In the summer of 1988, the Republican National Convention was the event of the year in New Orleans. Mary Matalin, then a rising star as a GOP strategist, recalls staying up till dawn one evening — "I was not married then" — and seeing the dew rise up as mist from the street on her walk back to her hotel. "It was just so sublime," she says. "I remember saying to myself, 'This is my heaven.'"
Over the next 20 years, the Illinois-born Matalin made many trips to New Orleans. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, she and husband James Carville decided to make the city their home.
"When Katrina happened, people from both parties (Republican and Democrat) were calling us and asking what they could do," she says. "What struck me most, however, was the resolve, the purpose, the focus of the people here — and their love for the city. Every time I had any interaction with New Orleanians it was never an ordinary experience — it was always magical. It was always special, even romantic. ...
"And then the turning point came when my father died, right before Christmas 2007. I said to James, 'We can't stay here. Let's go to your sister's — but I want to stay in New Orleans.' I already had a lot of association with the city, and it's just such a compelling place."
But moving to a new place and putting down roots is not the same as visiting it and passing a good time, as Matalin soon learned. "It was terrifying," she says of her first days here. "Fortunately, Anne Milling lives just a block away, and she became like a big sister to me. She was my introduction to the soul of the city. Anne took me everywhere, starting with Women of the Storm. That organization is such an incredible cross-section of the city, and it was so incentivizing. Nobody in that room had time to be doing what they were doing, but they gave it their all."
Milling, who is Carville's distant cousin, is one of three people that Matalin credits with helping her connect with New Orleans. The others are the Rev. Msgr. Christopher Nalty, pastor of St. Stephen's Church, and Tulane University President Scott Cowen.
While Milling connected Matalin with the city's soul, Nalty became a spiritual guide during her conversion to Catholicism. Cowen, meanwhile, helped shape the local commitment to public education reform, a movement embraced by Matalin and Carville. Matalin also helped bring the Bipartisan Policy Center's annual political summit to Tulane's campus — an event she co-hosts with Carville. That event brings the nation's top pollsters, political consultants and senior statesmen to New Orleans every November to hash out the prospects for ending the partisan rancor that has stifled meaningful progress in Washington. And while they're here, they get a dose of Matalin's love for the city.
Matalin connects with New Orleans on many levels. She is active in the local Catholic Charities organization, and with her husband she supports dozens of local nonprofits by hosting fundraisers at their Uptown home. She freely admits that she never set out to do anything specific when she and her family moved here.
"I'm not a joiner," she says. "I didn't do anything like that in D.C. In fact, I'm still trying to raise my kids. But we love hosting parties for causes we believe in — just tell me the parties are fun. If people are having fun at a party, they'll be incentivized to do things and get involved. In Washington, I'd pay money
not to be invited places. Here, people so care about what they're doing.
"It's organic," she adds. "You just open your heart and the city floods in."
Although Matalin downplays the impact of her move to New Orleans and her role in helping the city's post-Katrina recovery, others are quick to offer praise.
"James and Mary are wonderful ambassadors and great friends for the city," Mayor Mitch Landrieu says. "It meant a lot when they moved here. I know how much they have worked to keep the spotlight on the good things happening in New Orleans. And their work in the community, from leading the effort to plan the Super Bowl next year to raising funds for education causes, will have a meaningful impact on New Orleans for years to come."
Landrieu's press secretary Ryan Berni worked for Matalin and Carville for five years before joining the mayor's staff. He echoes Landrieu's praise from an up-close-and-personal perspective.
"When they moved here in 2008, people in D.C. thought they were nuts," Berni recalls. "It wasn't at all clear the city was going to recover, but their heart was always in New Orleans, and they committed to do what they could to help bring the city back. They genuinely love every part of being New Orleanians — food, family, faith and football. I think they could even muster up nice words about the potholes."
Berni is not far off with that last comment, for Matalin gushes that she sees beauty everywhere in New Orleans. "I remember the first time I smelled night jasmine," she says. "It was so intoxicating. Then the streetcar started clacking and church bells were ringing. I could not believe there was a place like this on earth. It's why I'm humbled that anybody else thinks I've contributed to this city, because this is paradise to me."
Matalin's connection to the city is deeply spiritual as well as romantic.
"People who don't live here don't appreciate what it means to live in a place of faith," she says. "To be in a place where everybody believes in something beyond themselves — and lives those values, and wants to do right, and lives by that code — you cannot underestimate the power and beauty of that. It's like living in a good society as envisioned by Socrates.
"This is unique in all the county," she continues. "And the preservation of the value system in this city — if you look at other cities that have been subjected to tragedy as we have, what happens to them? Tell me one other city that's been able to do what we've done here. It has to be divine providence. I really feel special about seeing the hand of God here."
That value system, she says, is "the greatest gift" she and Carville can give to their daughters.
"You can't teach somebody that," she says. "You have to live that. Is there any greater gift than giving your kids those values? And a desire to want to come back? This is their home. There is no greater gift."