James Carville's office on the second floor of his Uptown home is pretty much what you'd imagine his mind would look like, if you could transpose yourself into his brain and lay it out in 3-D. Ordered but eclectic, the space reflects Carville's passions for family and place.
"We got married here on Thanksgiving Day 1993," he says, settling into an easy chair. "Mary was the one who insisted on that. She loves this place. It was all she could talk about after the 1988 Republican Convention here."
Over the next hour, as he talks about his adopted hometown, Carville steadily sinks lower and lower into the chair, until he's almost horizontal. His body language screams "relaxed," yet his mind races from subject to subject with the intensity and agility of a punt returner weaving through opponents in the open field.
"We moved here in 2008," he says. "It was an easy decision for us after the storm. We didn't agonize over it one bit. And then all the connections started happening. Mary converted to Catholicism. We got married as Catholics in St. Stephen's Church in April 2010. Three days later my sister called me and said that our grandparents had gotten married in that same church exactly a century earlier, in April 1910."
He beams and points to a framed copy of his and Matalin's Catholic marriage certificate on his wall. Immediately below it is his grandparents' certificate, also showing St. Stephen's as the venue. "I guess I've always had a real connection to this city."
That connection shows not only in how Carville and Matalin talk about New Orleans, but also in their actions.
Among their most visible contributions are the many fundraisers held at their home, which they open to dozens of charitable and civic causes every year. "We do very little entertaining of our own," Carville says, easing still lower in his chair. "We like doing purpose-driven entertainment. We moved here for a purpose."
The causes he and Matalin have embraced include The Idea Village, Teach For America, Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses initiative in New Orleans, Boys Hope/Girls Hope, Women of the Storm, the Loyola Institute of Politics — to name just a few. Recently a bartender who has worked many of those gatherings told Carville, "Whenever I see this address pop up, I always know we're gonna be doing some good."
Mark Romig, president and CEO of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation and a member of this year's Super Bowl Host Committee, says Carville and Matalin "define servant leadership" in New Orleans.
"Their proactive messaging about New Orleans' uniqueness and authenticity is heard across the nation each and every day," Romig says. "Their leadership work as co-chairs of the Host Committee for the Super Bowl has raised the bar for such events in the future. And they keep a sense of humor along the way."
Carville gives the credit to the Host Committee, which he says "has done a great job" preparing the city for the big game. "People remember the 2002 Super Bowl here," he says. "This is not even the same kind of event. It's so much bigger. ... I think it's going to be a real chance for us to shine."
In addition to high-profile efforts such as their work on the Super Bowl, Carville and Matalin also contribute in quiet ways. A recent example: On Nov. 8, just two days after a grueling presidential campaign, they kicked off the investiture celebration of the University of New Orleans' (UNO) first president, Dr. Peter Fos, by headlining the Homer L. Hitt Lecture Series on UNO's campus. What few knew until that night was that they also donated back their speakers' fees to UNO's new EdVets program, a scholarship endowment that will assist military veterans who seek to continue their education at UNO. Their donation was the largest to date for the new program, Fos says.
Carville, a proud LSU alum, is also a member of Tulane's faculty. He teaches a senior-level course in national politics every spring, and he brings the nation's top political and economic minds to address the class. He gets several hundred applications each year for a class of several dozen students. "I always learn more than the students," he says.
Looking beyond 2013, Carville sees a bright future for New Orleans. The city's tercentennial in 2018 "gives us a deadline for getting a lot of important things done." But he acknowledges that "nothing here is easy."
"New Orleans the way we know and love it is never a given," he says. "It's never given that this city's going to be like we want it 50 years from now, with an intact culture and prospering. It's always going to be a struggle. You can never rest. And I like that about this city. Every struggle here matters."
By now Carville is horizontal in the easy chair, but he continues with his favorite rant — one that he shares with his students, with audiences, with the world:
"New Orleans has more culture than most countries. People in other cities are obsessed with their quality of life — their sunshine, their libraries, their universities, their income levels. We're obsessed with our way of life. In New Orleans, our way of life is our quality of life. If we don't have our way of life, we don't have a quality of life. We have our own food, our own music, our own funerals, our own social structure, our own architecture, our own body of literature. Nobody ever went to an Ohio restaurant to listen to Oregon music. ...
"Our restaurants here are noisy — and it's because people here are having fun while they eat. Plus, people here really know how to fry food. That's my guilty pleasure — fried shrimp and fried oysters. Everywhere else in the country, people scoff at fried food, but that's because it's greasy everywhere else. Here, properly fried shrimp and oysters are never greasy. They're just good." He pauses and then finally sits up in the chair.
"Damn, I'm getting hungry just talking about this!"
He laughs, then turns serious again.
"I hope when my daughters reach my age, if they say, 'I want to go home,' they can come home — and find that the culture here is intact," he says. "I don't know if it will be, but I hope they can say that their daddy gave it his best to make it that way."
James Carville | Mary Matalin
Past New Orleanians of the Year