mary matalin and donna brazile
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....

You're both practicing Catholics?

MM: She's an über-Catholic.

DB: If I could have gotten my way at an early age, I would have entered the priesthood, but my mother informed me that I could not become a priest because I was a girl. It really was the biggest blow to my ego, because it was my calling. When she told me I'd have to be a nun, I looked at her and said, "I'm not following anyone." But I continued to go to church, sometimes two, three days a week. In fact I'm going to the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception today.

So how can you argue so vigorously for issues like birth control, abortion rights, and same-sex marriage, which go against the teachings of your church?

DB: You know, once upon a time, mainline Christian churches believed slavery was divined by God. So many things about being a Christian comport with my value system, but there can also be contradictions in people of faith. And I think most people at church are like me. They have strong moral views but also have contradictions and their own principles that guide them.

MM: I think we share the opinion that you don't use the Bible to justify or validate any particular policy. Donna and I talk deeply about policy and race and faith, but we're drinking wine and we're trying to learn something. We're not trying to humiliate the other guy.

You are also united in your distaste for insta-pundits.

DB: You know what constitutes a Democratic strategist these days? Somebody who wakes up and declares himself a Democrat. We've worked on a gazillion campaigns. I spent time in my basement yesterday going through all these buttons, and I have Geraldine Ferraro and Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson and Dick Gephardt. I've got all of them. And these kids just wake up one day and say, "I want airtime."

Why do you think the country has become so polarized, politically?

DB: I think it started after the 2000 presidential campaign [resulting in the Supreme Court decision to halt the Florida recount]. People didn't have faith in government anymore. After 9/11 the country came back together. We didn't see partisanship; we just saw that we were all Americans, and we'd been attacked. Then we started coming apart again. People don't trust government, they don't trust Wall Street, they don't trust the church, they don't trust the media.

MM: There's another reason: When we first came to D.C., politicians moved here with their families. That was a civilizing force. The wives of people from opposing parties were friends, their kids went to school together.

DB: Politics was based on relationships and trust. Now we have members of Congress who don't know each other. They come in on Tuesday, leave on Thursday, vote for three hours each day, and go home. It's drive-by government.

And partisan differences run deep. Aren't you ever frustrated with your friend's point of view? Like when you're discussing who's the better candidate for women? Your parties are so divided on that issue.

DB: Well, take birth control. It's one of those issues most Americans would rather not have a conversation about. The reason we had to discuss it was that it's part of the Affordable Care Act, which allows people who use their prescription-drug benefit for these pills, these lifesaving pills, to not have to pay for them. It's now considered preventive medicine, so it's free, just like my mammogram is free.

MM: This is why we don't talk about this. If you ask who's best for women, consider that you can get birth control for $9 a month. But it costs me $90 a week to fill my gas tank. Why I became a feminist is to get equal pay and equal access; I can handle my own birth control. Furthermore, we're talking about a small segment of the population for which everybody's insurance has to go up. And it's not just for birth control pills. It's the morning-after pill, too, girl.

So sometimes it gets heated between you two.

MM: But you see, even though we don't agree on the issues, I never question Donna's motives. I can listen to what she's saying and I think about where she's coming from because I know she's being true to herself. As opposed to people who are just holding a view because of groupthink, because they can't think for themselves or haven't bothered to. Donna and I know who we are and what we are. I feel like I can walk in her moccasins, and I think she can walk in mine.

DB: This year we both found ourselves deployed to Des Moines, Iowa, and Manchester, New Hampshire, for the Republican primaries. I mean, I was covering Mitt Romney! It's often lonely when you're out on the road surrounded by people who don't share your viewpoint, but with Mary it didn't matter. I had someone who shared my outlook on life.

MM: And it was freezing outside....

DB: Yeah! We had to do a live outside shot at night, in Des Moines, freezing. We were miked up and just had to stand there, not knowing when CNN would come to us.

MM: So cold, our mouths couldn't move.

DB: And we were like, hey, we must have 100 political campaigns between us, and we're the ones standing out here while others with so little experience stay warm in the studios? What did we do wrong in our lives? Then we had to buy our own drinks and pizza back at the hotel.

How do you support each other outside the professional arena?

DB: My father died a few months ago. Since Mary had just been through a similar experience with her dad—both had cancer—she was my guide, she was my helping hand, she was my angel.

MM: And Donna is there for my kids. She gives them the same advice I would give them, but they trust her because they know she's the good lib.

DB: We had a talk about birth control. Then after my dad died, my whole body went to hell, and I found myself needing some lady products. I had to go to Mary's daughters and explain how in menopause I needed lady products again, and I was not about to run to the drugstore at my age and look for them. I had to turn to Mary's daughters and say, "Would y'all please help me, because if I have to go to CVS...." And Matty understood right away and took care of it, and I was very appreciative. I owe her for life. Her firstborn, I will babysit. When Grandma is in the rocking chair, Auntie Donna will be doing all she can to make sure that child is happy.

What do you say to those of us who want to try to get along with people who think differently than we do politically—who don't want to be walking out of a party in a huff because someone said something insensitive?

MM: To me that's not politics. That's rudeness. Our mothers would never let us go to a party and say something that would be upsetting to anybody in the room. You do not go to a party to make other people uncomfortable. When Donna comes to my house, she makes everybody feel good about being there, and I hope I do that with your family.

DB: Absolutely, yup.

MM: Even if we were at a political gathering here in town—have you ever heard me trash-talk Obama in an environment like that?

DB: Even with Dick Cheney. I mean, I love his daughters, Mary and Liz—and of course Mrs. Cheney, too. And I know that Mary has deep affection and respect for Dick as well, and as a result of that, I had to start listening to him and not just have a knee-jerk reaction when someone said his name. I had to step back and say, "Okay, what is it about Dick Cheney that I like?" Because I trusted Mary, I allowed myself to see the loving father and husband, and the public servant. Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at the person and not just the caricature.

MM: I could never not like somebody Donna truly liked. We can put it on, we have to put it on because that's our business, but if she has respect and affection for somebody, that's enough for me. We are soul sisters.

DB: Also, we love the New Orleans Saints.

MM: Yeah, baby.

DB: Get this: On January 8 we were supposed to be in New Hampshire....

MM: We were in New Hampshire.

DB: We were in New Hampshire for the Republican presidential debates. We were a little bored and found out there was a flight from Boston back to New Orleans, which is where the BCS [college football's Bowl Championship Series] title game was being played. So after the first one, we took off. It's like we ran away from home. We flew on JetBlue and sat in the back—

MM: No, I think we were on Southwest, 'cause we got free drinks. Anyway, when we got to our house, the LSU marching band was playing in the street, and the whole neighborhood came out to watch and sing along. We joined the festivities, Towanda in her LSU garb—I had given her a purple and gold rhinestone bracelet to match. The next day, she went to the game, and then we partied some more.

DB: Then we got back on a plane to New Hampshire the next morning.

MM: And we're old!

DB: I don't even know how I got home. But we were back on the air the next day.

Are there any areas where you simply can't find common ground?

MM: [Looking at the plate of oysters in front of them.] Those. Honestly, they make me sick even to look at them. It's like eating a plate of snot. George Herbert Walker Bush made me eat one of those with a vodka shooter, and I was sick for two days.

DB: [Reaching for an oyster.] Mmmmmm... I'll just suck that up, baby. [Slurps.] I feel like a brand-new woman.

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