September 26, 1994 12:00 PM

IT IS A GORGEOUS, LATE SUMMER Afternoon, and the kitchen of James Carville and Mary Matalin’s weekend retreat in Front Royal, Va., is a picture of bipartisan bliss inhabited by two hearts that now beat as one. Almost. The two phone lines and the fax machine are mercifully silent, and a bottle of robust red wine is open and ready for drinking. Yet the minute Matalin turns her back, Carville slyly sprinkles more parsley into the tuna salad—just the way he likes it.

There was a time when Matalin made it her business to watch Carville’s every move. In the 1992 presidential campaign, she was George Bush’s political director; he was Bill Clinton’s top strategist. Now, after a year of marriage, Matalin and Carville say they can go weeks without wrangling over politics. “We still get into it sometimes,” says Matalin. “But we know we’re never going to change the other guy.”

The pair is capitalizing on their differences in their just-published All’s Fair: Love, War, and Running for President (Random House/Simon & Schuster), a joint look back at the 1992 campaign for which they received a reported $900,000 advance. Yet as they embark on a 12-city book tour, Carville frets that they will be expected to bicker on demand. “That is not the real us,” he insists.

Book buyers looking for surprising revelations about the 1992 race will be disappointed by All’s Fair. Carville and Matalin don’t serve up the emotional details of their year apart. (“I could have told more personal stories,” Matalin admits. “But they wouldn’t have added to the book.”) Nor do they spill many backroom secrets, though Matalin does confirm something she fiercely denied during the race: that the White House considered dumping Dan Quayle. Yet the book, written in a conversational format, is an entertaining look at the white-knuckle tensions of a national campaign and at the arcane art of spin control.

Since the bitter race, Matalin, 41, has landed her own daily cable interview show, Equal Time, and a commentator’s berth on Today. Carville, 50 next month, is an adviser to the Clinton White House and a hot ticket on the speaking circuit. (Their husband-and-wife act attracts speaking fees of up to $20,000.) But Carville’s star has been dimmed by stinging campaign losses in New Jersey, California and Los Angeles. “It’s difficult for me to walk into a campaign the way I used to,” he says. “I’ve become more of a character than a consultant.”

Fame, however, brings other compensations. In Washington, where social status transcends party affiliation, Carville and Matalin are indisputably A-list. Bill Clinton hosted a White House reception in honor of their engagement last year. In May they were among the select few invited to witness the marriage of Rush Limbaugh and freelance journalist Marta Fitzgerald at the home of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Says Limbaugh: “You get married these days, and people say, ‘Oh, it will never work’—and if there were ever two people it was said about, it was Mary and James. That’s one of the reasons we wanted them at our wedding.”

Washington’s least likely romance began in early 1991, after Matalin, then chief of staff at the Republican National Committee, told a friend she would like to meet Carville, then making a name for himself as a hotshot consultant to Democratic candidates. Political differences aside, the pair immediately discovered vast common ground. Both were raised with few privileges in what Matalin describes as “huge, extended, loving families”—he in Louisiana, in a tiny town named Carville, where his family ran the post office and the general store; she in South Chicago, where her father worked in a steel mill and her mother owned a beauty parlor. Both were obsessed by the nuts and bolts of campaigning. Soon, she says, she was “big-time smitten.”

So much so that when Matalin, who was about to land her dream job with the Bush campaign, heard at a dinner party that Carville was going to work for Clinton (he was still trying to find a way to tell her), she went to the bathroom and threw up. Yet somehow, says Carville, “I always thought we would survive the election.” In an attempt to deflect attention from the romance, they publicly declared the relationship on hold, yet kept in daily contact through a separate phone line installed in Matalin’s Washington office. Within a week after Clinton’s victory, they embarked on a vacation to Paris and Venice. But Matalin remained depressed for months by Bush’s loss. “I was seriously in the fetal position,” she says. “Some days I’d wake up crying, unable to do anything.”

Nor was she enthusiastic about revisiting the Bush defeat in a joint book—a project, Matalin says, that turned out to be “painful from beginning to end.” Carville and Matalin each spent months dictating their memories into a tape recorder. “James is an orator in the southern tradition, and everything came out right the first time,” she says. “I kept rewriting, in some cases five times.”

A more recent ordeal for the newly-weds has been Matalin’s two miscarriages. “I don’t think the significance of getting married hit us until then,” she says. “It’s a totally new feeling to lean on someone, and I never thought I’d be able to do it, even with Carville. I can’t wait to have a baby. I really can’t.”

Matalin, who was married briefly while in college and then a second time in 1983 (to Art Arnold, a fellow staffer at the Republican National Committee), says the never-married Carville had a terrible time popping the question. “Finally one night we were at a stock-car race sitting on the hood of a pickup truck, and he admitted that he didn’t know how to propose,” she says. “So I said, ‘Repeat after me,’ and I did the proposal, and then I said yes.” Guests at their wedding in New Orleans last Thanksgiving gravitated to two separate bars—one for Democrats and another for Republicans.

On weekends, the two leave Matalin’s Washington condo and head for their A-frame Virginia cabin, where they curl up in bed reading books or watching The Andy Griffith Show, Carville’s favorite program. They like to have lots of family around, and at Christmas they put on a catered dinner for the Carville clan from Louisiana, presided over by James’s mother, Lucille, 75, whom he phones ever day. The solid state of their union is no surprise to her. Says the matriarch, known universally as Miss Nippy: “I think men who are devoted to their mothers make good husbands.”


LINDA KRAMER in Front Royal

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