carville is far out front. He has written six political books, nearly all best sellers. He has advised political candidates from Bolivia to Israel to Mexico. He has had roles in two movies, most recently playing himself in the frat house comedy "Old School" as well as in six television shows and the canceled HBO series "K Street," which featured him and his wife, Mary Matalin, a Republican strategist.

With access to some top names in Hollywood — who are often Democratic donors — he has a few new projects up his sleeve, among them a venture with the Hollywood producer Michael Medavoy to make a movie based on the life of the former governor of Louisiana Huey Long, as well as another attempt at an HBO series.

In Democratic circles, Mr. Carville is among the most active fund-raisers, political advisers and cheerleaders, especially as a co-host of the CNN program "Crossfire" and as a regular guest on the NBC program "Meet the Press." He gives more than 100 speeches a year — at $20,000 or more when making money for himself, and at no charge when he is a draw at Democratic fund-raisers. His closest political colleagues occupy top positions in the John Kerry campaign, and he has lent his face and recognizable voice to anti-Bush advertisements.

"No political consultant has carved a space as unique as his," said Charles Lewis, executive director at the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington research group. "He's become a commodity of himself by design." A longtime Washington observer, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, put it more succinctly: "He's a walking conglomerate."

While many in Washington may view Mr. Carville as overexposed, he plays well outside the Beltway. At a speech several weeks ago to a group of lawyers at the Tavern on the Green in Manhattan, he was greeted like a rock star. Young women angled for photos with him, the waiters gave him high fives.

It is a life he says he loves. "I'm a ham," Mr. Carville said in an interview in a New York restaurant after his speech. "I don't wish my anonymity back."

Anonymity is the last thing Mr. Carville craves, especially now that he is also a Madison Avenue pitchman. He is the voice for a $30 million advertising campaign for MetroOne Telecommunications to promote its directory assistance services. He has also done advertisements for Heineken beer, Nike, American Express, Alka-Seltzer, the Cotton Council, Ariba and Little Debbie, although some claim his personality often overwhelms the product.

"I decided to make a living being me," Mr. Carville said. "Anytime I try to be something other than James Carville, I have failed. The only time I have ever succeeded was being me. It was the smartest thing I have ever done."

Yet his raucous persona can be an easy target for criticism, especially from conservatives irked by his finger-pointing at Republicans as a party of wealth. Clifford May, president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington nonprofit organization, and a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, has often taken Mr. Carville to task.

"You know, James, what's revolting — what's revolting here, I'm afraid, is your hypocrisy," Mr. May said on a recent "Crossfire" program, "for you to talk about special interests and financial contributions, when you've been the most successful person I know in gathering them."

Such criticism hardly dents Mr. Carville. His first book, "All's Fair," written with Ms. Matalin, had a $700,000 to $800,000 advance. A best seller, it started the couple's cottage industry with their political Punch-and-Judy routine on the lecture circuit.

Each of his political books has sold over 100,000 copies, in part because of his ability to time political currents and his willingness to hit the road to promote sales. To promote his current book, "Had Enough," which features a defiant-looking Mr. Carville on the cover with a black eye, he appeared, in the span of a month, on scores of national television and radio shows.

"It's no coincidence his books come out at a certain moment in a political cycle," said David Rosenthal, his publisher at Simon & Schuster. "The man is so well plugged-in, he might as well have wires attached."

His weekly appearances on "Crossfire" add a mid-six-figure stream of cash to his income each year.

He has also worked as a consultant for candidates overseas, often with Stanley Greenberg, the former Clinton pollster, and Robert Shrum, the Kerry campaign media strategist, his partners in the Washington consulting firm GCS. Mr. Carville's foreign track record has been mixed, helping raise questions of whether American political consultants understand the cultural landscape of foreign countries.

"U.S. political consultants are going around the world like carpetbaggers, where they often know nothing, including the language and the culture," said Mr. Lewis of the Center for Public Integrity.

In his win column was the 1999 come-from-behind victory for Ehud Barak, the former Israeli prime minister. But Mr. Carville stumbled in Mexico when he represented Francisco Labastida, whose party, the PRI, was ousted in 1992 amid charges of political corruption. And his 2002 Bolivian win for Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada turned sour when Mr. Sánchez was forced from office last year before the end of his term.

Mr. Carville is currently working with Venezuelan businessmen who are seeking to oust the leftist president, Hugo Chávez.

Mr. Carville, Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Shrum are also partners in Democracy Corps, a nonprofit group that uses polls to influence Democratic Party thinking. With an annual budget of $1.5 million, much of it from Hollywood, the group issues papers intended to aid Democratic officeholders.

For instance, based on polling, the group advised Congressional Democrats to back the war resolution on Iraq.

For the Democratic National Committee, Mr. Carville has lent his name to fund-raising letters and is a popular draw at state fund-raising dinners.

"We are the pro bono side of Carville Inc.," said Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman. "Fame is very important. The more exposure he gets, the more I love it."

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