A day before Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States, I witnessed something I never would have imagined possible only a year ago, SMU cheering wildly for the most famous Democrat in Louisiana, James Carville.
Southern Methodist University is my law school alma mater and the alma mater of practically half of my family, including my father, grandfather, and sister, and the place in which my paternal grandmother is interred. My great-grandmother on my maternal grandfather’s side, Jodie, enrolled in SMU’s very first class in 1915, only to leave after a couple of weeks.
A century ago, it was small campus built in the middle of a vast expanse of farm land and dominated by only one building, Dallas Hall, with its iconic rotunda. Today, SMU sits on 237 acres of some of Dallas’s most spectacular real estate, in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the country. (It’s technically its own municipality, Highland Park, population 8,564). SMU, which is often jokingly referred to as Southern Millionaires University, has earned its reputation: It ranks #71 in a list of the world’s best schools at producing millionaires. My school, SMU’s Dedman School of Law, has graduated more billionaires than any other law school in the country and the second-highest number of Fortune 50 CEOs. (There’s also Florida Gov. Rick Scott).
Perhaps it’s not surprising a school that essentially markets itself as a pipeline to the 1% would be overwhelmingly conservative. Former First Lady Laura Bush is a graduate and a current board member, and her husband George W. Bush’s mega-million dollar and architecturally impressive Presidential Library is tucked away in the back of the campus.
Every year, SMU hosts the Tate Lecture Series, a string of speeches, lectures, forums, and debates from many of the country’s and the world’s foremost public intellectuals, actors, cultural icons, artists, writers, and political leaders. In my time at SMU, I attended events with Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Bill Bradley, David Gergen, Nate Silver, Chris Matthews, and several others. Even if you’re a student, it’s practically impossible to get into the main events. There’s a years-long waiting list for season tickets.
To be fair, SMU offers a limited number of tickets for a smaller and more intimate student forum and provides an even smaller number of provisional student tickets to the actual lectures, in the event that patrons are no-shows or are forced to cancel. That’s how I was able to attend a few of these lectures as a law student. (A special shout-out to student reporter Noah Bartos of SMU’s The Daily Campus, who referred to Mr. Trump as Mr. Drumpf throughout the entirety of his report on the event. Well done).
The audience is almost exclusively white, wealthy, and over the age of 65. As one would expect, they are also overwhelmingly conservative.
Last week, while on my way to visit my family in Dallas, a friend of mine reminded me that one of our mutual friends, James Carville, would be appearing at the Tate Lecture Series on Monday alongside Karl Rove for a discussion moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer. A couple of years before, I’d seen the audience nearly boo the liberal talk show host Chris Matthews off the stage, and I knew I had to stick around to see how the Ragin Cajun would handle both this audience and the architect of their beloved George W. Bush’s campaigns for governor and president.
The event had been sold out for a full year, and because I was no longer a student, I was reluctant to flash my expired student ID card simply to get on the standby list. Carville came through, scoring me two tickets at the very last minute. (Louisiana Democrats take care of their own). I brought along my brother Mark.
By pure coincidence, I ran into Carville, Rove, and Lehrer as they trudged across the parking lot and into the back entrance.
“You get your tickets, Lamar?” Carville asked.
“I think so. Break a leg, man,” I said.
We walked into a sea of people. The line for will-call was twenty minutes deep, and by the time we got to the front, I spotted an envelope reading “Larry White.”
“I’m Lamar White,” I said. “I think those are probably my tickets. People are always misspelling my name (which is true).”
“These are provisional tickets. They were called in today. For the first time in a long time, we received no cancellations, so you’re going to have to wait,” the attendant said. “We’ll try our best to get you in.”
It sounded plausible enough. I knew my tickets had been called in that day, so I took a seat in the lobby next to an elderly white woman who was waiting for a friend. “I’ve never seen it this crowded,” she said. “I’ve attended every single one of these for twenty years. It’s crazy.”
“We may not get in,” I said.
“I’m only here to see James Carville,” she said.
Shortly before the program began but after the doors had been closed, an attendant asked for my name. She then walked into the box office and produced my actual tickets. Apologies to Larry White, who is, apparently, a real person after all.
I mention all of this for a reason: I want to disclose, upfront, my biases and the circumstances of my attendance, though even if I didn’t, I know, inevitably, someone will simply say I must be exaggerating how the event actually went down. I went in believing that the SMU and Dallas conservative blue-blood audience would sneer at Carville and cheer on Rove. That was what I was prepared to witness and prepared to write about.
And it’s not what happened at all.
In front of a packed house at one of the wealthiest, whitest, and most conservative audiences in the country, at a college that features a building named after George W. Bush and is led, in part, by Laura Bush, James Carville crushed Karl Rove, obliterated him, for more than an hour. Rove was fortunate to receive a smattering of applause (at one point, after he insulted moderator Jim Lehrer, who actually began his career in Dallas, Rove was booed); Carville, however, made the place repeatedly erupt in applause and laughter.
Not surprisingly, the entire discussion centered on the 2016 presidential election, and Karl Rove had the unenviable task of defending the integrity of a Republican Party that is now set to nominate the most hated man in American politics as its candidate for President of the United States. It was clear that Rove privately loathes Donald Trump, that he wishes someone- anyone- else would be beating him right now, and that he is angered by the whole turn of events. But, because he is a loyal and masochistic partisan foot soldier, he couldn’t say any of that, even after he was asked repeatedly.
“Do you think your candidate is honest, trustworthy, and well-prepared?” Carville asked, more than once. Rove demurred.
Instead, Rove spent almost the entirety of his time attacking Secretary Clinton (whom he called Senator Clinton). After launching into a long-winded diatribe about the investigations into Secretary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server (which included several already-debunked talking points and the line “The only primary she should be concerned about is the FBI primary”), Carville turned to him and said (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), “The Republican strategy is (a) Hillary gets indicted, and (b) through (z) Hillary gets indicted.”
He’s right, I think: Their only hope, at this point, is to falsely and maliciously accuse Secretary Clinton of being a criminal. From now until November, expect establishment Republican politicos like Karl Rove to avoid Donald Trump, their nominee, at all costs, and to instead run a scorched-earth and blatantly dishonest campaign against Secretary Clinton. They likely understand it won’t win Trump the White House; that’s not their move, and frankly, they would rather him lose. They merely want to weaken Clinton as much as possible.
The audience in Dallas seemed to see directly through these cynical machinations. They may not like Hillary, but they can’t stand Trump.
At one point, Rove suggested that Republicans would be more successful in November because they’re receiving better ratings on television. “Of course, they’re receiving better ratings,” Carville said. “What would you rather watch, a train wreck or a traffic signal?”
Substantively, though, the two men’s disagreements were framed by cherry-picking economic data against demographic data. Rove would rather Americans focus on what he sees to be abysmal GDP growth and increased debts, all while conveniently ignoring dramatic decreases in the deficit, a stock market that has more than doubled in value, a resurgent housing market and automobile industry, the lowest unemployment rate since the Reagan presidency, the addition of 17 million Americans in health insurance coverage, and the creation of at least 9.3 million new jobs (compared to the paltry 1.3 million new jobs created under his boss, President George W. Bush).
Carville focused on changes in demographics, highlighting what he called the “four un’s.”
Together, in 2012, these groups accounted for 51% of the vote. In 2016, it will be 63% of the vote, he said.
Against these odds, if he is correct, a Trump defeat appears inevitable, and Democrats may begin competing in states they never considered before.
“Is it just me or is somebody up here testy and is somebody having fun?” Carville asked. The audience cheered. Karl Rove pouted.
I managed again, by pure coincidence, to see Carville after the event as we both walked toward our cars.
“You crushed it,” I said.
“They have no one left to defend,” he said. And that makes his job and the jobs of so many other Americans much easier.
When James Carville can roundly defeat Karl Rove in what would ordinary be considered enemy territory for a Democrat, the Republican Party must know that the only thing they can possibly do is go through the pathetic motion of supporting a man they despise on the off-chance that they can finally manufacture a scandal against Hillary Clinton that will stick, which is still a calculated risk given how much baggage Trump carries with him every day on Hair Force One.