Yes, We Can All Just Get Along
Judith Newman discovers how Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican consultant Mary Matalin manage to stay friends.
Photo: Spencer Heyfron
When it comes to politics, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile and Republican insider Mary Matalin see eye-to-eye on...well, nothing. And yet they're the best of friends. If these two paragons of partisanship can work it out, maybe there's hope for us all.Hot, hot, hot, and I ain't talking about the weather," Mary Matalin shouts to Donna Brazile, who has just walked into The Palm restaurant in Washington, D.C. Resplendent in a lime green jacket, Brazile makes her way gingerly; she recently had knee surgery, and Matalin shoots a worried look at her friend's highish heels. "Why does she do this? Take those shoes off! She doesn't take care of herself," Matalin clucks, frowning.
They could be any two adoring girlfriends, but in fact their closeness is more than a little remarkable: For years, as passionate spokespeople for their respective political parties, Brazile and Matalin have brawled in public while privately forging a deep and abiding bond. Brazile, a vice chair at the Democratic National Committee, was the first African-American woman to run a presidential campaign (Al Gore's, in 2000). Matalin has been an adviser to Presidents Reagan, Bush, and Bush, as well as Vice President Dick Cheney. (Of course, as the wife of Bill Clinton's campaign manager, James Carville, Matalin has a history of making bedfellows of Democrats. "Why do you think I married one?" she says, hinting at some hidden talents in that area. "It's the only thing he has going for him.")
Animosity? Tension? Please. Donna asks after Mary's teenage girls. (Mary: "She taught my kids to dance." Donna: "My mama taught me if you got it up front, stick it out; if you got it out back, push it back.") They break bread together; they mourned the death of their fathers together. On the campaign trail, they've closed many a hotel bar together. Mary's primary residence is in New Orleans, in the state where both her husband and Donna grew up; that alone bonds them for life. They even have the same pet name for each other: Towanda—a character in Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie they love for many reasons, not least of which is that it's given their friendship a motto. As Mary explains, "After one particularly winsome conversation with Donna, thinking what a special person she is, I was reminded of a line from the movie: 'The secret's in the sauce.'"
In that spirit, as this acrimonious presidential race roars to its climax, we asked Donna Brazile and Mary Matalin to share the secret of their sauce with us. How do they survive their epic disagreements—and still maintain their humanity? Listen and learn....
How did you get to know each other?
Donna Brazile: We came up in the late '80s, early '90s, when very few women had reached what I call the inner circle of a campaign, where you help to either drive the discussion, drive the politics, or drive the decision making. Having women on the proverbial campaign bus was rare.
Mark Matalin: We were both point women in opposing races [Matalin for George H.W. Bush, Brazile for Michael Dukakis], and even when I didn't like her, I respected her. Well, I don't remember not liking her, but... We both got fired in that race, right?
DB: And then we got unfired.
MM: We said things that got us into trouble, but it wasn't because we were all "look at me." It was because we were so passionate about our candidates. Donna was one whip-smart bitch. One of the many things that made me fall in love with her is that in the age of 24/7 cable, she wasn't about saying wacky or outrageous things and reducing everything to the simplest common denominator. Television likes heat more than light, and Donna and I like light. Illumination.
DB: TV likes you to talk about the superficial. Mary and I could actually have a conversation about policy and its implications. We could have a substantive discussion about partisan differences without picking a partisan fight.
How else are you similar?
MM: We are loyal people. And this is a very important part of the story: Normally, when we get together, we would not be talking about politics. We'd be talking about Jesus, we'd be talking about Mass yesterday....