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April 3, 2008

National political strategist James Carville imparts advice to ULM students

James Carville, the chief campaign strategist for Clinton/Gore in 1992 and a ULM Presidential Lyceum Series speaker, met with ULM students in their American National Politics class at 10 a.m. in Stubbs Hall, Thursday, April 3.

Carville imparted important professional advice to the students, chiefly that the "essence of good communication constitutes a narrative that people can build on."

That aspect of communication bleeds over to running for political office. Carville identified the single most imperative element a candidate must possess as being "a reason"—a simple, relevant, repetitive reason.

The distinguished speaker pointed out that every narrative—including political speeches—in the entire scope of human history involves setup, conflict, and resolution.

Combining his various points, he mentioned that, "The better communicators at whatever they do take a simple, relevant, repetitive message that can be reduced to a narrative," and one that the general audience can understand and relate to. "If you can execute that, you'll do fine."

The classroom participants then engaged Carville in a question and answer session, initiated by professor Dr. Kevin Unter, who opened with a query about how to get a message to stand out from the cacophony of communication typically bombarding the public.

Carville reiterated his earlier advice about speeches but emphasized that, "I believe if you're going to be a great leader that everyone needs to understand what you're going to do. There should be no secret meetings. Just remember what you're trying to communicate."

When a student queried what made former President Ronald Reagan such a "gifted speaker", Carville replied that, "He was great because he communicated his whole life as an actor. He communicated something, and he didn't do it in fancy or eloquent ways—he did it in a way that people could understand."

The guest speaker lent his political expertise to insights concerning the current candidates for president, responding to a question from ULM student Kevin Ballard of Columbia regarding when the official Democratic candidate would emerge. After some political speculation, he reminded the audience that, "Being president is difficult. You have to deal with a lot of people with their own interests, outflank them, and out skill them. The nature of being a Democrat is not to be rude to anyone—communicate."

He examined the possibility that the political arena was ripe for the emergence of a third political party capable of speaking to both the economically and socially unsatisfied.

After political science major Britney Council of Maryland asked how much the new president would be able to effect change, Carville replied that, "I think change is going to be forced on the next president." The question might be whether the new president initiates or instead manages the changes that are coming.

Carville instructed the students that concerning whoever won the Democratic primary, it would be critical for the winner to treat their competition graciously, hopefully combining vying Democratic factions into a unified force. He mentioned that the current political climate is fueling interest in a wider range of voters, concerned that the country is losing something, and who want to play a part in its successful future.

Audience member and ULM President James Cofer asked about the importance of higher education to the candidates.

Carville acknowledged that higher education is a strategic resource for the United States, pointing out that there is no better source for graduate degrees, and that though higher education was competing against many others for available dollars, supporting it can only lead to amazing results.

He recalled that in what he considered the United States' darkest Year—1862—Rep. Justin Smith Morrill saw his Morrill Act signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, which enabled the creation of agricultural colleges. In the middle of national turmoil, Carville said, "It was decided the darkness, let's light one stupid candle." That candle, higher education, generated a more stable future in uncertain times.

Retaining his audience's attention until the last moment of class, Carville thanked them for their time. He appeared to a sold-out audience this evening at 7 p.m. in Brown Auditorium with his spouse Mary Matalin, former assistant to President Bush and counselor to Vice-President Cheney.

The Lyceum Series, which began in 2003 under Cofer's direction, promotes intellectual exchange among ULM faculty, staff, students, and the community.

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