’40 Hours to Decide’: The 51 percent

James Carville is a hoot, and Mary Matalin can more than hold her own.

But Gady Levy got one of the biggest laughs when he introduced Carville and Matalin on Sunday afternoon, Nov. 4, at University Synagogue in Brentwood. Levy is associate dean of American Jewish University, which put on a pre-election event featuring the political husband-and-wife team, titled “40 Hours to Decide.” It was sponsored, Levy said, by Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary. The audience roared, me included.

I’m not sure just why we thought that was so funny — maybe because we sensed, underneath it all, this election really did revolve around life-and-death issues. 

Or maybe because it was just killing us.

Carville wore khakis, a light-blue shirt, bright-orange tie, a Louisiana State University baseball cap and sunglasses. Many times during the discussion, he flipped the orange LSU cover on his iPad and absorbed himself in it.

Matalin, tall and slender, wore a camera-ready pants suit and left her iPad offstage. She spoke longer and more stridently, indicting President Obama for his handling of the economy.

When it was Carville’s turn to defend Obama, he said he was just going to cite the fact that his former boss, President Bill Clinton, said Obama had done a pretty good job, considering the task at hand, and Clinton, said Carville, “knows a little something about the economy.”

Clinton got even more applause than Hillside.

The audience in Blue Brentwood was not all Obama: It broke maybe 60/40, judging by the cheers and jeers.

“How many of you are still undecided?” Matalin asked an audience of 700 people.

One woman raised her hand.

It’s fair to say no one came to be converted. It was more like visiting the showroom after you’ve already bought your car: You just want to be reassured the one you picked is still the best.

Conservative pundit Matalin, who worked for numerous Republican administrations, and her husband, Carville, the man who helped put Clinton in the White House, have a polished routine — full of his Cajun charm and her Chicago tough-girl talk.

Matalin predicted Gov. Mitt Romney would take Pennsylvania, Virginia and Florida. 

“Extremely likely voters are going for Romney,” she said. “He’s for sure going to win in Ohio. I’ll be partying like it’s 1980.”

“If Romney carries Pennsylvania, I’ll cut off my right ear,” Carville shot back.

Their discussion never got fierce — more like feisty. When Matalin defended Romney’s refusal to release more than a couple of years of his tax returns by pointing out that he donated 20 percent to charity (the bulk of it to the Mormon church), down came a round of boos.

“You’re booing charity?” Matalin said, genuinely surprised, pointing at the surroundings. “In this audience?’

Carville’s rejoinder to his wife’s argument was cut-the-bait simple: “If Romney’s so proud of his tax returns, let him release eight years.”

A slightly feistier moment came when the moderator, AJU President Rabbi Robert Wexler, asked the couple about how Middle East issues played out in the campaign.

Matalin reiterated the by-then well-worn charges against Obama (didn’t visit Israel, pushed Israel on a settlement freeze, etc.) and Carville trotted out the well-worn defenses (visited as a candidate, Ehud Barak said he’s Israel’s best friend, etc.). But then Matalin went on a tirade about Obama suppressing the truth about what happened to the murdered Americans in Benghazi, Libya. 

If that’s true, Carville shot back, why didn’t Romney bring it up at the debates or on the campaign trail?

The rabbi, who got them to mix it up, now brought the couple back together. What, Wexler asked, is the secret to their 19-year marriage?

“Life goes on,” Matalin said. “We’re American. I’ll go back to my Fox News, and he’ll go back to his sports.”

Maybe Carville and Matalin are the model of post-election America. Fight hard, have a drink, then go on living together. 

 “The older we get, the easier it is,” Matalin said. “Because he can’t hear, and I never did listen.”

As I write this at press time, hours from knowing how this never-ending election finally ends, I’m tempted to leave it there, with America’s most famous red and blue role models to serve as inspiration for the Day After.

But they’re not a good example. 

For one thing, they really do seem to be in love. Matalin said the night before she and Carville had a rare night alone, and “I can tell you he is interested in more than politics.” TMI, as the kids say — and most of us don’t have that chemistry with our political opponents. And they are also part of the game — the media-money-consultant-pundocracy that cashes in on a culture that rewards shallowness, sound bites and insincerity. 

The rest of us, who derive little benefit and mostly heartburn from the way elections like Campaign 2012 drive us apart, deepen our problems and coarsen our communications — what can we do to help bring the country back together?

Carville said he once heard Bill Clinton offer advice to a young girl who wanted to be president one day.

“Study hard,” Clinton said, “and meet as many people as you can who are not like you.”

Depending on whom you voted for, that number could be 51 percent of all Americans, or more. Whichever side you were on, it really is time to stop yelling and start talking.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism