For those accustomed to hearing James Carville only when he is trying to enunciate more clearly for television, that translates to: "What's going on?"
So begins another morning in what may count as Washington’s longest-running conversation — a street-corner bull session between four old friends who suddenly find themselves standing once more at the busiest intersection of politics and media in Washington.
Carville calls White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Emanuel calls ABC News Chief Washington Correspondent George Stephanopoulos.
A bit later, CNN commentator Paul Begala, who is not quite the early bird that his friends are, will complete the circle with a rapid set of calls to all three.
Different versions of this round-robin chatter have been taking place, with few interruptions, every workday for nearly a generation.
“I refer to it as the 17-year-long conference call,” said Emanuel, who starts calling his friends at 6 a.m. “You can tap into it anytime you want.”
Everyone likes to deride the “conventional wisdom.” In fairness, though, the wisdom is not yet conventional at the moment it is hatched.
And in any given news cycle, it is quite likely that Washington’s prevailing political and media interpretation — at least on the Democratic side — is being hatched on these calls.
The process happens not by design but as the byproduct of pre-dawn badinage — a smart-set take on the world that gets amplified by the prominent platforms all of them hold and by the dozens of later calls and lunches and rants that they will carry on with others throughout the day.
In that sense, the morning calls — no single one of which usually lasts more than a few minutes — among this gang of four is the headwaters of at least one major tributary of Washington politics.
Under other circumstances, the morning calls between Emanuel, Carville, Stephanopoulos and Begala — pollster Stan Greenberg is another frequent member of the core group, a kind of “fifth Beatle” — might be a Society of Has-Beens, reliving ancient glories from the Little Rock “War Room.”
It was Emanuel’s ascension into Barack Obama’s inner circle — even as Carville and Begala remained closely linked with the defeated Clinton political machine — that saved the group from irrelevance.
The calls “are about what’s happening, what the implications are of what’s happening and what’s going on,” said Emanuel.
Mary Matalin, who as Carville’s wife has overheard probably thousands of the group’s calls, describes the conversation as more profane, more sports-centric versions of a knitting club.
“They talk like they are girls,” she said. “The conversations start in the middle and they end in the middle, and if they talk at night, they’ll start in the morning with no break in the flow.”
“To me, the first purpose is friendship,” said Matalin, “and the second purpose is information-sharing.”
According to Begala, the expectation of a daily call is so great that Emanuel will sometimes call him and shout impatiently, “I can’t talk right now!” and then hang up.
While the rapid succession of conversations creates the effect of a single conference call, that is not actually the case. Carville described himself as an antediluvian who does not do e-mail or own a BlackBerry and has been on only a few actual conference calls.
But he said he has come to rely on the calls as his daily fixture.
When one of the callers is traveling, he says, his reaction is, “Where&rsqu;s my coffee, where’s my glasses ... Goddamn, where you been?”
Begala offers the most academic interpretation of the calls and their daily survey of political news.
Emanuel is the most likely to be talking policy, usually some program Democrats can use to score points in the daily partisan brawl with Republicans.
Begala’s own interest, as a former speechwriter, is in rhetoric — what is likely to be the sound bite that will echo through the news cycle.
Carville is the wild card, “a genius,” in Begala’s view, “who can look at the same operative facts as everyone else and come to a different conclusion.”
Stephanopoulos’ role is as the analyst and the skeptic. “George is really a big-systems thinker,” Begala said. “As a journalist, he is half of a political scientist, and because he’s not in the partisan battles anymore, he sees things differently.”
It is a sensitive point for Stephanopoulos, who shot to fame as a Bill Clinton retainer and has worked hard to fashion a reputation as an independent journalist.
He said he does not surrender that role when he gets on the calls, nor does he surrender personal feelings that go back nearly 20 years.
“We are all good friends,” he said. “We just like talking to each other, and I learn a lot from it ... and that’s why we have been doing it for so long.”
Still, the line between journalism and politics is not always bright. Begala said he often can’t remember the originator of any particular insight: “We talk so much — was this my idea that James changed, or was this George’s observation that Rahm tweaked?”
Al Hunt, the Washington bureau chief for Bloomberg News, said he talks with Carville almost every day — one of a roster of Washington reporters in that category. There is no parallel, he said, to a group of friends who has remained so central to the daily shaping of Washington conversation as these Clinton-era comrades.
Many of the Reaganites, he said, could not stand each other while in office and had little interest in daily chats once out. None of Jimmy Carter’s gang remained influential. Nor did many of George H.W. Bush’s aides — even once another Bush returned to Washington.
“These people had nothing to do with the mix, the conversation, the chatter, what have you, of what was going on with W.,” said Hunt.
One reason the conversations are interesting, said Hunt, is that, between them, there is rarely more than one degree of separation from virtually any subject in the news. Emanuel, in addition to his White House role, made a fortune in investment banking and has a brother who is a top Hollywood agent. Stephanopoulos moves in top media circles. So do Begala and Carville, both of whom appear on CNN and know numerous actors and writers.
“You can’t think of many bases you don’t cover,” said Hunt. “Maybe morticians?”
Even so, there have been times — actually several of them over the years — when all four faced reversals of fortune. In 1993, a skeptical Hillary Clinton nearly succeeded in throwing Emanuel out of Bill Clinton’s White House, and did succeed for a season in sharply reducing his influence. After the disastrous 1994 elections, Begala, Carville and Stephanopoulos watched with dismay as consultant Dick Morris brushed them aside for control of the 1996 reelection campaign. Once out of the White House, Stephanopoulos for a time struggled to put his imprint on ABC’s “This Week,” though it is now on a ratings upswing and, since the death of NBC’s Tim Russert, is bidding for top-dog status among the Sunday shows.
Amid these ups and downs, the core group on the morning calls has seen three of them get married (only Begala was in 1991) and had 11 children among them.
So when Emnuel was deciding whether to leave his Chicago congressional seat — he had hoped to someday be the first Jewish speaker of the House — to become Obama’s chief of staff, he said he turned for advice to the same group of three friends he has been consulting for years.
“It’s a testament to the power of friendship in a place that really does run on relationships,” said Dee Dee Myers, who worked with all four members of the daily call in the 1992 campaign. “In such a fickle town, they know the phone always rings.”