The Blunt Knife: Telling it like it is, James Carville sees his 60 Tulane students as a vehicle for change and long-lasting legacy

This article was published in The Tulane Hullabaloo on June 7, 2011.

Ted Jackson, The Times-Picayune

With a loud thump, James Carville plops his Nike sneakers up on his desk, leans back in his armchair, and rests his head in clasped hands. Clad in jeans and a black T-shirt, the 66-year-old CNN political pundit appears relaxed and content. His casual manner belies the hectic schedule that has just whisked him from Washington to New Orleans, where he’ll give a lecture tonight and eat dinner with his family, before flying out tomorrow to New York. This free hour between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. each Tuesday evening  —  just before he teaches his political science class at Tulane University — is one he cherishes all week. For this sole hour, he gets to hang out with a few of his students, his personal assistant, his teaching assistant, and the week’s guest speaker, who, in the class’s three-year history, has been anyone from prominent Republican Newt Gingrich to liberal columnist Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine. As they casually dissect the politics of the day, Carville’s grating Southern drawl, authoritative and commanding, collides in the air with the 20-year-olds’ high-pitched admiring laughter.


As famous as he is for being television’s fierce “Ragin’ Cajun,” Carville in person does not come across as angry or aggressive. Joking and swearing, he creates an atmosphere of informality and frankness, a kind of lets-all-just-be-honest tone. This is, after all, the guy who led Bill Clinton to the 1992 presidency on his famous campaign war cry: “It’s the economy, stupid.” When Carville first meets you, he establishes an immediate rapport, finding a kernel of common ground, and then almost visibly filing you into a certain category in his head — Northern liberal, military conservative, academic know-it-all, and so on — so later he’ll know when to make eye contact, and either laugh in comaraderie or half-heartedly apologize for offending you.
At this time of day, most of the other professors have gone home. As the sun sets, Carville’s third-floor office is the only room illuminated in the century-old political science building on Tulane’s grassy Uptown campus. Inside, a bookshelf along one wall displays a framed family portrait of Carville with his seven younger siblings, an autographed photo of Shaquille O’Neal and dozens of serious-looking books on everything from public education to the financial crisis to the Middle East.
Hanging on the wall just above Carville’s shiny scalp is a giant portrait of a defiant yet crazy-looking man hunched over a cane under an oak tree amid a raging thunderstorm. That man is Earl Long, the ’40s and ’50s Louisiana governor famous for always getting what he wanted in the strangest of ways — when his wife committed him into a mental hospital during an important vote on desegregation, he fired the Secretary of Health to discharge himself. When Carville talks about “Uncle Earl,” a smile spreads across his face and his voice takes on a heavy note of reverence.
“I think Earl Long is the coolest guy ever to live, certainly in Louisiana, maybe in America,” Carville says. “He’s a personal hero of mine. He stood up to the right kind of people for the wrong kind of people, which is kinda cool I think. Every hideous racist person in the state hated him, which is a good thing. He died fighting for what he believed in, didn’t give a damn what anyone thought. I don’t have one-millionth the guts Uncle Earl had.”
Carville talks a lot about fighting ‘til the death. He tells his students the most honorable way to die is alone in an office somewhere, not getting paid enough, but still fighting for what you believe in.
This philosophy was evident in his relationship with Richard Holbrooke, who died of a stress-related heart attack while serving as an adviser for President Barack Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan in December 2010. The 21-year-old blonde Southern belle, Claire Drake, whom Carville calls his “pet” and his “star student,” earned a trip to Washington. D.C. with Carville last fall through an essay-writing contest. She said Carville’s admiration for Holbrooke stood out beyond all the other people she saw him he interact with there: “It was clear there was a real bond there, beyond all the political stuff,” according to the essay. “It was like they were both striving for a cause and they saw it in each other. I think that’s why it hit him so hard when Holbrooke died. They were the same age — it was like, what if that were me?” When the subject of Holbrooke comes up in his office, Carville’s eyes gleam. “Now there’s a man who died with honor and dignity.”
All this talk of struggle-till-you-die seems a bit ironic coming from such a high-status millionaire. But Carville’s philosophy reflects his roots — he was, of course, not always living in a $2.8 million mansion and making $30,000 a speech. He grew up in Carville, Louisiana, a town of 3,000 just south of Baton Rouge, named for his grandfather who had served as postmaster. One sweltering afternoon in late August 1969, a 26-year-old James Carville returned home to rural Louisiana from serving in the marines, and had no idea what to do with himself. Having failed out of Louisiana State University years earlier, yet now feeling rejuvenated, he was ready for a challenge.

As one of few political liberals in his community growing up, Carville had always been interested in issues of racism and equality. So when he heard there was a high school in Northern Louisiana’s St. James Parish  that was being forced to integrate, he called the school and said, “I got two things to tell you: One, I’ll teach in your school. Two, you don’t have to pay me a dime.” It was the beginning of Carville’s love for teaching.
Since then, Carville returned to LSU, got his undergraduate and law degree, became a lawyer, hated it, switched to politics, and began political consulting for Democrats. His biggest win was Bill Clinton’s election to the presidency in 1992, though he continued to succeed in senate and gubernatorial races around the country. Carville has two daughters with his wife, Mary Matalin, 58, who managed George W. Bush’s campaign and now serves as a Republican consultant, as well as a right-wing political pundit.
“He’s a wonderfully passionate teacher,” Matalin says. “Only thing is, he’s teaching them stuff I don’t agree with.” She laughs.
In its three-year history, Carville’s class has focused on the 2008 election, democratic politics, the role of media in politics, and next spring it will focus on the 2012 election.
It is hard to get into Carville’s class. Though capped at a whopping 50 students, the class is by far the most selective political science course at Tulane. Applicants have to write an essay explaining why they want to take the class. The average GPA in the class is a 3.6 — the equivalent of an A-minus. Carville’s staff interview students multiple times to make sure the class is comprised of a range of political perspectives and backgrounds, but most importantly, that all the students are passionate about politics.
“It’s all about the students. I truly believe I have the best students in the country — everyone tells me that too, all the speakers who come in tell me that. The kids are very bright. But teaching this class has forced me to think even deeper about this stuff — the financial crisis, the upcoming election — so I can know how to get it in their heads. They will not leave my class without understanding this stuff. It’s, like, the most important thing for me.”
Carville’s good friend Jason Berry, a prominent New Orleans author, notes the effect teaching the Tulane class has had on Carville.

“I’ve noticed a huge change in James since he started teaching at Tulane,” Berry says. “I think also just being in New Orleans — he loves it down here so much, feels more comfortable down here than up in Washington. But yeah, it seems like he is thriving off the energy in the class, he seems to be the happiest he’s been since I’ve known him.”

***

When Carville is on Tulane’s campus he is always surrounded by his steady entourage of his 28-year-old teaching assistant, Michael Sherman, his 21-year-old personal assistant Don Shaw, Carville’s chosen guest speaker of the day and a trail of admiring students.
Carville doesn’t preoccupy himself with the details.
“That’s what the Dons and the Shermans of the world are for,” he says, chuckling. In the classroom, Shaw is the runner, grabbing water and coffee for the guests, while Sherman is the one who deals with all the technical stuff — from pulling up maps of the Middle East on the fly, to finding that hilarious clip from Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.”
Shaw, Carville’s 22-year-old personal assistant, carries Carville’s special chair down to the classroom — a red director’s chair with his name on it that Carville got on Sesame Street.
As we follow Shaw down the winding stairs toward his classroom, Carville puts his arm around me. “My class isn’t like other classes,” Carville says, grinning, with an almost imperceptible wink. “I really do feel a sense, a need, to push these guys harder, get them out in the world. My first thing to do is to get these people to do something. Then think about things. Then, maybe learn something while they’re at it.”
He’s right. His two-hour class is split into thirds: one-third students presenting two sides of a debate, one-third him speaking and one-third a guest speaker, for whom after their speech, Carville shows his appreciation by playing Johnny Cash’s “The night Hank Williams came to town.”
The focus on debate is a testament to Carville’s constant quips every class: “It don’t matter what I think — it matters what you think,” and “I don’t care what you think, I just care that you think.”
While the group of six students standing at the front of the room gives a PowerPoint presentation on the role of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the financial crisis, Carville watches from the back corner, positioned in one of his two seated ways: either leaning back with his feet up on the desk, or crouched forward like a cougar, ready to pounce.
At the slightest mention of an unattributed statistic, Carville objects: “Where’d you get that number from?” or “Source? What’s your source?”
Carville encourages his students to be suspicious of everything — not just to know their sources, but be critical of them, look at motives and, perhaps above all, reject conventional wisdoms.
“Be skeptical of what people claim to be true. Washington consensus — you know it’s a failure because anything that comes to a consensus in Washington is not worth a damn,” Carville says. “What it was, was basically a bunch of people got together and decided how the rest of the world ought to be run, and ruined a whole lot of perfectly good countries in the process.”
When Carville is in his crouching position, the energy in the room changes. The students periodically swivel their heads back and forth, from the presenters to Carville in the corner, checking in with his reaction.  (“He’s a magnet. Whatever room he’s in — unless he’s in a room with the president — he’s the center of attention. I mean, he just fascinates,” says Tom Sancton, a fellow Tulane professor of practice, who knows Carville through his former days at TIME magazine.)
A few times every class, Carville calls on his “Republicans” to counter his Democrat perspective. When Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal said he would sign a bill requiring all presidential candidates to show their birth certificate in Louisiana — or the “birther” bill as it has been called in the media — was one topic on which Carville wanted to hear from them.
“I don’t got time to talk about birthers, but real quick, since they won’t go away — is our governor trying to embarrass us or what? I mean, first we got the Creationism bill, now the birther bill. Why don’t we just put up a big ol’ sign out there that says ‘Welcome to Louisiana, the stupid state’? Can one of my Republicans defend our governor?”
A cluster of six students in the back laugh and shake their heads.
Regardless of politics, however, Carville is adamant that his students understand the financial crisis because, he hopes, one day they’ll be in a position to help prevent another one.
“I’m fanatical about this. What caused the financial crisis — the most gut-wrenching thing our country has ever been through? How did a few people wreck our country? Did we all lose our minds? Our colleges are cranking out these liberal arts majors who have no idea what happened. This is exactly what the banks want to happen — they have convinced everyone it’s too hard to understand.”

Carville pauses to look around the room at all our faces, taking a deep breath, raises his arms.
“Alright so look, one of two things is going to happen: Y’all are going to understand what the hell happened in this financial crisis or you’re going to get an F. Simple as that.”
Guest speaker Matt Taibbi interjects, “Well it is complicated— ”
“Yeah, some of it is, but most of it ain’t, and these kids are smart enough to understand it all anyways.”
Turning to the room, he looks around to all sixty faces. “Don’t ever let anyone intimidate you, tell you something’s too complicated to understand. You understand me?”

***

“Alright, I’m going to name drop — I hate myself for name-dropping but, what the hell, it’s true — I spent 45 minutes with [Former British Prime Minister] Gordon Brown on Friday. He’s been around. So now tell me, what country do y’all think is really freaked out about this political fiasco in the Middle East?”
Kids throw suggestions out in the air: “Israel?” “Iran?”
“C’mon people, think!”

“China?” a girl in the front row guesses.

“Bingo! You get a gold star.” He takes out a gold star sticker from his pocket and presses it onto the girl’s forehead, smiling. “China! China has blocked out all information regarding this. By the way, food prices are food prices. If anyone so much as shows up with a sign in Tianamen square, boom!” He points his fingers as a gun and pulls the trigger at the room. “They’re going to start producing middle-class people. And what does that mean for us? They buy stuff. And if they’re buying, then somebody’s got to make it. Our past 30 years of consumption — not much in terms of huge growth. You don’t have to be Warren Buffett to figure out you’ve got to grow stuff! Invest in a seed company because that’s what the world’s going to need.”
He chuckles, then gets serious.
“So instead of sitting there saying, ‘woe be me,’ try to manipulate the way the world’s going to change.”

***

After the lecture, Carville invites the entire class to his home for crawfish and hamburgers. We all walk the four blocks over to his mansion on Palmer Avenue. Though all the multi-million-dollar homes on Carville’s block are stunning, Carville’s stands out with wide marble front steps leading to an elaborate doorway, where the massive crystal chandelier inside illuminates almost out to the street.
Extending up to the sky-high ceiling are coral walls decorated with old-looking paintings. The students pile their backpacks next to the grand piano and the staircase that leads up into the house that seems to never end. In the spacious turquoise-tiled kitchen, three small dogs yip at each other.
“That’s Beaver, Gorgeous and Cherry,” says Emma, Carville’s 12-year-old daughter. At five-foot-five and athletic, she could pass for way older.
Outside, a T-shaped pool glows. The students help themselves to glasses of wine — Carville’s staff have laid out about 30 bottles of red and white that will be finished by the night’s end — and the keg of Abita NOLA beer. Off to the side, Carville pours himself a glass of Maker’s Mark whiskey on the rocks.
Retiring to the couch next to the pool, Carville puts his feet up, sips his whiskey, and surveys the scene of his friends, students, family and New Orleans socialites mingling.

“You know, this right here is the best. This is what I love.”

About 45 minutes later, right at 9:30 p.m., Carville sneaks off to bed without telling anyone.

***

Carville offers his students an inspirational talk at the end of class one day. The passion in his voice is palpable.
“Everybody told me — oh you’re a good talker, you should e a lawyer,” Carville says.
“Man, I was a terrible lawyer. Being a lawyer is a hell of a lot harder than talking. Don’t worry about it. Just do something you like and good things will happen to you. Never be afraid to fail. Look, put yourself in a position to fail. Failure is just part of it. It’s as natural as anything can be. Once you get paralyzed by fear of failure or motivated by money you’re not going to do anything worthwhile.

“The talent, drive and creativity y’all have — failure can’t take that away from you. But fear of failure can.  It can paralyze you. This whole talk here — this is as much a part of your education as anything else I’m going to say. Do not let fear paralyze you.”

The students sit motionless, transfixed.
On the semester’s last day of class, as Carville lies back in his red Sesame Street chair, his eyes soften and his mouth curls up into a sad smile. His voice takes on a jarring note of sincerity.
“I’m going to miss you guys, you know that?” he says, nodding slowly. The room is silent. A rare moment of emotion flickers across sixty faces. “I’m going to really miss y’all.”

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