Republican Chick

She may be nesting, but Mary Matalin is more of a hawk than ever

Published June 16, 1997 6:04PM (EDT)

It's 6:30 in the evening and Mary Matalin, Republican operative
and media phenom, has her cowboy boots propped against her desk
and her 2-year-old daughter, Matty, propped against her cowboy
boots. Matty, whose resemblance to James Carville leaves her
paternity in no doubt, wants her denim jacket, now. "No whining,"
says Matalin evenly, and coming from her it sounds like a credo.

Matalin was almost certainly the first Republican woman anyone
ever called hip, and one of the ways she won that label was by
bad-mouthing Democrats in the rhetoric of the tough broad.
Snivelers, she called her opponents when she was political
director of George Bush's 1992 campaign. Whiners. It was she who
made the world safe for a new crop of self-described "Republican
chicks" -- the caustic TV commentator and conservative "It" girl
Laura Ingraham, the gum-snapping Congresswoman-turned-TV anchor
Susan Molinari, the swaggering anti-feminists of the Washington-based Independent Women's Forum. The Republican chicks haven't
exactly closed the gender gap (women still vote for Democrats far
more reliably than men do), but that's not to say they've been
insignificant. They have, for instance, contributed mightily to
the cultural re-evaluation of feminists as querulous fuddie-duddies who refuse to buck up and get on with it as the
conservative gals have. And they have jumbled up what might be
called the aesthetic signifiers of conservatism, so that it is
possible now to imagine a Republican woman who is neither a
society matron hosting luncheons in St. John's knits nor a born-again housewife storming an abortion clinic.

The Republican chicks aren't always in lock step on the issues.
Molinari and Matalin are pro-choice, for example; Ingraham isn't.
But they are united by their moony-eyed love for their own
novelty, which they are forever touting, just as Matalin was
forever reassuring young Republicans that they were "way cool." A
press release for a recent Independent Women's Forum confab -- "No
Left Turn" -- made winking reference to the good looks of its
membership, burbling that "this event will definitely lend itself
to photographers since the committee does not look at all like
Phyllis Schlaflys or Barbara Bushes." For her part, Laura
Ingraham has managed to squeeze more ink out of her penchant for
leopard-wear than Mobuto Sese Seko ever got out of his. One of
the chickhood, former Dan Quayle speech writer Lisa Schiffren,
says a lot of the attention paid it can be attributed to what she
calls the "talking dog thing." They're young! They wear
miniskirts! They're conservatives!

At 43, with her own radio show modeled on her idol Rush
Limbaugh's, Mary Matalin is the big sister, the head girl, the
top talking dog in this sorority. (It helps, of course, that by
marrying James Carville, her opposite Democratic number, she sort
of cornered the talking dog market once and for all.) She is also
the first to have become a mother, which makes her an interesting
test case for how parenthood will or won't change the politics
and image of the Republican chick.

OK, first the image: Matalin's, anyway, is still ecumenically
hip. When I meet up with her in her funky office in a gentrifying
corner of southeast Washington, she has just finished her three-hour daily radio show and is considering whether to join Carville
at the Orioles game that night. Her outfit looks like it was put
together with fun in mind: slim, faded jeans, green brocade vest,
dangly locket, and those boots. Her office is an unintimidating
mess, with a cherry-red jogging stroller taking pride of place
and a desk piled high with hair curlers, half-empty pizza boxes
and press clippings. Matty is rooting around in this tableau,
gurgling to herself and intermittently crowing "Ciao, Baby!" to
various members of Matalin's staff as they leave for the night.

In some ways, talking with Matalin is like talking with any other
working mother -- or at least any working mother of a certain age
and class. There was never any question that Matalin would resume
her career after her daughter was born. "I have a roving mind,
and if it's not roving in some directed way, it's going to rove
somewhere else. I can't just stay in the house." Besides, she
grew up with a mother who worked -- first as a beautician and then
as the proprietor of her own chain of beauty schools on the
south side of Chicago. "It was sort of unique for that time and
place that she had a job. All the other moms in the neighborhood
sort of talked behind her back. But my earliest memory is of
being proud of her, and now when I look back I'm even prouder."

Sometimes when she's musing about motherhood, Matalin even sounds
like the hippie she claims to have been, ineluctably rooted in
her generation. "Matty has never slept in a crib," she says at
one point. "It just felt so much more natural for her to sleep
with us. It hasn't bothered us; we get done what we need to get
done. And it's so beautiful to wake up and see her little face
right there." She wants to have another child and worries that she
won't be able to because she started so late, but admits that,
like so many in her cohort, she was never interested in kids when
she was younger. "We'd love to have more. We're trying, but we've
had a lot of miscarriages before her and since... I'm not going to
do in vitro and all that stuff. I'm pretty philosophically
steeped in if it's meant to be it's meant to be. But you know, all
my friends who've had kids are older and they all say that their
biggest regret is that they didn't have another."

Yet for all this, it quickly becomes clear that Matalin's
superficial resemblance to any number of yuppie liberal moms does
not extend as far as her politics. If anything, she says,
motherhood has pushed her further to the right. She's more
skeptical of government programs than ever and firmly believes,
for example, that the Family and Medical Leave Act -- the
centerpiece of the Clinton administration's anodyne family
policy -- should be repealed. ("It's not working and it's driving
a lot of businesses crazy," she claims. "It's insulting to
businesses to say they wouldn't already have policies in place
that are helpful to their employees and allow them to keep the
best people. I've been a steelworker. I've been a cocktail
waitress. I've been a hairdresser. I've been a political
operative, and I've never worked anywhere where the system was set
up to abuse me or to make it difficult for me to attend to a
family emergency.") She's more devoted than ever to school
vouchers -- an idea she says she used to push mainly for its
campaign appeal and now believes in for its merits. When I ask
her if she thinks there's anything the federal government can or
should do to make families' lives better, she says "make our
streets safe." But then she pauses and says, no, "even that's not
the federal government's job; it's the local government's." The
hip Republican moms may change the look of the conservative
movement but, judging by Matalin, they aren't likely to prod it
much closer to the political center.

Is there any common ground, I ask Matalin, between the pro-family
forces of the left and right? Maybe, she says, in one area: the
growing consensus that divorce is damaging to children and should
be made more difficult to obtain. Even Carville, she says, has
come around on that. She's right, but truth be told, there are
limits even to that convergence -- disputes within the marriage-saving ranks about, for example, whether to push for the repeal
of no-fault divorce laws.

On the way home, I think about what my own proposal for
finding common ground would be. I remember the argument made in a
recent issue of the "Women's Quarterly," the newsletter of the
Independent Women's Forum. "Unfortunately," wrote editor Danielle
Crittenden, "the feminist women who implored millions of middle-class women to leave their families and homes for the work force
have virtually nothing useful to say about the problems this
exodus created." The main solution women's groups have put
forward -- state-sponsored day care -- is the least attractive, yet
"it has dominated national debate to the extent that measures
which might genuinely help women to combine motherhood and work
seldom get much attention."

Mainstream feminists could acknowledge the merits of this point
of view -- namely that most American women don't seem to want
government-sponsored institutional child care -- and in exchange
the Republican chicks could declare a moratorium on dissing them
for even considering government solutions to family dilemmas.
Mainstreamers could think seriously about adopting the
(Republican) idea of child-care vouchers that could be used to
subsidize your choice of baby sitter -- grandma, nanny, neighbor or
child-care center. And Republicans could acknowledge that
repealing the Family and Medical Leave Act is the kind of turn-back-the-clock measure that turns off most female voters, and
rightly so. (Matalin's solicitude for their feelings
notwithstanding, most businesses can probably take the "insult"
of government-mandated leave policies.)

It's a modest enough idea, and not especially hip, but hey, Mary,
what do you think?

By Margaret Talbot

Margaret Talbot is a staff writer at The New Yorker.

MORE FROM Margaret Talbot

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