From TV To The West Wing

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Mary Matalin may be just as well known as her boss, but that's not a notion the sharp-tongued former co-host of CNN's Crossfire wants to entertain. Drawing attention to oneself is frowned on in Dick Cheney's button-down world, in which the erstwhile TV opinionista is counselor to the Vice President and assistant to the President. Cheney, the ultimate company man, believes that no underling, including himself, should be too eager to discuss his work for the "principal," George W. Bush.

And so the woman who for years wouldn't zip her lip declined to discuss her role for this story and asked that it not be written (cc: Vice President). She is delighted to be back on the inside--and wants to stay. A disciple of the late Lee Atwater, a G.O.P. strategist known for his bareknuckle style, Matalin was deputy manager of Bush Sr.'s '92 campaign, but "she's never worked in a White House," says a friend. "She couldn't pass this opportunity up." The decision hasn't sat well with her equally partisan husband, James Carville. With two kids under six, her job means more Mr. Mom duties for the vein-popping Cajun who helped elect Bill Clinton in 1992. It also means a serious drop in family income. Carville and Matalin's mix of celebrity, romance and adversarial politics has been a lucrative formula--joint speeches, talk-show gigs--since their public courtship during the '92 campaign.

Matalin's marriage drives some Republicans crazy. Not only does she consort with Democrats, but her views on some issues, like abortion and homosexuality, place her to the left of social conservatives. If some Republicans question the sanity of marrying a Clinton-loving Democrat, none doubt her fierce loyalty to the G.O.P. or her devotion to the Bush family. As an unpaid adviser to Bush 2000, Matalin remained his relentless booster on CNN, an arrangement she never saw as a conflict. Former President Bush has said that toward the end of his failing re-election bid, he and Matalin were the only ones on the campaign who thought he still had a chance--proof that loyalty can sometimes lead to blindness.

Although Matalin is close to the President, she remains even closer to his father, whom, friends say, she called almost every day during the 2000 campaign. That partly explains how she ended up as an adviser to the man who was the elder Bush's Defense Secretary. It was Cheney's daughter Liz who called Matalin after the election and asked if she would consider working for the Vice President. Matalin jumped at the chance.

Inside the White House, she defers to Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, Bush's top political and communications aides, and to Andy Card, the chief of staff. But as Cheney's adviser and a force in her own right, she is considered a major player. Though she's keeping a low profile in public, Bush aides say she's more like her true self on the inside. "She's very smart, and she's brutally honest," says her former Crossfire adversary Bill Press. "She's not an a__ kisser. She's not a yes person. She'll tell it like it is. Every White House needs someone like that."