Primary Colors (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Primary Colors, a satirical and highly publicized best- selling novel about the inner workings of a Clintonesque presidential campaign staff, is a highly engaging but emotionally disappointing literary work. Its popularity seems more a result of the author’s desire to remain anonymous than the novel’s Washington insider insights or even its timely publication in an election year. The curiosity about who authored this work, the subsequent unmasking of Newsweek journalist Joe Klein, and the flurry of media attention that the novel and Klein received are as fascinating as the story told within its pages.
The first-person exploration of day-to-day decisions, challenges, and calamities that confront a charismatic presidential candidate in the thick of a cut-throat primary campaign starts out with enthusiasm and good intentions, echoing the state of mind of its idealistic young hero Henry Burton. Full of keen observations and scandalous events, the novel allows readers to glimpse the inner thoughts and behavior of political campaign strategists. The pithy conversations of these Washington insiders is liberally peppered with “politi-speak” as their aphorisms become part of the story’s literary fabric. Their verbal shorthand includes terms such as “scorps” (scorpions) to refer to sleaze-hungry political reporters, “press muffins” to identify nubile young female campaign volunteers, and “pols” for the dreadful and dreaded political pollsters who gauge a candidate’s popularity through continually shifting public opinion based on a daily diet of news tidbits and sound bites intended to demean opponents and bolster the image of party favorites.
Another element contributing to this novel’s popularity is its picture of the intricate machinations and art of political strategizing that the public rarely sees. It does not matter that hype seems to be all that fuels the political machinery or that the images and messages of presidential front-runners are deliberately crafted by well-schooled teams of advisers for the sole purpose of winning votes as candidates battle for survival under the brutal spotlight of the New Hampshire primary.
The author’s trick of patterning his main characters and newsworthy situations on prominent people and events that made headline news in the early 1990’s also keeps readers turning pages long after the plot becomes predictable. It seems somewhat convenient that many of the bumps in the fictional campaign road that ultimately derail Governor Stanton involve greedy women and extramarital sex, or that his brilliant but steely wife Susan fails to flinch over his flirtatious ways as long as she continues to envision herself as the next First Lady. The comparisons between the Stantons and the Clintons are obvious, making it increasingly difficult for readers to distinguish fact from fantasy as this thinly veiled roman à clef unfolds.
The story is told by Henry, a well-educated African American political aide who is invited to join the presidential campaign staff of charismatic Alabama governor Jack Stanton. Stanton comes across as the most self-effacing and down-home candidate stepping up to the presidential plate in 1992, and Henry considers him the type of Kennedyesque leader the country desperately needs. Henry’s sympathetic voice tends to overshadow the novel’s primary weakness: an overly familiar storyline that echoes Henry’s growing frustration with the arcane process used to choose a national leader from among men who may be the best and brightest but are still all-too-human. It is inevitable that Jack Stanton’s foibles and peccadilloes become the proverbial thorns in Henry’s side, and that Henry finds the potential rewards of surviving the political game outweighed by the drain on his psyche that results from being disillusioned by yet another hero.
Henry encapsulates Stanton’s unique charm through the metaphor of how the governor shakes hands, which to Henry is “the threshold act,”
the beginning of politics. I’ve seen him do it two million times now, but I couldn’t tell you how he does it, the right-handed part of it—the strength, quality, duration of it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh. I can, however, tell you a whole lot about what he does with his other hand. He is a genius with it. He might put it on your elbow, or up by your biceps: these are basic, reflexive moves. He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. If he gets any higher up your shoulder—if he, say, drapes his left arm over your back, it is somehow less intimate, more casual. He’ll share a laugh or a secret then—a light secret, not a real one—flattering you with the illusion of conspiracy. If he doesn’t know you all that well and you’ve just told him something “important,” something earnest or emotional, he will lock in and honor you with a two-hander, his left hand overwhelming your wrist and forearm. He’ll flash that famous misty look of his. And he will mean it.
Yet it is Stanton’s dedication to issues that affect the public at its core which surprises and pleases Henry. His first meeting with Governor Stanton includes a campaign stop...
(The entire section is 2132 words.)
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