On May 26th, Radio City Music Hall played host to James Carville and Karl Rove for the final night of their Speaker Series. Even before Charlie Rose -- who tried to moderate -- said, "Welcome to the world heavy weight match," all I could think of was the hype that had surrounded the "Thrilla in Manilla." Instead of getting Ali and Frazier, the crowd braced itself for a confrontation between Carville -- "The Ragin' Cajun," and Rove -- "The Boy Genius."
There was drama and theatrics galore. Billed as "live and uncensored," in addition to the debate, demonstrators and hecklers were in the theater. Three men unfurled a banner that read "Indict Rove -- Mr. Thief. Prosecute the War Criminals." Another said, "Obama is a terrorist." A woman ran onto the stage with handcuffs, accosting Rove, to make a "citizen's arrest." Jean Stevens, National Media Coordinator for Code Pink, confirmed that the woman (tackled by security guards) was a member of the organization. Diversionary catcalls in the balcony seats made much of this activity possible.
At the beginning of the evening, Rose appealed to the audience to "accept and listen to thoughts and ideas" they might disagree with. He had little more success with his two guests, who frequently spoke over each other, making parts of their conversation inaudible.
It was clear that Carville supporters outnumbered their Rove counterparts. However, a woman seated behind me, a Rove partisan, supplied a running counter-commentary to Carville's insights.
The two men's intellectual and presentation styles were reflected in the visual cues of their dress and body language. Rove appeared in a suit and tie. Carville sported slacks with a checked shirt and blue tie. The two large monitors amplified the over-sized gestures of Carville, from the cleaning of his glasses while Rove spoke, to his emphatic head shaking in reaction and disbelief to Rove's observations.
Rose put the ball into play with a query on the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Rove was not impressed with the choice, and made an aside about "the vetting problems of Barack Obama." Carville spoke about Sotomayor's experience and degrees from Princeton and Yale. Rove retorted, "You don't have to be particularly smart to graduate from an Ivy League school." The subtext of that observation ricocheted back onto him, as a big laugh emanated from the crowd.
"Restoration of confidence in the country," emphasized Carville. He posited that Obama's biggest accomplishment to date was, "The country is more optimistic and we feel better about ourselves." He added, "Let's give it a chance. We're doing pretty good so far. It's been four months."
Rove acknowledged that the United States had come a long way from the Civil Rights Act of the 1960's granting, "Obama is an historic figure." He then segued into the thought, "There are people that didn't want George Bush to succeed." A voice from the middle rows yelled out, "That's a lie!"
The Republican Party, its future, and the personas of Colin Powell, Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney were analyzed. Carville got guffaws by saying, "I don't want Rush Limbaugh to shut up." Rove responded by moving the dialogue to Nancy Pelosi territory. "Pelosi did a drive-by with the CIA...That's not the way a leader acts." On Guantanamo, Rove remarked, "I would be amazed if Obama can figure out how to move forward from a closing of Gitmo."
Carville doubled back with his oft-repeated disaster theme. "Barack Obama inherited a disaster," he said. "The Republicans have an excuse for everything, and an answer for nothing." Carville pointed to 2005 as a particularly low point, with the push for the privatization of Social Security, the Terri Schiavo case, and the Katrina debacle. It was the issue of Katrina that created the biggest fireworks of the night. Much of the discourse was lost as Carville and Rove talked over each other in a cacophonous duet. Carville responded to Rove's assertions with, "I fall off the back of my chair." Rove rejoined, "I love the histrionics here."
The match continued with a series of one-liner volleys.
Rove: "Bill Clinton had a brilliant political mind, but was undisciplined. He will be a footnote in history."
Carville: "George Bush will not be a footnote in history. Noooo. I had to defend eight bad minutes. Karl had had to defend eight bad years. Karl, I feel for you, man."
Rove: "The world is safer by having Saddam Hussein gone. Bush will be seen as a person who fought terrorism. Obama is adopting Bush's foreign policy."
Carville: "There was massive incompetence in Iraq. Take responsibility. Everything is someone else's fault. Take responsibility. It's bad for children to see this!"
The show ended with Rove and Carville shaking hands. The woman behind me was talking almost as fast as Carville saying, "Rove is right. Ray Nagin and Kathleen Blanco created their own disaster by not taking a category five hurricane barreling toward them seriously...Nancy Pelosi is a liar. In the glow of 9/11, she took the information and accepted it...Bush was right to be tough on terrorism. He saved us from a couple of hits."
Nobody who went in with a defined set of ideas came out with a fresh point of view. For most, that was not the objective. Rather, it was about the sparring and the jabbing, and who landed the most punches. A political Thrilla in Manilla.