A Perfect Marriage: James Carville, Mary Matalin and the Saints
NEW ORLEANS -- When it was announced at a news conference last year that the political powerhouse couple of James Carville and Mary Matalin would serve as co-chairs for the New Orleans Super Bowl XLVII Host Committee, both Carville, the Democrat, and his wife, the Republican, found some irony in their latest cause.
"Finally," Carville cracked at the time, "a campaign we can work together on."
Carville, the native Louisianan and chief strategist of Bill Clinton's campaigns, and Matalin, an adviser during the Reagan and both Bush presidencies, relocated from Washington to New Orleans in 2008. While the Saints were making their remarkable run to the franchise's first world championship last winter, the couple's affinity for the the city and hometown team made its way into Sunday morning talk shows and CNN segments.
Their politics may have been polar opposites, but there was no debate about which team they were pulling for.
"The Saints are just a great story, a great narrative," Matalin said. "You can't come here and help but be affected by what they did and not want to contribute to the success and the future of this city."
Added Carville: "When we left Washington, it was emotional. People thought we were crazy. 'They're moving their kids. The place is dangerous. The storms. Crime. Corruption. Good god, what's going on down there?' But things started changing ... and then the Saints won the Super Bowl. What a great thing."
With the NFL poised to launch its 2010 season with Thursday night's Kickoff game between the Saints and Minnesota Vikings at the Superdome -- a rematch of last season's NFC title showdown -- Carville and Matalin hosted a fundraiser Wednesday night at their stunning, 106-year-old Garden District home. It was attended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and other league (and local) heavyweights and targeted potential Super Bowl XLVII sponsors.
"We do a lot of things very well here," New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu told the crowd. "One of those things is celebrating life."
Carville and Matalin are perfect front folk to promote the Crescent City's first Super Bowl since 2002 (and hopeful push to get back in the game's regular rotation). They're passionate about the city's remarkable comeback from Hurricane Katrina and were outspoken hometown fixtures during the summer while the disaster of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill played out on the nightly news.
Now come the Saints back to rally the Gulf Coast region again -- this time as world champions.
"They manifest what the city had to do to get where it is today. They had to deny despair, had to focus on hope, persevere and be resilient," Matalin said. "It's just infectious."
And it's woven into the fabric here.
After the reception (and before heading out for dinner at Emeril's), Carville plopped down on a sitting room couch to talk with FanHouse about the Saints -- he's been a fan since the franchise's 1967 expansion, as well as a rabid LSU backer -- and their unique connection with the city.
FH: I've heard you speak about how distinct the city of New Orleans is. How do the Saints fit into that culture you often reference?
CARVILLE: First of all, the song, 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' It's a funeral oration. It's different. Everything about it is different. And the fleur de lis. It's like a flower, yet it's a symbol of an NFL team. It's usually the Steelers or the Bears or the Lions or the Chargers or Cowboys. I think it's very elegant that our symbol is actually a flower. It so connects with the city. And football is very much a part of the DNA here anyway. And the history of the team. The first play ever was a touchdown [on a kickoff return] -- then it was all downhill from there. But we had the season of [no home games after Katrina] in 2005, then the emotion of coming back to the Dome in 2006. And then the 2009 season was so special, it just sort of forged a bond here that is like no other place.
FH: It's been suggested that the Saints helped save New Orleans in 2006. Is that an overstatement?
CARVILLE: No, not at all. There's no other way to put it. By the Saints and the NFL making the decision that the team stay here ... if that team would have left, it would have broken the back of this city. ... You just have to know how vulnerable people felt at that time. How no one really knew what was going to happen. And that feeling persisted for a while after the storm. It was a touch-and-go situation. And had the Saints not made the decision -- had they not stayed -- things would have been entirely different here. You have to understand, this is not just a city, it is a culture. It has its own food, its own music, its own funerals, its own social structure, its own body of literature, its own architecture. The Saints have bled into that culture. If we had lost the Saints, we would have been, oh, Key West or something. I do not think we would have still been New Orleans.
FH: Now, here come those beloved Saints to the rescue again -- with a Lombardi Trophy and ready to raise a championship banner -- on the heels of yet another disaster for this region.
CARVILLE: Well, we can't depend on always winning a Super Bowl to survive as a region. ... I think we've bounced back pretty good. But sure, everybody has been waiting for this season to start, waiting for this game. Understand, football here and in the South, fall is kind've our time of year. Most people, if you live in the North, spring is your time of year. The winter is over. Here, it signals the summer's over. It's kind of odd, but our summer is others' winter. Fall, and October, means we have great weather until well into June. It starts with football.
FH: We saw you and your wife a lot on CNN the last few months, standing out on the Mississippi River, talking about the oil spill. Obviously, it wasn't like Katrina, where the city was evacuated, but what was the mood and morale of the people here for those 87 days?
CARVILLE: It's still of a great concern. Look at what happened in Alaska. Even though the thing is not spewing any longer, for the people here there's really not a sense that this thing is over, at all. Not at all. But it's something we're going to have to deal with and be persistent with. We have to wait and see if the oyster beds come back. What happens there. There's just a lot of testing and unresolved issues still.
FH: You going to the Saints-Vikings game?
CARVILLE: Oh yeah.
FH: I've heard you watch games a little differently. Not like the conventional fan.
CARVILLE: Honestly, the NFC game, oh God. ... No, I really don't actually watch a lot of it, 'cause I can't take it. I walk around a lot. To be honest with you, when they're on television, I probably really look at about a quarter of it. Same thing with an LSU game. I'm really incapable of watching the whole game. I just can't do it. It's too draining. I'll be honest with you, I did not think we were going to win that football game until Tracy Porter made that interception. I just knew were were going to lose.
FH: You're talking about the Super Bowl. What about the NFC championship, which had to be even more nerve-racking?
CARVILLE: "Well, we definitely were going to lose that one. Brett Favre had the ball. They were driving. Game was over."
FH: Are you that uneasy and cynical on election day?
CARVILLE: It's different. It's just too much. I'm just too nervous to watch. Now, when I go to the games, I'll bury my head a lot. I walk around. ... When the game's over, and we win, it's a sense of relief. And I'll never forget, when the Super Bowl was over -- and this is one of the great untold stories -- the Saints were nice enough to bring us down on the field for the ceremonies and then said, 'Look, we're all going back to the hotel.' So we get on the team bus, and there's [New Orleans] Archbishop [Philip] Hannan, who's like 97 years old, and I look over and there's Kim Kardashian, who's with Reggie Bush. I just thought to myself, 'This has got to be one of the great moments in the history of the world.' I just didn't know what to do, so I just shouted out, 'Let's sing, 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' ' I mean, some god had to be sitting up there in heaven, saying, 'What the hell is going on down there with those people?'
FH: You said a couple times during the Saints' run last year that "the hand of Providence" was guiding this team. Is that still the case?
CARVILLE: I don't know. I'm not a guy who thinks God is sitting there keeping a score on everything. But you never know. We're a city of great faith. I don't know if certain divine things happened, but I won't deny that they might've happened, and I would just leave it at that. But I do think, with just how improbable this whole thing was, and just how it all came together, it was pretty remarkable. And I choose to believe in miracles.