Primary Colors, Joe Klein - Essay

Joe Klein


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Primary Colors Joe Klein

(Full name Joseph Klein) American journalist, biographer, nonfiction writer, and novelist.

The following entry presents criticism on Klein's novel Primary Colors (1996) through 1997.

Published anonymously in 1996, Primary Colors generated considerable critical speculation as to the identity of its author. Reviewers and readers alike noted the uncanny parallels between the novel's fictional presidential campaign and the actual 1992 presidential election where Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton successfully defeated incumbent U.S. President George Bush. A number of the characters and events described in the novel appeared to be directly inspired by the Clinton campaign, with a level of detail that caused many to theorize that an “insider” from Clinton's staff had written the work. After months of conjecture, it was revealed that Klein, a reporter for Newsweek, was the true author of the novel. This inspired further critical debate on the function of Klein's anonymity and the issue of journalistic ethics. The novel was adapted into a film directed by Mike Nichols in 1998.

Plot and Major Characters

Klein utilized his experience as a political journalist, who specialized in election politics, to tell the story of Jack Stanton, a charismatic Southern Democratic governor running for president. Stanton is a genial, brilliant man, but his own irresponsible behavior and personal scandals continually test the patience and loyalty of his accomplished wife, Susan. The novel is narrated by Henry Burton, a young and experienced political aide who is the grandson of a famous African-American civil rights leader. Burton is impressed after meeting Stanton on the campaign trail and joins the Stanton faction to support the governor's bid for the presidency. Burton soon becomes acclimated to the cutthroat world of election politics with the help of Stanton's outspoken campaign strategist, Richard Jemmons, and Stanton's longtime aide and confidant, Libby Holden. Stanton's growing popularity is tested by the revelation of an alleged affair with a woman named Cashmere McLeod. After considerable investigation and maneuvering, the evidence of the affair is discredited, even though Stanton is unquestionably a womanizer and prevaricator. Moreover, his loyal campaign advisors are forced to overcome several other allegations against Stanton, including his role in a questionable real estate deal and a paternity accusation. Despite narrowly losing the primary in New Hampshire, Stanton makes a comeback and eventually wins the Democratic nomination for president. But in the process of defending Stanton, Burton is forced to examine his own value system, concluding that he has made a Faustian bargain and has betrayed his personal beliefs.

Major Themes

Critics regard Primary Colors as a clear example of a roman à clef, a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise. Jack Stanton is widely accepted to represent President Bill Clinton; Susan Stanton represents First Lady Hillary Clinton; Richard Jemmons represents campaign advisor James Carville; Cashmere McLeod represents President Clinton's alleged lover Gennifer Flowers; and Henry Burton is believed to represent George Stephanopoulos. As such, many commentators reveled in the novel's insider look at the events and personalities behind a presidential election. The novel skillfully portrays the influential role of the media in American politics, showing not only how politicians can “spin” or manipulate reporters for their own gain, but also how allegations of wrong-doing presented by the media can severely damage or even cripple an entire presidential campaign. Burton and several of Stanton's staff members are forced to choose between disclosing the full truth about Stanton to the American public or conspiring to hide his faults because they truly believe that he is the best candidate for the presidency. Issues concerning loyalty to the American people and political morality are explored throughout the text. In addition, the issue of racial identity becomes pivotal, as Burton—a man of mixed racial heritage—is torn between his allegiance to the African-American community and his duties as an advisor to Stanton.

Critical Reception

Primary Colors met with immediate controversy after its publication, primarily due to the mysterious identity of its author and the accuracy of its portrayal of the Clinton campaign. The publicity and controversy surrounding the novel prompted it to become a media sensation and a best seller. Commentators speculated that the author could be any number of individuals, including Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos; political advisor Paul Begala; journalists Michael Kelly or Michael Kramer; former White House aide David Dreyer; or political cartoonist Garry Trudeau. After Klein's identity was revealed, many critical discussions shifted from analysis of the novel's portrayal of the Clinton campaign to debates over Klein's journalistic integrity. A number of critics derided Klein for his use of anonymity and his initial claims that he had not, in fact, written the novel. Many felt that Klein had betrayed his ethics as a reporter and slandered Clinton with his portrayal of the scandalous behavior of Jack Stanton—a character obviously meant to represent Clinton. However, several reviewers justified Klein's deception as being ultimately worthwhile for its unrestrained look at election politics. Many have argued that the novel is an unquestionable work of fiction and any similarities to Clinton are merely satirical in nature. Despite the controversy surrounding Klein's identity, the novel has been widely praised for its authenticity and humor. Several critics have found parallels between Primary Colors and Robert Penn Warren's infamous 1946 novel All the King's Men, a fictionalized account of the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Woody Guthrie: A Life (biography) 1980

Payback: Five Marines after Vietnam (nonfiction) 1984

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics [published anonymously] (novel) 1996

The Running Mate (novel) 2000

The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (nonfiction) 2002

Tom Carson (review date 28 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carson, Tom. “Primary Education.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (28 January 1996): 1, 12.

[In the following review, Carson offers a positive assessment of Primary Colors and maintains that the novel contains reportorial skill as well as literary merit.]

Reviewers of Primary Colors have at least one reason to be thankful to the book's unidentified author: They won't need to use up much space familiarizing their readers with the plot. As advertised, this roman à clef is so blatantly an insider's account of the 1992 Clinton campaign that practically all of its principal characters are instantly recognizable, from doughnut-scarfing touchy-feely “Gov. Jack Stanton” and his redoubtable (and mostly just touchy) wife, “Susan,” on down. So little has been altered in relation to the actual events of Bill Clinton's topsy-turvy race for the Democratic nomination that when the fictionalized story does deviate from the familiar version, readers are likely to feel somewhat cheated—in more ways than one.

After all, the smarmy allure of seeing that tantalizing word “Anonymous” on the cover is that it promises unadorned, scandalous veracity. (Obviously, a pseudonym would have protected the author's identity just as well—but then again, it wouldn't be nearly as canny a marketing ploy, now, would it?) Those who care to join the Beltway guessing game about who really wrote Primary Colors would be well advised to look for someone who's pretentious as well as unscrupulous, because to grant yourself a novelist's prerogatives after letting your publisher hype you as a snitch mostly just proves that you can't even act in bad faith in good faith.

Besides, since the Clinton saga made a riveting soap opera even when CNN was telling it and since we're now being taken behind the scenes by someone who evidently did witness plenty of the campaign's messier goings-on in close-up, Primary Colors hardly needs any fictional embroidery to qualify as a lurid read. Indeed, given the sales pitch, it's almost a flaw that the book isn't unadulterated junk. Unexpectedly, it's a work of some literary as well as reportorial skill, not to mention some literary as well as meretricious ambition.

The names may be a tip-off to the author's higher aspirations. Jack Stanton's moniker cobbles together those of two characters in All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel about Louisiana demagogue Huey Long; and the...

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Martin Walker (review date 28 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Walker, Martin. “A Novel Spin on Campaign '92.” Washington Post Book World XXVI, no. 3 (28 January 1996): 1–2.

[In the following mixed review, Walker commends the authenticity and ambition of Primary Colors.]

Jack Stanton, the central character of this stunning political novel [Primary Colors], is a roguish Southern governor with an extraordinarily powerful and ambitious and foul-mouthed wife. He has a compulsively roving eye for other women, endless charm and a genuine obsession with policy as well as politics as he runs for the Democratic presidential nomination through the primaries of 1992. He battles through recurrent scandals over women and...

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Matthew Cooper (review date 29 January 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cooper, Matthew. “Whodunnit?” New Republic 214, no. 5 (29 January 1996): 11–12.

[In the following review, Cooper speculates on the identity of the anonymous author of Primary Colors.]

“Cooper? Stephanopoulos. 8:00, Tuesday morning. I think I got it: Peter Knobler, ghost writer. All's Fair by Mary Matalin, James Carville. Bye.”

You would think that with the Clinton administration facing budget negotiations and the First Lady's Whitewater fiasco, the phone message left on my answering machine by George Stephanopoulos might have had something to do with one of these ongoing crises. But the Senior Adviser to the President for...

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Mark Lawson (review date 10 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lawson, Mark. “Great Man Lowered by His Trousers.” Spectator (10 February 1996): 11–12.

[In the following review, Lawson ponders the true identity of the author of Primary Colors.]

Both Washington and London have started the new political season with the publication of an insider's novel of political life. Britain got A Woman's Place by Edwina Currie MP, a silly mess of incredible invented characters and arch name-checks for serving members. Washington, cutting rather the better deal, got Primary Colors, an account of a libidinous Southern governor and his pushy wife running for president in 1992. Everybody knows who it is about, but—a...

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James W. Wall (review date 28 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, James W. “Inside the Campaign: Disillusioned.” Christian Century 113, no. 7 (28 February 1996): 219–20.

[In the following review, Wall discusses characteristics about the author of Primary Colors that he believes can be gleaned through information found in the novel.]

The literary question of the season for Washington insiders is: Who wrote Primary Colors, the thinly disguised fictional examination of the early days of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign? The anonymous author will not achieve the historical status of Deep Throat, the anonymous tipster who provided news about the Watergate cover-up, but the work is an impressive...

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Christopher Hitchens (review date 29 February 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hitchens, Christopher. “Pulp Politics.” New York Review of Books XLIII, no. 4 (29 February 1996): 23–28.

[In the following favorable review, Hitchens places Primary Colors within the context of two other politically-based novels—Jeff Greenfield's The People's Choice and Jim Lehrer's The Last Debate.]

In 1971, Jerry Bruno and Jeff Greenfield jointly wrote a book called The Advance Man. Bruno had been “advance man” for the John F. Kennedy campaign when the techniques of spin and momentum were in their relative infancy, and Greenfield had performed something of the same office for the Robert Kennedy campaign in 1968. (Bruno had...

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Boyd Tonkin (review date 1 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. Review of Primary Colors, by Joe Klein. New Statesman & Society 9, no. 392 (1 March 1996): 40.

[In the following negative review, Tonkin describes Primary Colors as “a long exercise in dirt-dishing.”]

What makes British politics such fun in real life wrecks it as a theme for art. How can any writer match the scriptless soap of Westminster? The parliamentary pantomime turns its actors into parodies of themselves. That makes for splendid entertainment—the cliff-hanging votes, the Question Time set-tos, the smart-alecky sketch-writing—but it skews most efforts to dramatise our public affairs. Instead of realism, we get the...

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Christian Science Monitor (review date 6 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Sincerely Yours, Anonymous.” Christian Science Monitor (6 March 1996): 19.

[In the following review, the critic explores the function of the anonymous author of Primary Colors.]

First, a disclaimer: Nobody has suggested that I am Anonymous, who wrote the American best-seller Primary Colors.

For financial if not literary reasons I wish I were, but I'm not.

Having gotten that out of the way, what concerns us next is not the identity of the author of Primary Colors but the issue of anonymity itself. There is something profoundly interesting about the time we live in; the absence of a name on a book has...

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Elaine Showalter (review date 7 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Showalter, Elaine. “The Word on the Street.” London Review of Books 18, no. 5 (7 March 1996): 20.

[In the following review, Showalter offers a positive assessment of Primary Colors and weighs in on the author controversy surrounding the novel.]

At Kramerbooks, Washington's best bookstore-café, there's a menu of ‘Primary Colors Specials,’ including Lasagne di Paul Begalanese and Pork Chop George Stephen-applesauce. There's a copy prominently displayed in the new books section of the White House library, and 742,000 have been shipped to bookstores to meet the demand. It's number one on the New York Times best-seller list; North...

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Richard K. (review date April 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: K., Richard. “Running for President: Fact of Fiction?” Contemporary Review 268, no. 1563 (April 1996): 215–16.

[In the following review, the critic offers a mixed assessment of Primary Colors.]

Primary Colors is a fictionalized account of Bill Clinton's quest for the presidency, written by an unknown author, his pen dipped in acid. The plotline is as familiar as recent headlines: an ambitious young man emerges from the rural South and gets himself elected Governor of his State. This propels him into a run for President. But his candidacy is flawed, haunted by mistakes of the past—an arrest for participating in an anti-war demonstration and...

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Anne Waldron Neumann (review date June 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Neumann, Anne Waldron. “The Romance of Politics.” Quadrant 40, no. 327 (June 1996): 85–86.

[In the following mixed review, Neumann contends that Primary Colors follows the conventions of classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romance novels.]

Reviewers must sometimes make their biases clear. I am, like my father before me, what my fellow Americans call a “yellow-dog Democrat,” meaning I would vote for a yellow dog if they ran it on the Democratic ticket. Primary Colors by Anonymous, the best-selling American roman à clef about Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign for the presidency, is a novel of yellow-dog Democrats,...

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Leon Wieseltier (review date 12 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Wieseltier, Leon. “Live and Let Lie.” New Republic 215, no. 7 (12 August 1996): 42.

[In the following review, Wieseltier reflects on the controversy surrounding the revelation of the author of Primary Colors, concluding that the deceit was justified.]

“We like to think here that those of us who have to stand here and talk to you have high and scrupulous standards for veracity,” Michael McCurry thoughtfully remarked at the briefing. And he continued that “I believe everyone in this room who works as a journalist tries to take those same kinds of standards into mind,” which came as news to everyone in that room. McCurry, the second-most skilled...

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James Bowman (essay date September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Bowman, James. “Joe Klein's Tangled Web.” New Criterion 15, no. 11 (September 1996): 118–22.

[In the following essay, Bowman justifies Klein's use of anonymity, but questions his credibility as a political commentator and journalist.]

It is a not-entirely frivolous question to ask, in the context of this journal's celebration of the European past, if the affair of Joe Klein, author of Primary Colors, the best-selling novel about the Clinton campaign for president in 1992, has anything to teach us about what the historian Peter Laslett once called “The World We Have Lost.” For it is not only the written (or painted, sculpted, etc.) record of the...

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Christopher Hanson (essay date September–October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hanson, Christopher. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Klein.” Columbia Journalism Review 35, no. 3 (September–October 1996): 47–50.

[In the following essay, Hanson addresses Klein's duplicity surrounding the publication of Primary Colors, asserting it reflects “a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde quality in the news business as a whole.”]

As Olympians were scoring gold last summer, Newsweek columnist Joe Klein was reaching for a medal of his own—as The Kindest, Warmest, Most Considerate, Reliable, and Blameless Journalist Ever to Falsely Deny Authorship of a $6 Million Book. It was a rather audacious bid. The Washington Post had just confirmed...

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William Bedford Clark (essay date 28 December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Clark, William Bedford. “From All the King's Men to Primary Colors.America 175, no. 20 (28 December 1996): 26–29.

[In the following essay, Clark finds parallels between Klein's Primary Colors and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.]

Toward the end of 1928, Robert Penn Warren, enjoying one of the frequent holidays Oxford University afforded a Rhodes Scholar, visited his friend and mentor Allen Tate in Paris. Tate was already a master of what we now call “networking,” an activity he would pursue with characteristic zeal and sustained success throughout his career, and among the writers Tate introduced to the young Warren was...

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Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy (essay date July–August 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alderman, Ellen, and Caroline Kennedy. “Can a Journalists's Novel Be Libelous?” Columbia Journalism Review 36, no. 2 (July–August 1997): 55–57.

[In the following essay, Alderman and Kennedy discuss whether Klein can be sued for libel for his fictional portrayals of prominent political figures in Primary Colors.]

You have spent years as a journalist, chronicling events great and small, meeting fascinating, inspiring, and loathsome people, and filling reporters' notebooks with human drama more entertaining than anything you could dream up. So, you think, now it is time to turn those notebooks into a best-selling novel. You might not have the wild success...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Alleva, Richard. “A ‘Clef’ Hanger.” Commonweal 125, no. 8 (24 April 1998): 17–19.

Alleva offers a mixed assessment of the film adaptation of Primary Colors.

Buckley, Christopher. “Dark Horse.” New Yorker 71, no. 46 (29 January 1996): 89–90.

Buckley considers the theme of racial identity as a dominant concern in Primary Colors and congratulates the anonymous author of the novel on the critical controversy surrounding its publication.

Buckley, William F., Jr. “Pity Joe Klein.” National Review 48, no. 16 (2 September 1996): 103.


(The entire section is 207 words.)