WASHINGTON — Somebody has to say it: If only for an hour, James Carville was more popular than God.
On a fog-shrouded Wednesday evening in the District the “raging Cajun” himself came out to sign copies of his new book, Had Enough?: A Handbook for Fighting Back. The event took place in a Presbyterian church, re-outfitted with C-Span cameras and more than 500 disciples of Bill Clinton on hand. Over an hour before Saint James showed up 20 minutes late, they filled every pew, spilling over into the choral seats, and eventually lining up along the walls.
During the wait, I skimmed the hymn book and listened to the conversation around me. Every once in a while someone would come to the pulpit microphone and make some wry, mildly derisive comment about the “irony” of the event being held in a church. The audience laughed, as if showing any deference to God would make them look unsophisticated, or, worse, Republican.
I squeezed into my pew’s discussion late, just as they were concluding the topic of whether the murder of Paul Wellstone, orchestrated by President Bush, would come to light before November 2004, and, if so, what effect that would have on the election.
“Between that, Iraq, and Rush Limbaugh being a cokehead, conservatives must be freaking out,” the bald middle-aged man to my left said to the entire row, before turning conspiratorially to me alone and confiding, “I was a hardcore Republican until Bush came around. After the tax cuts that was it for me. I’m all Democrat now.”
“Neat,” I said.
“Who’s Rush Limbaugh?” a fiftysomething woman to my right whispered.
“He’s the guy who started Wal-Mart,” I said. “Or maybe he helped invent the Big Mac. I can’t remember which.”
“Sounds like a real Bushie to me,” she said.
Before I could answer, Carville stormed in, both hands over his head, to thunderous applause and a blinding barrage of camera flashes. The crowd erupted. After a short, authoritarian introduction (“Democrats are angry and don’t know what to do. So it’s good to have James Carville here to tell us what to do.”), Carville was off, and, quite clearly, in a rage.
As the man of the hour stormed the stage, a woman somewhere behind me squealed, “He’s wearing jeans! And sneakers!” Which would have seemed an odd statement but for the fact that none of the Democratic faithful gathered this night would be caught dead in denim. But, Oh! How gritty! How normal.
Shouting, in a half Southern twang, half stutter, Carville began berating Democrats for being “namby-pamby” and “too nice.” He ordered the crowd to, “quit pretending right-wingers have a point” and “stop apologizing for being Democrats.”
The Donkeys seemed more like “a conglomeration of special interests than a national party” these days, Carville said, adding that even if “you agree with most of those special interests, like I do,” it doesn’t pay at the ballot box to be seen that way. Carville shouted over and over again that it was time to “take our country back!” Echoes of Howard Dean. Or was that Pat Buchanan circa, 1992?
Saint James, ever the modest man, told the crowd to use the Clinton administration’s fight against impeachment as a model.
“We fought back like animals,” Carville said. “We fought back and we won. And we made all them right-wingers look like fools. Every last one of them.” Democrats needed to be more fierce, he said. “We need to tell these right-wingers if you hit me, I’m going to slap you back. It’s the only thing they understand.”
Then he got to the part Democrats understood: “You need to open up your checkbooks wider than ever before.” James has included a list of worthy PACs in his book for readers to send money to. According to the Cajun, a good place to start parting with your money is at the bookstore. If you really want to beat George W. Bush, he confided, “it’s all in here,” he said, waving his book. This is not greed, because James is a Democrat. It’s activism.
Then, despite his late arrival, Carville wound up ten minutes early. He would sign books across the street at a local D.C. bookstore, but the store manager warned, “Mr. Carville signs, but he does not personalize books.” His kind of populism.
On my way into the church I was handed a 3 x 5 index card and told that Carville would be happy to answer any questions I had. But the great man didn’t deign to answer my query, still the most relevant question of the night in my mind:
Is George Clooney as dreamy in person as he is on TV?