Chapter One: Why I Stuck with Bill Clinton
Throughout the whole period that the president was being investigated, on occasions too numerous to count, people would approach to give me an opinion. They'd come up to me on street corners, in hotel lobbies, in airports, just about anywhere, and they'd say: "Man, you are really out there for Clinton." Some people liked that fact; some people said, "I don't agree with you, but I like the way you have stuck with your guy"; and others didn't like it from any perspective. Some of these people thought I was just being a sycophant or they thought Bill Clinton had a picture of me with a sheep or something. But on the whole, I think a majority of the comments were favorable. And everyone did seem to have an opinion one way or the other about my vigorous defense of the president.
Some friends of mine thought that I should put a little distance between me and the president, or at least get a little wiggle room. I didn't know where this was going to end, they would tell me, and I didn't want to be on the wrong side of history. People are going to look at you and think you are just sucking up. I think my friends were well intentioned. I was an older parent with one young girl and another kid on the way, and they were thinking of the long term. But I rejected their advice.
Up to now, I've never really had the opportunity to explain to people how it got to be that I was the guy sitting on Meet the Press or Larry King Live or Crossfire defending the president. So what I thought I'd do first here is answer the question: Why did I stick with Bill Clinton?
I think it's important to put what I did in context. It just didn't spring up one day. There was Bill Clinton; here was James Carville, and James Carville defended Bill Clinton. You have to go back and learn a little bit about where I came from and how my relationship with Bill Clinton was forged. And you have to look at what I felt I owed him, and what I felt had been done to him.
I grew up sixty-five miles north of New Orleans in Carville, Louisiana, a place on the river they used to say was so far in the sticks you had to pipe sunshine in. This is a hard thing to conceptualize perhaps, particularly in the America of today, but I actually grew up loving politics. Even as a little boy, I was fascinated by it. It might have been an odd thing for a kid, but I liked the excitement, and back in Louisiana in the mid-1950s, politics was very colorful. I would mimic the more flamboyant politicians much the way other kids mimicked entertainers or musicians.
I can vividly remember being a runner for the Fidelity National Bank in downtown Baton Rouge. (I got a job there as a result of my grandfather being on the board of directors -- a lesson in loyalty here, or, should I say, just plain old nepotism.) I was fourteen years old and one of my assignments was to run stuff over to the State Capitol. I loved going there. I was totally fascinated by the legislature, by the ringing of the bells and crash of the gavels, by the smell of the printer's ink and the cigar smoke. It was my version of the theater.
I dreamed about being a part of the place but never really did very much about it. I did some work for people running for the state legislature. I would help put some signs up and, maybe just as often, tear the other guy's signs down. I'd distribute literature and generally help with the campaigns. But I never really figured on making a life of it.
After an undistinguished academic career and a stint in the Marine Corps, where I attained the rank of corporal (hence half the reason for my self-assigned moniker of Corporal Cue Ball), I went to law school. I was an okay law student -- I wasn't law review or in the top 10 percent of the class or anything like that. I started practicing law in Louisiana and I was, quite frankly, less than a mediocre lawyer.
One day, when I was thirty-seven years old, I was sitting at my desk, looking out the window. I thought to myself, If I had to hire a lawyer, I wouldn't hire me. So I'm not going to ask anyone else to. I went into my boss's office and quit.
I don't think the people I was practicing law with were very sorry to see me leave. But they said, "What are you going to do?" I said, "All my life I've wanted to be a political consultant and I'm going to take off and try to do it. I'm single. If I don't try it now, I'm just never going to do it."
And as the result of the intervention of Peter Hart, who helped get me a job running a Senate campaign in Virginia, and with the encouragement of Mark Shields, who is now a nationally syndicated columnist and co-host of The Capital Gang, I set off on a career as a political consultant. Both of these men remain my dear friends.
I had a very slow start in my new profession. The Senate campaign in Virginia was the first experience I had outside of Louisiana and we lost. Next I got work running a Senate race in Texas and we lost that race too. So I was forty years old and I was 0-for-2.
I reached a pretty low point in my new career. I was in Washington, D.C., on Massachusetts Avenue, Northeast, and I will never forget what happened. I had all the clothes I owned in a garment bag. At this time, I was knocking on doors looking for a job. If any of you have ever done this, you know what I'm talking about. I'd be told, "Mr. so-and-so's in but he can't see you. He's kind of tied up." I'd sit and wait for three hours. People wouldn't take my phone calls. I was begging and scrapping and I couldn't get anyone to see me or take my telephone call.
So I was standing on Massachusetts Avenue. It was late March or April. It was cold. It was raining real hard. And the strap on my garment bag broke. Everything I owned ended up in a mud puddle. I sat down and started crying. I was forty-one years old and I was a broken man. I had no money, no health insurance, nothing. I was close to having to crawl back to Louisiana and ask somebody to take me in and give me some make-work. Remember Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire? She went to live off the kindness of strangers; I was going to have to live off the generosity of my friends. I was going to have to go home to admit failure.
But the last thing that dies in somebody is a dream. You can be a broken person, but as long as your dream is intact you'll keep going. And somehow, I kept it together. Months later, someone told me about a guy running for the office of governor of Pennsylvania. They said he had run three times and he had lost three times. He couldn't find anyone to run his campaign. Like the two ugliest people in the class the night before the prom, we just kind of stuck with each other. It was 1986 and the man was Bob Casey. We worked hard and we won that race.
Life started picking up for me a little bit. I got my first credit card. In nineteen hundred and eighty-seven, when I was forty-three years old, I qualified for a credit card for the first time. I was working at what I wanted to be doing and, all told, I was a happy man.
But in the political business there's one office that overshadows everything else and that's president of the United States. Not everyone knows who ran the governor's race in California or the Senate race in New York, but everyone knows the people who work in presidential politics. It's the gold, the silver, and the bronze. That's the big show and you're always waiting for the call.
In 1991 I got a phone call from a dear friend, a man who, years later, basically married Mary and me, the governor of Georgia, Zell Miller. He said, "I've got a man here running for president that I want you to talk to. He's the governor of Arkansas." So I got on the phone with Bill Clinton. We met and I thought he was a nice enough man. I thought this was a man I could work with. So I went to work for Bill Clinton on December 1, 1991. I was one of four or five people on the campaign, a general consultant.
We go through the primaries and we have our ups and downs. I had a pretty good job on the campaign in Little Rock. I got to go to meetings and if I said something, people took what I said seriously, even if they didn't always do what I said. But life was going pretty well for me when I compare it to where I had been. I was cruising along; I had a little money in the bank. Things were not too bad at all.
In late May or early June 1992, I got a call. The governor and Mrs. Clinton wanted to see me in the mansion. I wondered what they wanted but figured it was a big meeting of some kind. I drove over to the mansion and walked in and sat down. And they walk in and it's just the two of them, the governor and Mrs. Clinton. There's three of us sitting at a table.
The governor said, "James, we've been thinking, and what we want you to do is to take over the campaign."
Now right there, seven years after everything I owned was lying in a mud puddle in the middle of a street in Washington, D.C., I was being given the biggest job in the entire world of political consulting. Nothing else is even close. And that's the opportunity these people gave me. They put it right in my lap. I was dumbfounded and then I was terrified, and I went back to the office and worked my ass off for them. But I never forgot the trust they placed in me.
I was the first person to eat with the Clintons after the election. It was just the three of us. A bowl of vegetable soup, a tuna sandwich, and iced tea with the sugar already in it (we were still in Arkansas). It was an incredibly nice gesture. They asked me what I wanted to do with my life, and they thanked me for the great job I did. We shook hands. I hugged the president and kissed Mrs. Clinton and left. Eventually I went to work for myself, but I never, ever forgot what these people did for me.
Over the years I developed a personal relationship with the president. He would call me if something big or tragic happened in my life. He called my mother from time to time. He did the kinds of things that friends do for each other. I'm not going to say my best friend in the entire world was the president of the United States, but he was a friend of mine. He and his wife still are friends of mine.
So my friends went to the White House. And the next thing you know, they started the investigations. There was the FDIC investigation, the RTC investigation, the independent counsel. They spent $20 million, $25 million. There were hundreds of investigators: lawyers, special prosecutors, FBI agents, private detectives. They subpoenaed every tax return the Clintons had filed for thirty years, every check, every scrap of paper. They unleashed the entire power of the Establishment on them -- not only the federal legal establishment, but the Washington press establishment, too. They found people who were in business with the Clintons and they started squeezing them and asking them for anything they had. "Give us anything and we'll let you go."
I was watching this and things were going great for me, let me tell you. That first Tuesday in November, I had gone to bed an ordinary person, and I had woken up the next morning a genius. James Carville was suddenly the smartest person you had ever met in your life. They were making movies about me. I was getting all kinds of money to write books and make speeches. I would walk into a restaurant it takes most people three months to get into. They'd kick someone out and say, "Get out of here, you rube, that's Mr. Carville's seat. Get this man what he needs." I went to California and movie stars and God knows who would call me. Everything was wonderful for me. Everything was just great.
But I could not sit by and do my thing and just watch what was happening. These people were friends of mine. I mean, they took the president's wife down to the grand jury and I thought they were going to put her in jail. They drove the president into a legal debt of millions of dollars. They leaked all sorts of half-baked facts and accusations to the press.
And five years and $50 million later, Eureka. We got him. SEX!
On August 17, the day the president testified, his wife called me and asked me to come down to the White House. I sat down next to her and she held my hand. She said, "James, I don't know how we're going to get through this, can you continue to help us?"
I said, "Yes, ma'am. I can help you."
I would have been a big person in Washington if I'd turned my back on them. There would have been a nice column about me, saying that I was a person of great integrity. The Sunday morning crowd would have said, "Carville exhibits a refreshing independence. He's not under the yoke of the White House anymore. He's speaking his mind." I would have been the toast of Washington for about a week, but then I would have had to live with myself. And after everything was done and they'd all gone home, years later I would still have had to live with myself.
So I did what I had to do. I really don't apologize for it. I think the president is a good man who did a bad thing and he's entitled to a defense. If I played any small role in defending a good man who has done more for this country than the last two presidents combined -- let alone what he did for me personally -- then I am truly honored. And what he had done for me was give me my opportunity of a lifetime and become my friend.
We say that loyalty has to be tested. But in this case, when it came down to it, I decidedly did not think that this was a tough test. Bill Clinton is a friend. He's a good man and he has a good heart. He's not a perfect man, but he is a good man and a great president. When I call someone "good" I don't do it lightly -- that's not something I sling around. So let me say it again: This decidedly was not a very difficult question for James Carville to answer. I did not feel tested in any way by that. I did not have to anguish or agonize very long over that decision. It's clear that in my world, you don't abandon a guy over sex. You stick with him.
I don't feel I owe people a justification for doing what I did, but I do feel that in a book on loyalty, an explanation is in order. In the end, sticking with the president does not make me a really loyal person. But had I not done this, I would have been a backstabber of the first order.
When all is said and done, it is the law of the playground that applies. You mess with my friend, I'm coming after you. It was an instinctive obligation that I felt. It has nothing to do with the intellectual posturing, the pontificating, or anything else. When you've been unsuccessful your first forty-eight years and you hit the lottery your forty-eighth, you're not likely to change.
I did what I knew I had to do. I had to stick with my friend. It was never really that close a call for me.
At the height of the Starr fiasco, around January 1999, I was getting a lot of mail and a lot of questions from people. One of the questions I would get most often would come along these lines. I would be giving a speech and someone, generally a woman, would say to me, "You know, Mr. Carville, I saw you on Meet the Press with your wife and two children and I've got to tell you you've got gorgeous young girls. I'm sure you've thought about this, but these girls are not going to be young forever.
"They're going to read about all of this, and not just about Bill Clinton. They're going to read about their Daddy and what he did; the things he said and the names he called people. They are going to come to you and say, 'Daddy, why did you do those things back then?' What I want to know, Mr. Carville, is: What are you going to tell those girls?"
That is a difficult but, one would have to say, a fair question. I would respond that I will tell my girls this: "There was a time in your Daddy's life when he had a good friend. And that good friend did a bad thing. And your Daddy did everything he could to try to forgive the bad thing and remember that this was a good friend. There will be times in your life when you are going to have good friends that do bad things. If you can, your father would like you to try to forgive the bad thing and stick with the good friend.
"But the most important lesson that I want you girls to take from all of this is that your father knows that you are good girls. And your father knows that sometimes in life even good girls do bad things. If that ever happens to you, the thing I want you to remember the most is that you come tell your Daddy about it. You know for sure that he'll stick with you."
Copyright © 2000 by James Carville