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.
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.
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.