June 01, 1992 12:00 PM

IT IS SUNDOWN AT BUSH-QUAYLE CAMPAIGN headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., and Mary Matalin’s smoky voice is still booming. As usual, Matalin, the political director of the campaign, is cheerfully bitching, but this time the source of her irritation is not Democrats, or even maverick Ross Perot, but something a lot closer to home. “I put on panty hose for nothin’!” she exclaims, tugging at them furiously. “They’re killing me. Thought I was going over to Casa Blanca”—her semiaffectionate term for the White House. Sipping red wine from a Styrofoam cup, she voices her exasperation at the ceremonial aspects of politics. “I work harder and longer,” she says, “if I can kick back in my jeans and just yak, yak, yak on the phone.”

She is as good as her word. As the only woman in the top echelon of the Republican campaign, Matalin, 38, brings irreverent charm and grassroots political savvy to the operation, monitoring delegate selection and overseeing state-by-state plans for the election. At the 1988 Republican Convention in New Orleans, she showed up on the floor of the hall wearing Army boots, fatigues and a sweatshirt, all the while barking into a walkie-talkie. Her legendary cheek even extends to the President’s eldest son, George W. Bush, one of his father’s closest advisers, whom she delights in calling Junior, invariably drawing it out in a mocking Midwestern twang. With her blue-collar background, Matalin provides the GOP with a link to a key constituency. “Mary’s one of the real rising stars in politics,” says George W.

But for the staid Republican leadership, nothing has underscored Matalin’s reputation as a rebel more than her romance with veteran political handler James Carville, 47, a no-holds-barred Democrat who just happens to be the chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s campaign. If it seems odd to have ranking members of opposing political camps in love, no one is more surprised than Matalin herself. “I really didn’t think he would wind up in Clinton’s campaign,” says Matalin, who dated Carville openly until late last year. “It’s been very painful.” Officially, the romance has been put “on hold” for the duration of the campaign. But few close to the couple seriously believe that they have stopped seeing each other entirely.

Matalin says she learned her headstrong ways growing up as a classic tomboy on the South Side of Chicago. Her father, Steven, who worked at a steel mill, and her mother, Eileen, who ran a string of beauty salons, gave Mary the middle name Joe (after her godfather), and she developed a passion for playing football, baseball and basketball with the boys in the neighborhood. “It wasn’t until I was in junior high out climbing trees that my mom told me that I had to get some girlfriends,” says Matalin, who has a younger brother, Steven, and a sister, Rene. She attended Western Illinois University but felt bored and dropped out after a year to return home and work in a steel mill with her boyfriend. It ultimately took her seven years to get her degree from the school. “I realized I was a Republican when I wrote my senior thesis,” she says. “My topic was ‘Is there a trend toward conservatism in America?’ The Democratic Party had abandoned people like my family, who were ethnic and Catholic and culturally and socially conservative.”

Her immersion in professional politics, though, was gradual. In 1980 she worked on an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in Illinois. “I was deputy finance director and didn’t know diddly-squat about it,” she recalls. Late in the campaign, however, she learned her mother had cancer and dropped everything to minister to her for three weeks before Eileen’s death. Within months she had decided to go to law school, at Hofstra University on Long Island and had married Artie Arnold, a political field worker for the Republican National Committee. “I hated, hated, hated law school,” says Matalin, and Artie was constantly on the road. She soon called it quits with both.

Yet she had gotten enough of a taste of political life to know she wanted to pursue it full-time. Moving to Washington, she landed a job at the Republican National Committee, and within seven years she had risen from a low-level worker bee to full-fledged field operative. Her big break came during the 1988 primary campaign, when she played a key role in engineering Bush’s crucial victory in the Michigan caucuses. “The party was in the midst of political hara-kiri,” says Janet Mullins, an assistant secretary of state who was then Matalin’s boss. “She has this wonderful way of convincing a roomful of people who are sniping and snarling to stop all the nonsense.

After the campaign, Matalin’s record of adroit maneuvering won her the role of chief protégé of Republican Party chairman Lee Atwater, whose bare-knuckle ladies endeared him to fellow conservatives and enraged Democrats. When Atwater was stricken with brain cancer in March 1990, Matalin visited him daily until his death a year later. While acknowledging that the controversial Atwater often tried to turn politics into blood sport. Matalin defends his legacy: “Lee was a genius. He had an understanding of human nature and cultural trends.”

In many respects Carville, whom she met through mutual friends in 1991, is a Democratic version of Atwater—a rabid partisan who thrills to a good political brawl. Carville tries to be philosophical about their ideological differences, even if he can’t ignore them. “I like the fact that Mary has a certain irreverence about things and politics in general,” he says. “That’s her most appealing political feature. Her most unappealing is the fact that she’s a Republican.” Still, he adds, “In terms of intense disagreements that we’ve had, politics ranks pretty much in the middle.”

As it happens, some of Matalin’s liberal friends suspect that she secretly sympathizes with them on a few issues. On the subject of abortion, for instance, Matalin pointedly refuses to discuss her views, leading to suspicions she is really pro-choice. She tries to skirt the issue gracefully. “People who work for candidates have an obligation to support the positions of their candidates,” she says. “It is irrelevant what their personal view is.”

Personally, Matalin would like to settle down and perhaps start a family. “I’ll be 39 on the other side of this campaign,” she says. “Stability and predictability will loom larger in my criteria for what I want to do next.” In the meantime she enjoys jumping into her red Jeep on weekends and driving into the Virginia countryside, with Italian opera blaring from the speakers. And by the looks of things, it may be a while before her love affair with politics peters out. Back in her office late at night, she cradles the phone on her shoulder and yammers away, in the patois of the politically initialed. with one of her far-flung contacts: “Excellent! We don’t have a plan. Mi casa, su casa, babe! Blow the press off if anyone gets near this issue. Here’s the spin…”


JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, D.C.

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