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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 886

Primary Colors Joe Klein

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(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...

(The entire section contains 27882 words.)

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Primary Colors