Primary Colors

by Joe Klein

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Tom Carson (review date 28 January 1996)

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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 choice of “Henry” as the narrator's given name is most likely a nod to Henry Adams, whose similarly indiscreet Washington novel Democracy was also published anonymously.

The Henry of Primary Colors is a youthful but already seasoned politico, a former staff wallah to the House majority leader—called Larkin here but unmistakably Dick Gephardt, right up to the eyebrows, or rather the distressing lack of them. Having quit that gig, Henry signs on with Stanton's budding operation. But while Henry's résumé matches that of onetime Gephardt factotum George Stephanopoulos, his skin color doesn't.

Unlike his real-life counterpart, he's the child of an interracial marriage, a fillip added mostly for the sake of letting his creator pretend to be up to something loftier than gossip by introducing black-white relations as a theme. Fairly preposterously, Henry's also been saddled with none other than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. (“the Rev. Harvey Burton”) as a grandfather. Can the author really believe an African American narrator needs a pedigree that grand to account for Henry's convenient reservations about serving Clinton-Stanton?

But neither he nor the author lets those qualms get in the way overmuch. Ethics aside, the back-room look at the Clinton campaign is terrifically entertaining—crammed with anecdotal detail and glib cross-talk, astutely...

(This entire section contains 1044 words.)

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observed and often very funny. The “vehement opacity” of James Carville (“Richard Jemmons”) is amusingly captured, as is his alarming physical presence: “We really want the public to see that Jack Stanton has some hillbilly who looks like he was sired during the love scene fromDeliverance running his campaign,” another advisor snipes at Jemmons during a typically testy conference.

Stanton's rivals for the nomination are lampooned with deftly accurate, patently knowledgeable malice, from decorated Vietnam vet “Charlie Martin” (“A war hero and he doesn't have the discipline to do straight on,” Stanton marvels) to gloom merchant “Lawrence Harris,” who's glimpsed before one debate “carrying a copy of Scientific American with ‘The Promise of Desalinization’ on the cover.” And then, of course, there's diary-keeping, sententious New York Gov. “Orlando Ozio,” whose see-through pseudonym alone lets us know that we're off to see the wizard—by way of Disney World.

Gennifer Flowers appears on schedule; here, she's “Cashmere McLeod,” whose “curled, snarly lips” are memorably described as making her look “as if she had bitten into a lemon while having an orgasm.” But even though virtually every scandal and nasty rumor ever associated with the Clintons resurfaces here in skimpy disguise—there's even a grim and all-too plausible variant on Vince Foster's suicide—the portrait of the candidate himself reaches for something deeper than caricature. Clearly, the author does or did admire him enormously, if ambivalently. In some ruminative passages, the tone tellingly veers from hard-boiled scrutiny toward starry-eyed gush: “Money had no magic for him; the folks did. … It was more than a knack; it was something deeper, more profound and respectful. …”

The irony is that the book's own low instincts are far surer than its lofty ones. So long as Primary Colors sticks to being a dishy, quasi-reportorial campaign chronicle, it's an eye-opener. But somewhere around midpoint, the author decides to attempt more than that and so, for a third act, the story is skewed to build up to a conventional climax, brimming with derivative musings about Faustian bargains and complicity.

These plot twists no longer tally with the Clinton story as we know it. The sudden drop-off in anecdotal density unmistakably signals that the author has begun to invent rather than record, and while the conclusion isn't bad, exactly—re-doing All the King's Men for liberal boomers has its charm—it all too obviously owes far more to the literary models whose company this author is lobbying to join than to firsthand experience. Ultimately, Primary Colors is half a serious novel dressed up as prurient tittle-tattle and half the other way around—a stew of mixed intentions whose indecisiveness would do credit to Bill Clinton himself.


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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.

Martin Walker (review date 28 January 1996)

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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 over his opposition to the Vietnam war. They nearly sink him in the New Hampshire snows, and again in the Florida sunshine, and yet again in the ethnic stew of New York. If all this sounds familiar, he is also running against characters recognizable as senators Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey, and is dogged by a New York governor modeled on Mario Cuomo.

A figure eerily like Jesse Jackson appears, having unearthed a black girlfriend of the candidate from their time at Yale Law School, in hopes of acquiring some useful ammunition. Instead, still carrying a faint torch for the man, she defines the Stanton marriage with compelling insight: “It wasn't the cold thing, the partnership, that people say. I'd be willing to bet he got to her in the same way he got to me, same way he got to all of us. I'd bet you anything he penetrated that white girl's invisible protective shield. If he hadn't, he couldn't have married her. You've gotta know that Jack can't stand not being loved.”

This all rings so familiar, and is so close to the reality of 1992, that the veterans of the Clinton campaign are in a frenzy of phone calls and speculation to identify the anonymous author. George Stephanopoulos has confidently accused political consultant Paul Begala of writing this thinly veiled account of their 1992 epic. Begala says not. Others suggest one of the handful of reporters who were campaign intimates from the beginning. The campaign's media director, Mandy Grunwald, who appears in the book as an enchanting gamine who has an entirely credible affair with the narrator, staunchly denies authorship.

The book is so well written that all are flattered to be accused. But their reaction is more than just a White House parlor game. It testifies to the novel's authenticity, and to the way that campaign insiders are convinced it could only have been written by one of their own. If not, the book is a breathtaking imaginative feat.

But Primary Colors is also a hugely ambitious work, which demands to be read on its own merits. A novel that tries to do three things at once, it very nearly succeeds at each one. The first attempt to capture the Clintons in fictional form, it comes uncannily close. This is also the first try at a serious political novel about the compulsive world of the campaign staff, and this oddest of professions may finally have found its laureate. Finally, the book tries to explore not just the trial by ordeal of the presidential primaries but also to explain why it takes a Clinton to survive the process.

The narrator is clearly George Stephanopoulos, faintly disguised by the device of black skin. The aides are the heroes, and if James Carville and Frank Greer and Stan Greenberg and Susan Thomases are all splendidly recognizable, they are all blown away by the magnificent recreation of Betsey Wright, Clinton's chief of staff in Arkansas and the loyalist who dealt with what she dubbed “bimbo eruptions” during the campaign. Wright becomes Libby Holden in the novel, a glorious, swollen caricature who almost steals the book. There is an unforgettable scene in which she threatens to shoot the testicles off a sleazy Southern lawyer unless he confesses to having concocted the damning tapes of a phone call between the candidate and a local hairdresser.

Looming over the book is the utterly convincing character of Stanton, a man weighed down with his flaws and his appetites, yet still able to charm a calculating political wife who sees through him. In her first words in the novel, she says her husband could have been a great man if he weren't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganized, undisciplined [expletive].” But she, and the constantly disillusioned staff, all remain entranced, almost in spite of themselves.

At this point, fact and fiction come most closely together. It is rare for a sitting president to inspire a credible fictional portrait. But the crucial insight of Primary Colors is that Bill Clinton was born to inspire fiction just as he was born to run, as a political compulsive in whom we can discern the classic components of tragedy and of epic. Clinton's incessant lurching from crisis to recovery, from risk to rescue, is a rhythm recurrent enough to constitute a pathology and make him the most psychologically interesting president since Nixon.

But the further the novel gets away from the reality of the campaign, the weaker it becomes. When the Paul Tsongas figure is crushed in Florida, his banner is taken up by a cardboard character who is meant to represent simultaneously Ross Perot and Gary Hart, and the story begins to drift from its political anchors into a different kind of novel altogether.

In a sense, the flaws do not matter. The anonymous author has fulfilled a mission, making the best possible argument for the Clinton presidency. The novel is a statement of loyalty to a charming rogue with the ruthless skills required to win, but justified by a heart big enough to make the victory worthwhile. Will the loyalty survive the kind of roller-coaster experience that Clinton has had in the White House? We shall see. There are hints of a sequel. Stanton versus Bush, Stanton in office, even Stanton's bid for a second term. Like the politician who inspired him, Jack Stanton looks set to run and run.

Principal Works

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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

Matthew Cooper (review date 29 January 1996)

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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 Policy and Strategy and I have been trading calls about a far more important topic: Who wrote Primary Colors?

Was ist dasPrimary Colors? It's a novel, a terrific, anonymously written novel about the early months of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign. Only the galleys of the book are out. The real McCoy is scheduled to hit stores later this winter from Random House. But everyone I've spoken with who has seen review copies of the book is stunned by how well it captures the players from that tumultuous race. So was I. Indeed, Primary Colors can be thought of as a worthy sequel to David Maraniss's First in His Class, the magnificent biography that follows Clinton's upward trajectory from his boyhood in Hope to the day he announced his unlikely presidential bid on the steps of the Old State House in Little Rock in 1991.

In Primary Colors, it's the beginning of the campaign and Clinton is Jack Stanton, the Southern governor running for president. Stephanopoulos is himself but with a twist; his analog, Henry Burton, is black, the grandson of a Martin Luther King-like figure, and the narrator of the book. Burton's race gives him a kind of detachment that makes for keen observations. James Carville is Richard Jemmons—“a hyperactive redneck from outer space”—wearing only glasses as a thin disguise. There are wickedly recognizable sketches of many other campaign characters, too. Longtime Clinton aide Betsey Wright is portrayed, with hilarious exaggeration, as Libby Holden, the Dustbuster, who cleans up the governor's mess. She is outrageous, pistol-packing, tirade-prone—and surprisingly heroic. Susan Thomases, she of Whitewater fame, makes an appearance, as does her ex-boyfriend from real life, Harold Ickes. (“The Progressive Labor Party's Fun Couple of 1971.”) Mandy Grunwald, a player in 1992 but no longer an adviser to the president, is represented by Daisy Green, a nicotine-puffing New York media consultant. In the book, Grunwald's Green sleeps with Stephanopoulos's Burton. That's fiction, although I couldn't help but read those passages with special interest since Grunwald and I have—full disclosure—been dating.

What makes the book so dead-on? For one thing, there are small inside touches. In one telling scene, the Hillary character is icily irritated by the “incompetence” of her staff. She's calmed when the governor stands behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. Clinton insiders say that kind of thing happens. A conversation between the Clinton character and the Mario Cuomo stand-in, Governor Orlando Ozio, is rendered with uncanny accuracy, say insiders—what with Stanton talking policy and Ozio abruptly dismissing him. And there are renditions of mid-level staffers that only an insider would know, like Patty Solis, a scheduler for the First Lady. Whoever wrote this knows she's Mexican-American.

But the most important aspect of the book—and what makes it an heir to Maraniss's—is that it captures Clinton's complexity. (And does so with Carl Hiaasen hilarity.) The book is generous about his enthusiasm for policy, his real interest in making people's lives “just a little bit better.” There are precise observations about the Clinton technique. The book opens with an anatomy of a handshake: “He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. … 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.” And Primary Colors offers deadly criticisms. With Stanton's Pavlovian empathy, for example, he feels everyone's pain. In real life, it's no coincidence that it was before a crowd of wealthy Texans that Clinton reflexively apologized for raising “your taxes.” And there is this cut: Clinton is forever being bailed out by friends willing to pay the price for his indiscretions. (Look at the legal fees of all the Clinton staffers.) As one character barks: “You have never paid the bill.”

So who wrote this thing? The possibilities are myriad. Stephanopoulos, for one, stunned by the author's intimate sense of Clinton and, perhaps tellingly, familiarity with New York politics, was moved to call Newsweek's Joe Klein to ask if he did it. Klein said no. I called Peter Knobler, Stephanopoulos's other prospect. He said that he didn't write it, either. Since the book is well-crafted and displays a kind of intimacy with the World of Clinton, attention has gravitated toward professional writers and journalists who have covered the president. Besides Klein, likely suspects include The New Yorker's Michael Kelly and former TNR [The National Review] political writer Sidney Blumenthal. But why would any self-respecting journalist write under a pseudonym? Michael Kramer, the Time magazine columnist, is the only reporter I can think of who would have reason to avoid using his name. Clinton aborted the nomination of Kramer's wife, Kimba Wood, for Attorney General. But Kramer told me he wasn't the author, and friends of his swear he didn't do it. Yours truly has been mentioned by some, but I'm too vain for a pseudonym.

That leaves someone in the Clinton orbit who needs the shield that a pseudonym provides. David Kusnet, former head speech-writer for Clinton? He has the knowledge, but Primary Colors lacks the populist tenor that he brought to the White House. David Dreyer, a former White House aide, now at the Treasury Department? He could have done it, but close friends say he wouldn't risk his job for a book like this. Paul Begala, the former Clinton consultant, had the familiarity. But the tempered pace of the book doesn't display his trademark one-liners. And Begala spent most of his time on the campaign plane with Clinton rather than in Little Rock and in key primary states, where most of the book is centered. Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary, has been too busy; and, besides, the book is dedicated to a “spouse,” which Myers doesn't have. Among presidential friends who might need the cloak of anonymity is Tommy Caplan, a Clinton pal from Georgetown days and a novelist. Caplan swears: “It's not me.” Besides, why would Caplan write a book about '90s Clinton staffers rather than the Clinton of the '60s?

Well, whoever wrote it, thanks. The Washington novel is a tired genre, dominated by formulaic thrillers with titles like The Senator's Mistress. Finally, the modern campaign—and Clinton—have the novelist that they deserve.

Mark Lawson (review date 10 February 1996)

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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 brilliant twist, this—nobody knows who it is by.

By a practice virtually defunct in publishing, the book is credited only to ‘Anonymous,’ and Random House, its backers, are refusing to drop clues, claiming indeed that the book came to them unattributed from an agent. Twenty years after ‘Deep Throat,’ Washington has ‘Deep Pen.’

There are two views on the reason for the writer's reticence. One is that the anonymity is a publicity stunt, a clever realisation that the only fresh angle on authorial celebrity is total absence. The other—and how much more the political establishment wants to believe this explanation—is that, like ‘Deep Throat,’ the writer needs secrecy because he or she is whispering from the very heart of power.

Certainly, Primary Colors carries a remarkably strong sense of someone on the inside typing out. To call it a roman à clef would not do justice to the level of its fidelity to the known world. It is a roman à clone. Jack Stanton, the unknown Southern governor challenging for the Democratic nomination in 1992, shares Bill Clinton's comfort eating, pollen allergies, sexual incontinence, policies and campaign schedule in New Hampshire, even losing his voice at the precise point in the primary cycle that the real-life governor of Arkansas contracted laryngitis during his run. Only incidentals on the résumé are different—Stanton missed Vietnam because of a crocked knee.

Nor does the creation of Susan Stanton, the governor's wife, seem to have entailed too many long shifts in the fiction factory. She is the bossy dominator of their marriage, tolerating her husband's infidelities partly because of her belief in his abilities, partly because of the benefit to her of his destination. ‘Jack Stanton could be a great man,’ she says, ‘if he wasn't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganised, undisciplined shit.’

Throughout the book, the game of guess-who? has a generous and helpful question-setter, at least to relatively careful followers of United States politics. Orlando Ozio, governor of New York and epic ditherer about a White House run of his own, would surely have a lot to talk about with Mario Cuomo, former occupant of the Albany mansion. Paul Tsongas, the economically pious back-from-cancer challenger to Clinton in 1992, turns up as Lawrence Harris, fiscally dour back-from-heart-attack challenger to Stanton. The book's narrator, Henry Burton, is, black skin apart, identical with the Clinton aide, George Stephanopoulos. The foul-tongued Southern poll expert, James Carville, would sweat in any parade bent on identifying the crazy, cussing Stanton strategist Richard Jemmons. And so on.

Indeed, only one actual protagonist from the Clinton campaign is offered any crowd cover at all. The Stantons have one child, but he is a boy, called Jackie and, apparently, an impressive lad: ‘Jackie had somehow come out normal. He didn't sulk or strut, like most politicians' kids. … Indeed, he was an anchor. …’ The tone and technique of the Jackie sequences are so far removed from the rest of the novel that there are moments when you wonder if the secret author is, in fact, Chelsea Clinton.

Whoever did write Primary Colors has a knowledge of American campaign politics from the ash-scattered dregs of the chewed polystyrene coffee-cups up. If the reader outside the Washington beltway may sometimes tire of the loving satirical glossaries on forgotten Democrat challengers of 1992, the novel's record of campaign language is insider fiction at its finest. To Stanton's aides, campaign reporters are ‘scorps’ (short for scorpions) while famous reporters are ‘big-foot scorps.’ Pollsters and political consultants working on a presidential bid must be wary of developing ‘TB,’ short for ‘True Believerism.’ They must always be ready to cosy up to an opponent if their guy's numbers start to slip.

Intriguingly, the reader's X-ray of ‘Anonymous’ himself or herself shows up a shadow of ‘TB’ towards the Clintons. English reports of the novel have hinted at a vicious and scandalous exposé, but, while Stanton is landed with a simulacrum of the Gennifer Flowers affair (here, Cashmere McLeod, a hairdresser), no part of the plot is Whitewater in disguise, and Stanton is presented as a man whose sexual positions threaten his policy ones, yet who is at core an awesome politician: ‘He was lovely with the people, dispensing his meaningful handshakes, listening to their stories; he had a knack—no, it was more than a knack, it was something deeper, more profound and respectful—for making them think that he had listened to them and understood.’ The book is as pro-Clinton, in its way, as the recent Michael Douglas liberal romance movie, The American President.

Who, then, might ‘Deep Pen’ be? The book glows with literary as well as political know-how. The purgatorial freeze in which the United States primary season begins is caught in a couple of briskly atmospheric sentences: ‘The airport was closed. I walked to the office; no one was there and the lock was frozen.’ The dialogue is Oscar-screenplay quality, although that might plausibly be the result of careful listening back in 1992.

There are times when the novel seems so knowing that you could believe ‘Anonymous’ really is Stephanopoulos or Carville, the latter having revealed a serious way with words in the campaign documentary The War Room, and already the author of one book for Random House. Most American attention, though, has centred on bigfoot scorps, for the novel covers only the period of the early 1992 primaries, when journalistic access to the Clinton campaign was relatively free. Certainly, it seems a very New York novel—the real vitriol is reserved for the Ozio/Cuomo characters—and possibly even a New Yorker one.

The most popular candidate at the time of writing is Garry Trudeau, the Doonesbury cartoonist. Oddly, reading the book before this rumour surfaced, sections of the novel had strongly reminded me of a television series called Tanner '88, a clever stunt in which Trudeau and the director Robert Altman entered a fictional candidate, played by an actor, in the primaries that year, where he mingled with the real candidates. Primary Colors might be viewed as a similar ‘happening’ and the book's dedication—‘For my spouse, living proof that flamboyance and discretion are not mutually exclusive’—might fit Mr. Trudeau's wife, the NBC anchorwoman, Jane Pauley.

But we cannot know, and that is the point. However long the secret now lasts, reading Primary Colors has been a reminder of the extent to which we now read fiction in the light of our knowledge of the author, and with constant subliminal reference to whether or not the work is autobiographical. But the book is now in its sixth printing and so, if this is a cunning experiment by Trudeau or anyone else, it has now turned into another one: will ‘Anonymous’ really be able to become the first late-20th-century American to reject celebrity?

Further Reading

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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.

Buckley defends Klein's decision to anonymously publish Primary Colors.

Fletcher, Jake. “The Cashmere Crisis.” Times Literary Supplement (9 February 1996): 22.

Fletcher praises Primary Colors as “an excellent comic novel.”

Rieder, Rem. “Primary Values.” American Journalism Review 18, no. 7 (September 1996): 6.

Rieder discusses the repercussions of Klein's decision to publish Primary Colors under the name “Anonymous.”

Shepard, Alicia C. “A ‘Book Nut’ Turned Sleuth.” American Journalism Review 18, no. 7 (September 1996): 11.

Shepard chronicles the investigation and eventual discovery of Klein's identity of the author of Primary Colors.

Warren, James. “Exposed, ‘Anonymous’ Colors Ethics Primarily Filthy.” Chicago Tribune (21 July 1996): 2.

Warren chronicles the critical reaction to Klein's admission that he is the author of Primary Colors.

Additional coverage of Klein's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85–88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 55; and Literature Resource Center.

James W. Wall (review date 28 February 1996)

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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 account of campaign spin-masters at work.

Primary Colors is an example of what feminist scholar Lila Abu-Lughod calls “situated writing”—writing that emerges from a distinct perspective. In a foreword to Janet Varner Gunn's West Bank Memoir, Abu-Lughod says that the term “situated writing” derives from the work of “feminist scholars, anthropologists, historians of science, and others” who have mounted a vigorous critique of the “possibility of objectivity.” For these critics, all writing, even or especially so-called objective writing, reflects a social and political stance.

Gunn's memoir is about “a woman, an academic, a human rights worker, and a long-ago little girl from Western Pennsylvania searching for something.” What she found while living for two years with a family in the Palestinian refugee camp of Deheishe was insight into Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation. After engaging in a “discourse of familiarity” with Palestinians in the camp, Gunn writes from a perspective that is distinctly situated.

We may never know the name of the author of Primary Colors, but some textual criticism offers a rather precise idea of where this author was “situated.” Though the characters are given fictional names, the reader can quickly identify the campaign personnel, beginning with Bill and Hillary Clinton. The writer is clearly someone who was high up in the campaign organization or had easy access to it. Too many insider details are used for the author to be an outsider. The details also indicate that the writer was involved in framing the campaign message and managing the media. The author displays no interest in or knowledge about the selection of delegates or the state-by-state field battles against opponents Bob Kerry, Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas.

Besides being full of information about the inner workings of a campaign, Primary Colors is an excellent novel—not the usual work of a political operative or reporter. In fact, the book shows the influence of Robert Penn Warren's classic political novel, All the Kings Men, about the rise and fall of another southern governor, Huey Long of Louisiana.

But the author does not appear to be a southerner. The rendition of back-country dialect is not authentic, and the writer seems unfamiliar with the influence that southern culture, including the culture of Southern, Baptist churches, has had on Clinton's life. Clinton is seen as a lovable, undisciplined good ol' boy who married a sharp, manipulative lawyer. The author's perspective is entirely that of a “war-room” planner. (The documentary film on the Clinton campaign titled The War Room also seems to have shaped the book.

What else can we infer about the author, besides that he or she was part of the “message” team, peripheral to field operations, and not from the South? My hunch is that the author is a woman, for the book contains a chillingly hostile description of a female friend of Hillary Clinton's—one that no male author, except perhaps one with the talent of John Updike, could produce. There's also a heroine in the novel—a female friend of the Clinton family who both defends and upbraids the Clintons with a loyalty that only a female author could have mastered. The sex scenes also seem like the work of a woman-restrained and subjective, whereas a man would provide clinical details.

What does all this matter? It matters only because in these early stages of the 1996 campaign Primary Colors reveals the degree to which presidential campaigns are dictated by two groups of professionals: the top campaign managers on the one hand and the media called (scorpions in the novel) on the other; the latter respond to, or reject, the public relations strategies that the campaign managers adopt. Sadly, the campaign has little to do with a democratic discussion of issues and everything to do with the entertainment value of the stories created by the spin-masters and with how the media leaders who depend on those stories cover them.

Paul Taylor, the Washington Post reporter who in 1988 asked candidate Gary Hart if he had ever committed adultery, is one media figure who has now had second thoughts about the way campaigns are covered. Though he still feels the circumstances of the campaign dictated that he put the adultery question to Hart, he is clearly uneasy over what has happened to his profession since 1988.

Taylor had a change of mind after he covered South Africa's first post-apartheid elections. “I happened to cover a society at a big turn, with figures that rose to the occasion,” he told the New Yorker. “They exerted moral leadership and brought frightened people across a great divide. They saw the possibilities of the human spirit.” The, contrast between “the cynicism and trivialization” of American elections and those in South Africa with its “culture of belief” led Taylor to turn down a Post assignment to cover this year's campaign. He decided instead to leave his profession and change “his press pass for a hair shirt.” Armed with a grant from Pew Charitable Trust, Taylor will work to combat campaign “cynicism and fakery” by lobbying the major television networks to provide presidential candidates with free air time in order to give the candidates direct access to the public.

The author of Primary Colors also appears to have reached a level of severe disillusionment over the state of politics and wants to warn the public that it has lost the precious gift of democratic deliberation and obtained an election process that serves professional campaigners and professional reporters. Two such conversions do not make a reformation, but it is a start.

Christopher Hitchens (review date 29 February 1996)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7015

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 also been the “advance man” for the presidential trip to Dallas in November of 1963, and in this memoir he vividly described the atmosphere of hate and venom in that city, rightly locating it not on the Birchite fringe but in the pitiless conflict between the Connally and Yarborough wings of the Texas Democratic establishment. It was their vicious squabbling, for example, that led to the fatal change in the route of Kennedy's motorcade.

If you care to take up and read The Advance Man today, you will be struck above all by the atmosphere of amateurism and voluntaryism that it conveys. In the crucial Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries which gave John Kennedy the nomination, politics was still being contested at the front-porch and saloon-bar level and (though his father, Joseph, left nothing to chance on the fund-raising and fund-distributing fronts) the candidate was compelled to engage directly with the voters. In one West Virginia town, where the issue of popery was still a heated one, a woman came over to Bruno while he was taking the measure of the place for a potential Kennedy visit:

“I'd like to see you alone,” she whispered.

We sneaked off somewhere.

“I overheard that you're going to have Kennedy here,” she said. “I just want to tell you that I'm for him.” It was like she was offering to sell atomic secrets. “I have a tip,” she went on. “Don't put up any signs until an hour or two before he comes. Otherwise they'll tear them all down.”

Bruno's response was to get high-school students to pass out handbills door to door “so that nobody could keep the news of a Kennedy visit from people.” And such techniques had their usefulness elsewhere, and for other reasons:

In Wisconsin, at the urging of Joe Kennedy, we had hundreds of people distributing a tabloid newspaper about John Kennedy. It would have been cheaper—certainly easier—to hire a distribution company, but by using volunteers, it meant all these people and their families felt a commitment to the campaign. They were thinking about it. They were arguing the case for Kennedy to their friends. They were certain to vote on primary day, and to get out their friends.

The Advance Man contains tips on everything from how to deal with assassination threats (“Those who write don't shoot,” Bobby Kennedy was fond of saying, “and those who shoot don't write”) to the tactics required for filling a football stadium in Nashville. The aspirant advance man is advised to make friends with a local labor committee, and to “Give 50 housewives the title of ‘hostess,’ and give them the job of inviting 10 people, with calls to be made from their homes (saves money).” Touchingly, Bruno and Greenfield think to include some counsel on what to do to keep a crowd of potential voters amused and sympathetic:

Some local talent has to keep the crowd's enthusiasm up, especially if it's possible the candidate will be an hour or two late. There are always enough budding rock bands or folk singers around.

Moments of unscripted fiasco take up a certain amount of the narrative. “For example, this rule: do not separate a candidate from a speech writer if the speech writer has the speech.” In Cincinnati, Kennedy was separated from Ted Sorensen by a vast throng of well-wishers. Sorensen was in possession of a text which the candidate had not yet seen. By better luck than management, the speech and the speaker were united with five minutes to go, and “the next morning a Cincinnati paper noted how important Kennedy's speech was, since he read it word for word to make sure he wasn't going to be misquoted.”

And then there is “Grand Clong,” a term of art coined by Frank Mankiewicz. It occurs “when things get hopelessly loused up and you suddenly feel a rush of shit to the heart.” Grand Clong may strike in a variety of ways. It struck Mr. Bruno in Ohio when he heard John Kennedy intone the words: “I would rather light a candle than curse the darkness,” and registered automatically that the last line of the standard speech had just been delivered. Exiting the hall the requisite few moments ahead of the candidate, however, he found that the car pool had been moved without notification. The amazed JFK found himself hitching a lift from some college students to the next stop; an episode of unfeigned informality which would, these days, be written up either as incompetence or as a cynical attempt to demonstrate a popular touch.

The Advance Man is not prescient. (Its closing chapter is devoted to a confident analysis of the way in which John Vliet Lindsay—for whom Greenfield once toiled—will outclass Richard Nixon to become the next President of the United States.) But it has a distinct retrospective charm. Even those of us who feel immune to the alleged Kennedy “charisma” may turn from a contemplation of the 1960 West Virginia primary to the 1995 “Iowa straw poll”—opening barrage of this current campaign—and feel that political participation has become a touch emaciated. In Iowa last fall, every round was won by those who could pay for expensive television slots and lavish, open, local hospitality. Anyone, whether a resident of Iowa or not, could vote for the Republican of his or her choice on production of a voucher for $25. Public spirit was limited to this for-sale electorate, and to those who could afford—in the confusion between “franchising” and “the franchise”—to indulge or commission it.

At one stage, perhaps the most pointedly derivative of the Eatanswill style, the workers of an Armour meat-packing plant (a concern in which Mrs. Wendy Gramm holds an interest) were brought by bus-convoy from out of state to cast a ballot for the senior senator from Texas. So blatant was the Tammany nature of the business that most newspapers wrote, in advance of the “straw poll,” that it was not “really” a “poll” at all, let alone a caucus or a primary. But after the “surprise” showing of the aforesaid senior senator from Texas, it was not long before reporters began to write of “the Iowa caucuses” as if they had been a real thing; a supplier of momentum and a challenge to the axiomatic incumbent, Robert Dole. Up-ticks in opportunist opinion polls were solemnly noted in consequence. Two quite serious candidates for the Republican nomination—Governor Pete Wilson of California and Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania—both had their subsequent withdrawals from the race partly attributed to a “poor showing in Iowa,” as if the commentators had quite forgotten their having earlier sworn off this degraded piece of commercial show biz. Their departure opened the door for Steve Forbes, who in an admittedly more fastidious form still exemplifies the Gramm dictum that “money is the mother's milk of American politics.” The irony is not only at the expense of Senator Gramm.

In a piece of what must have been unashamed rigging, the Iowa organizers declared a dead heat between Senators Dole and Gramm—a hucksterish means of keeping the balloon in the air. And now we read almost daily of state legislatures voting to advance the date of their own primaries, so as to challenge the traditional preeminence of the conservative eccentrics of New Hampshire. As politics decays into a spectator sport, we face a political season where neither major party seems capable even of putting on much of a show. American political life is crowded with color and incident and drama, from the Million Man March to the militias, and from insurgents in the AFL-CIO to the “national socialists” of the Buchanan campaign. But American politics is monochrome and predictable; the province of the lobbyists and donors and pollsters and those who pay or are paid by them and who hope to deal in negotiable security. (To this list must be added the major media outlets, who are the recipients of the advertising and polling dollars and who have every interest, latent as well as explicit, in presenting the “race” as a Herblock-style knockabout between a large, rich donkey and a large, opulent elephant.)

To judge at any rate by the crop rendered this spring, the general enervation has settled like a blight on the national talent for pulp fiction. Here are three novels—two of them by experienced practitioners and one by a presumed insider—which seek to catch the supposed wave of interest that carries the civic-minded reader through the year of a general election. And, by a happy chance, each of them treats of a discrete moment in the process; in one case the eliminating primaries, in another the set-piece debate between the successful candidates for nomination, and in the third the ultimate authority conferred upon an incoming chief executive by the Electoral College.

Novels like this have to be recognizable, in the sense of dealing in familiar and reassuring concepts. But with the political landscape as flat as Noel Coward's Norfolk, they must also contain some elements of shock and surprise; the more shocking and surprising for their occurrence in just that familiar and reassuring scene. In order to infuse drama, Jeff Greenfield has gone for the double crown in proposing the death of the President, and further proposing that his death should strike during the period of the constitutionally mandated interregnum. Jim Lehrer has been less daring, perhaps, in suggesting a conspiracy among journalists to upset the balance of a televised presidential debate. While “Anonymous” has contented himself (if he is a he) by reconstructing the last successful presidential bid as somewhat nearer to the heart's desire.

These choices may be more subversive and transgressive than they appear. Reporters who remember the brave days of Jerry Bruno may chafe at the requirement to cover routine and manipulated events as if they were “real” or genuine. Those who have read An American Melodrama,1 probably the best journalistic narrative of an actual campaign, may feel the same. This team-book still has the power to move readers, because it summons the atmosphere of the 1968 election and actually does keep the unfulfilled promise of most campaign volumes in digging below the surface and behind the scenes. Nineteen sixty-eight was probably the last election year in which “Politics”—the world of the manager and the fixer—was forced to intersect and engage with “politics,” otherwise the realm of human struggle and tragedy. The fixers won in the end, as the authors unsentimentally record. It is an especially useful book for those who have just seen Oliver Stone's new Nixon or “new Nixon.” Today the need for a deus ex machina, or for the intervention of something remarkable and fantastic like the eloquent cat in The Master and Margarita, increases in some proportion to the dreariness and officialdom of the allegedly real thing.

But first to Primary Colors, which takes the opposite route of escape, and attempts to redo the immediate past. I've done my best to identify the author, whose name is being closely held by Random House. The narrator, at any rate, is a young black male (actually the child of a black father and a white mother) who is urged by the candidate and his wife to forsake his current day job and join the crusade of a Democratic, technocratic, Southern, horny, greedy, draft-dodging governor who wants the top job. I think that this rules out Christopher Buckley. (Though one should perhaps not forget that Harold Evans's most recent stealth candidate for the highest office was a black man successful principally with whites.) It's too well-phrased to be by James Carville, whose last book, “written” with Mary Matalin, gratified all those who believe that the two main party establishments are literally in bed with each other. It could conceivably be by Eric Tarloff, the screen-writing free spirit who is married to Laura D'Andrea Tyson, chair of Clinton's National Economic Council. And there is always Malcolm Gladwell, the witty Washington Post New York correspondent, who is (as we used to say) of mixed blood and who can make with the words. But the search for an “insider” may be pointless, because the book describes the Clinton campaign in very much the terms that most people remember it, from the vicissitudes of early New Hampshire to the gradual “front-running” status that succeeded the New York and Florida primaries.

Yet though it would not be necessary to have worked “on campaign,” or to have “covered” same, it would certainly be a help. “Mammoth Falls” is obviously Little Rock, and Bill and Hillary are drawn from the evident life, but it still takes a little acquaintance to summarize the fledgling and initiating hotel-suite launch of a presidential bid in this knowing vernacular:

It was generic; it existed outside time. I was, at once, vaguely depressed and entirely comfortable. There was a handful of pols in shirtsleeves, working the phones, hammering laptops, nibbling off platters of fruit and cheese, chugging Diet Cokes. No smoke, no booze anymore. But a haze of ill health just the same; sycophancy frays the nerves, clogs the arteries. I didn't know most of them. There were a couple of bodyguard, trooper types. There were a couple of Handi Wipes with wispy mustaches—statehouse sorts about to be paved over.

There is a gift of slang and lingo in this novel—“Handi Wipes” for disposable appointees; “muffins” for young and impressionable volunteers; “scorps” for reporters—that in its automatic callousness bespeaks the real thing. As usual, though, the apparently hard-nosed carapace conceals an almost puerile sentimentality. Or do I mean nostalgia? In any case, it concerns guess who. This is the hard-boiled narrator speaking:

“The thing is, I'd kind of like to know what it feels like when you're fighting over … y'know—historic stuff. I'm not like you, I didn't have Kennedy. I got him from books, from TV. But I can't get enough of him, y'know? Can't stop looking at pictures of him, listening to him speak, I've never heard a president use words like ‘destiny’ or ‘sacrifice’ and it wasn't bullshit. So: I want to be part of something, a moment, like that. When it's real, when it's history. I …” I had let things slip a little bit. That wasn't good. I was interviewing for a job where my primary responsibility would be to not let things slip.

Oh, dry up. This is exactly the combination of the “tough” and the “tender” that plays to perfection. Anybody who remembers the last Democratic Convention remembers the moment when the now-exiled Harry and Susan Bloodworth-Thomason produced the weathered film clip of the boy William Jefferson Clinton shaking hands with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was the only thing about which all delegates agreed, even those who were unsure about both actual persons. Always the same yearning, it seems; the kind that is evoked by reading the Bruno-Greenfield memoir. A yearning, however ill-spent on an undeserving recipient, for authenticity. The narrator (who shifts from gruff to moist with such unsettling speed partly because he is addressing a future First Lady with whom at one point he shares an illicit bed) hits the same key when he says:

Well, y'know, I wonder: It couldn't always have been the way it is now; the feeling of—of blah. Swamp gas. Stagnation. There had to be times when it was better. The other guys had it with Reagan, I guess.

Indeed they did. But Mr. Reagan was never happier than when citing Mr. Kennedy; proof enough that myths are rightly so-called. Still, we should note that even among the hard-boiled there persists a half-formed wish that the whole business be “about” something more than itself.

This is, like Henry Adams's Democracy, another book that was first published by “Anonymous,” a novel about “process.” Governor Stanton loves “process,” as does his real-world model. In 1972, Bill Clinton and Taylor Branch were sent down to Texas by the George McGovern campaign. Unpromising territory for anti-war and civil rights activists at the best of times, Texas that year was the scene of the same envenomed Democratic factionalism that Jerry Bruno remembers from a decade earlier. Taylor Branch, since celebrated for his marvelous biography of Dr. King, recalls that “politics” down there consisted of no issues or principles, but rather of an endless series of log-rollings, accommodations, back-scratchings, and ego-stroking deals. He was dispirited beyond words. But he suddenly noticed something. “Bill really loved that stuff.” And he was good at it, too.

I consider this the encapsulating anecdote about Clinton, and one merit of Primary Colors is its unsparing focus on the small change of politics: the backroom and back-slap aspect. Here is the Guv as he mounts a charm offensive on a necessary bigwig in New Hampshire (a state, by the way, that is tellingly and aptly described as having a meteorology “both suffocating and freezing”):

“And I know,” Stanton continued, “that your endorsement means a lot—it's your word of honor, it's your bond—and that it would mean the world to me here in New Hampshire. You have it in your power to make the next president of the United States, and I know you don't take it lightly. Everyone knows the respect that people have for you here. But listen, Barry: We are going to do great things. We are going to make history. You want to be part of that. You want to be part of it now—and next year in Washington, after we win. We'll make a place for you, an important place. I'm not the sort who forgets who brung him to the dance. We take care of our friends, Barry. You know what that means, right?”

This book might be filmed as All the Governor's Men. Governor Huey Long is supposed once to have summoned a meeting of the Louisiana “business community” to discuss his reelection prospects. “Those of you who come in with me now,” he said softly, “will get big pieces of pie. Those who come in with me later will get smaller pieces of pie. Those who don't come in at all will get—Good Government.

Mastery of axioms like these is not as easily acquired as it is easily described. But Stanton has it. Unfortunately, his initial takeoff is impeded by a series of Grand Clongs and rushes of excrement to the heart. The depiction of these does not put “Anonymous” to the trouble of very much fictional artifice. Ward Just entitled one of his Washington novels Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women, and it has often been remarked that the most ambitious politician will jeopardize all of the first four ingredients for a relatively meager cinq à sept's worth of the latter. The Gennifer Flowers flap is retold in very much the terms we remember from “real time,” with the Governor being saved by two strong women. The first, his wife, agrees to deny that he has been having an affair on condition that he breaks off the having of affairs. The second, a titanic Sapphist damage-controller from back home who speaks almost entirely in capital letters, is one of the character triumphs of the book, and may indeed be one of the reasons for the author's anonymity.

The draft-dodging Clong also resounds, as does a paternity suit from a black family close to the Governor, and as do various descriptions of Neronian temper and Falstaffian gluttony. The warts are all on show. Yet it gradually emerges that the whole intention of the story is a lenient and exculpatory one. In mid-narrative, nonfiction is dropped and fiction, so to speak, kicks in. A scandal about down-home Tobacco Road real-estate corruption, which is given the generic name of “Tidewater,” is attached to a rival candidate. The Governor, who is given the goods on his opponent, declines to make use of the “opposition research” on general grounds of decency and public civility. Other moments of wishful thinking make their appearance. Of the rival we are told:

Picker wasn't acting like the sort of politician we were used to. He hadn't brought on any consultants; in fact, he'd let Paul Shaplen go. He had announced, on Larry King, that he wouldn't do any thirty-second spots. Or polling. Or focus groups. “I'm not going to hire a bunch of folks to tell me what you're thinking and how to get at you,” he'd said.

This is like giving the Lord of Misrule a free hand. Yet it is well-balanced with some acute observation of what the “campaign trail” is really like:

I walked across the plaza, past scraggly, newly planted linden striplings, toward a vacant store-front where two mayoral security guards framed the door. The area was empty in the distinctive, depressing manner of overly optimistic urban renewal cityscapes; it had recently been spiffed up—brick walkways, an Africa Pride mural—and teetered at a sterile apogee of nondecline.

If “Anonymous” is really a black or half-black man (and he might be well advised to be, since he throws the word “nigger” about fairly freely, and affects some knowledge about the special quality of the African-American experience) then it is odd that he avoids completely the subject of Rickey Ray Rector. Here was an actual moment of definition in the Clinton campaign, when it was necessary for the Governor to decide whether or not to grant clemency. Rector, an admitted cop-killer, had lobotomized himself in an attempt at suicide and was so far unable to understand his own plight that he saved his pecan pie dessert (“for later”) on the very day of his execution by lethal injection. That execution went forward, at Clinton's direct insistence, in the middle of the New Hampshire primary campaign.2 It was made as clear as could be that Clinton would not allow himself to be “Willie Hortoned,” or otherwise depicted as “soft” on the race/crime phenomenon.

Interviewing James Carville for the BBC in Little Rock, I inquired about Rector's mentally disabled condition and was told, with a directness that did not lack its element of relish, that “he wasn't disabled when he committed the crime.” Yet no such crux, or any moral equivalent to it, is encountered in these pages. Instead, we are presented with the idea of a “tormented” candidate, made of human clay like the rest of us to be sure, but if anything slightly too high-toned for the sordid business of politics.3 Even the celebrated claim that the candidate “didn't inhale” is reworked, when Governor Stanton is asked if he ever tried cocaine:

“Yeah, once,” Stanton said. “Freaked me out. Made me too speedy. Also I have a kind of screwed-up, sensitive nose.”

(As one who was at Oxford at the same time as our current President, I can testify that marijuana was freely available in the chocolate cookie/baked goods form, which saved those with smoke-sensitivity a great deal of inconvenience.)

In the end, “Anonymous” has a brief crisis of conscience, caused by stress and burnout more than any consideration of principle, and is heroically talked out of it by the candidate himself. The language is precisely that crude, pragmatic, “lesser evil” dialect that we have been prepared for:

We live in an eternity of false smiles—and why? Because it's the price you pay to lead. You don't think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his shit-eating, back-country grin. He did it all just so he'd get the opportunity, one day, to stand in front of the nation and appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

The “eternity of false smiles” is good. The argument is worn as smooth as a pebble. But it always succeeds, so that's all right then. It qualifies this novel as a work, however slight, of verisimilitude.

A permanent subtext, which is also present in the other two novels of the season, concerns the role of the press and media. “Anonymous” takes the view that the “scorps” or scorpions of the Fourth Estate are forever on a blood-in-the-water alert. This opinion, very common in the political class, ministers to its mirror-image among the press corps, which is always ready, with a shy self-deprecating grin, to confess that if it has a fault it is an excess of the “adversarial” gene. Such poppycock, which is in reality no more than an exercise in mutual self-regard, has its usefulness for both parties. The politicians can claim to be held to an impossible standard (which they never are) and the pundits can hold seminars of introspection about whether they have gone too far (which they never do). Sidney Blumenthal of The New Yorker, whose germinal journalistic role in the Clinton campaign is very gently suggested in these pages, has written a most amusing play about the obsession of the Washington press corps with trivia and with inessential gossip.4 He seeks to capture the pack behavior which puts the same “herd of independent minds” either at the throat or at the feet of a given politician. “Anonymous” only understands this phenomenon in one dimension:

The second wave of scorps was heading my way now. They would want a react to whatever the opposing spinners had laid down. And now they were all over me, and the questions—it was weird—were about process: How would we be able to soldier on with the press all over us about [Flowers]? How would we be able to get our message out? Wouldn't we just be on the defensive now? The press was asking this. It was surreal.

True enough, as far as it goes. Yet the narrator sees only half the irony in his later sarcastic commentary:

The scorps weren't reporting the trash, but how we dealt with the trash. The story hadn't really broken yet—and already it was one step removed: the press was reporting about how the candidate would deal with how the press would report about the story.

This is having it both ways. I remember “the bimbo explosion” very well from New Hampshire in 1992. But the Clinton operatives did not decline their share of the credit when the press decided to award Hillary Clinton the palm for her performance at her husband's side, when she effectively bluffed on the Flowers flap and was not called on it—or on much else besides, including the Savings and Loan matter then current. The herd has this virtue; it can give you a bad press for getting a bad press but, out of sheer feeble fair-mindedness, it will also give you a good press for getting a good press. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan understood this perfectly and instinctively in a way that the Clintonoids, riddled with self-pity, do not.

Journalism and its “professional ethics” are at the center of the Greenfield and Lehrer fictions. In The People's Choice, Greenfield annexes a familiar sports phrase—“full court press”—to make a happy metaphor for media frenzy. (Usually, it's a bad thing when sports terms make their transition to the political vernacular, but the press has courtly qualities which justify this one.) And he tries to demonstrate that he has “seen through” the pretenses of the two professions—full-time politician and prestige journalist—which he straddles.

Mr. Greenfield is one of the ornaments of a television show that has made gurus out of Henry Kissinger and Benjamin Netanyahu. Can he afford to be candid? Well, here is how he describes the clout of his patrician vice-presidential character:

Block was one of the few people in public life who could, with a single phone call, arrange for a contrite New York Times editorial page apology for a reporter's acerbic observation the day before—an accomplishment usually available only to bankers with a net worth of more than one billion dollars, or corpulent, Teutonic ex-secretaries of state.

Then there is his mordant description of “the campaign universe” as seen by the journalistic establishment:

It started with The Summer Before, with long conversations with the potential candidates and their handlers, and you went to conferences in executive retreats and academic seminar rooms, talking about how the campaign would be covered differently this time, with depth, context, substance, perspective.

Not bad, as we brace ourselves for another go-around. Nor does Greenfield take refuge in the false professional excuse that “the media” only reflect reality rather than condition it.

There were the early trips into Iowa and New Hampshire, and self-conscious jokes about how ridiculously early all this was. There were chats with the concerned citizens of Dubuque, Waterloo, Concord, Keene, who seemed every four years to try harder and harder to sound like the down-home, commonsense folks whose faces were most likely to pop up on the TV screen.

He also captures deftly the collective mind of the media in time of crisis. Here is a network vice-president laying down the law at a news division meeting.

“I am speaking at the express request of the chairman and CEO of this organization. So listen to me. Very carefully. The whole country is in a state of shock. If the market had been open these last two days, it's a safe bet that hundreds of billions of dollars in equity would have been wiped out—which would have left millions of people in this country, and most of you in this room, who hold our stock, significantly poorer. … Above all … and these are the chairman's words, we must do everything we can to convey a sense of stability in these uncertain days. No one is to do or say anything—anything—that would undermine this critical work. We must be the voice of reason and reassurance here.”

Mr. Greenfield works for ABC. The above tone of voice was exactly the one conveyed by the editor of its corporate and opinion poll affiliate, The Washington Post, in October of 1988. The stock market was commencing to fall, on the circulation of a rumor that the Post was about to publish a scandalous fact about George Bush. In order to allay concern and to save the market, Ben Bradlee broke a long-standing rule at the paper and announced (without saying what the scandalous allegation actually was) that the paper was not going to publish it. We live in a time and culture when it is considered the height of statesmanship to inveigh against “the politics of division”—as if politics was not division by definition.

At another moment, Greenfield shows guilty knowledge of that supreme instrument of surreptitious consensus-building, the instant opinion poll:

“According to a flash poll we just completed, sixty-four percent expressed ‘serious reservations’ about Theodore Block's qualifications to be President.”

“How many people could you call in an hour?” Sharon Kramer asked.

“Twenty-two,” the pollster said. “But it was a very tight screen.”

All of this flapdoodle is generated by a crisis of legality which is, in the opinion of some constitutional scholars, actually waiting to happen. Once the voters have chosen the Electoral College delegates, those delegates are, in law and in theory and in fact, free to choose the President. If the candidate with the most votes should die or become incompetent before being inaugurated, then his political heirs and assigns have no right to determine his successor. The Electoral College does not have to accept, for example, the nonentity who ran in the vice-presidential slot. It is, for its brief life, sovereign.

In 1823, Thomas Jefferson exclaimed that: “The Electoral College is the most dangerous blot on our Constitution, and one which some unlucky chance will one day hit.” The College is part of the reserve strength of anti-democratic entrenchment which (like the laws on ballot access and voter registration) prevent American voters from being faced with an embarrassment of choice. Like much else, the College favors small and monochrome states. In 1968, a total of 73,123,490 American voters went to the polls. Exactly 55,458 of them—less than one tenth of one percent—made it Nixon over Humphrey in Ohio and Missouri. If they had voted for Humphrey instead, then Nixon would have been deprived of thirty-eight electoral votes. “That would have left Alabama governor and third-party presidential candidate George Wallace with the balance of power, able to deal his votes to the highest bidder, or plunge the election into the House of Representatives, gumming up the political machinery of the United States for months.” Greenfield's book is educational, both for those who think the president ought to be elected by a popular vote, and for those who mistakenly think that he already is.

Richard Gere's 1986 movie Power, one of the few “Washington insider” pictures to capture anything of the process, has a hapless candidate from a western state. Forced by his handlers to mount a horse and don a cowboy hat, he is ignominiously thrown while trying to keep his hat on. But the “still” photograph of the fiasco, cropped from the aborted campaign video, nonetheless shows him atop a rearing steed while waving his Stetson in the air. Greenfield's President-elect is killed in the course of making just such a futile gesture. The Vice-President, a Dan Quayle-like figure, is depicted with some gift of parody as believing that “the unexamined life was damn well worth living,” and as trusting to Adam Smith's “Invisible Hand” since hands such as these have attended him since birth.

In general, Greenfield keeps up a good, breezy, sarcastic style, though there are occasions where the word-processing breaks through. In one chapter, the childhood of a crucial Elector in Michigan is well evoked until we learn that volunteer tasks “did put her in places where it was likely that, sooner or later, the sound of laughter was likely to be heard.” In another, the Vice-President has been out running, “although only a thin sheen of sweat covered his lean chest and bright blue running shorts,” which must have been disgusting for the shorts. Places that feature on the campaign trail and then vanish are more than once described as “Brigadoon.”

But there is compensation in the small and clever revenges that Greenfield takes on the idiocy of his own profession. How many wasted days and nights must have gone into his depiction of the time-honored practice whereby a reporter rushes from a televised press-conference, seizes the phone and calls the news desk with the very information that they have meanwhile absorbed from the TV set. (This version of Nitwitness or Halfwitness News, which tends to intensify with the electoral cycle, has anchor-persons being interviewed live from scenes which they are unable to describe because they cannot see the television monitor.)

The difficulty with this genre of political fiction is that it must, for purposes of mise en scène, propose a huge disturbance in the “natural” order. Thus the selection of titles, from Jeffrey Archer's Shall We Tell the President? onward. “The Grand Clong” might itself make a fine title, except that it suggests an office-bearer in the Ku Klux Klan. Greenfield has proposed the grandest of clongs; the one that Jefferson presumably feared after his grueling contest with Aaron Burr; the coincidence of a presidential death with a crisis of legitimacy. It is much easier to get into these crises, as a matter of literary form, than it is to get out of them. Primary Colors stops almost in mid-sentence, on a note of modified uplift. The People's Choice merely peters out. Having proposed and disposed of a series of back-room deals, most of them played out by a series of burlesque characters—such as the black opportunist Dixon Mason—Greenfield achieves resolution by way of an orgy of bipartisan good manners. This makes the novel rather a long run for such a short slide.

Jim Lehrer's ninth fictional effort takes another aspect of the presidential campaign apparatus—the climactic “debate” between the rival candidates—and locates it at the precise point where the curves of journalistic narcissism and political theater intersect. Everybody knows the high moments, which have sometimes been credited with altering the outcome: Nixon's damp and darkened jowl; Bernard Shaw's outrageous question to Michael Dukakis about the putative rape of his wife; the moment when Ronald Reagan took a drive in memory along the Pacific Coast Highway and nearly ran himself off the road.

There are reputations to be made as well as lost; those who find the success of Fred Barnes to be mysterious can trace his upward arc to the point where he represented The Baltimore Sun on the Carter-Reagan questioner's panel.

With the debate the three unities of the drama are present in time, place, and action. The five reportorial baseline questions—Who, What, Where, When, and Why?—are naturally latent. Everything will be decided within an hour. Lehrer opens by presenting the journalistic selection process. He offers a joke within a joke, since his narrator-voice is also a reporter “covering” the story, and this reporter achieves true Bob Woodward self-importance by claiming in his preface to have interviewed “178 persons,” and by promising “to turn over the tapes as well as my notes to a suitable academic depository for use by scholars at some future date.” And he makes it fairly clear that the time is the present, since he coins the term “clownalist” for those scribes who act like performing seals on weekend TV, and has one character say: “It started with Broder, then Eleanor Clift and that clown from the San Francisco paper—I've already forgotten his name—and then the other bureau chiefs and news-magazine types.”

As ever, the main political antagonists are drawn from stock. Paul L. Greene is a lackluster Democratic loser and David Donald Meredith is a nativist demagogue with the minatory slogan “Take It Back, America.” The journalistic actors are slightly ahead of their time: it will be a little while before we see a panel made up of a white male hard-news type, an ambitious female anchor, a young black woman, and an aspirant Hispanic. But this does allow Lehrer a slight subplot about “bean counting” and the fierce journalistic envies that arise from affirmative action (and are the fiercer for being repressed). With him, also, the word processor is an enemy whose measure he has yet to take:

Barbara was terrorized by him and by deadlines, the coming of which in her weekly life everybody said she would eventually either get used to or perish from.

It's not all like that, but too much of it is. The famous four decide, in the privacy of their very first meeting, that the vile Meredith must be prevented from taking the oath of office. They seed the carefully scripted debate with deadly and novel questions, none of them to do with politics or ideology. Not only do they unhorse the front-runner Meredith, but they are hailed for doing so. Some of them, indeed, go on to achieve the acme of professional ambition, which is a Carville-Matalin type chat-show: “a two-person, left-right, one-call-does-all commentary team.” One bows the head at such an apotheosis.

Lehrer, too, joins the happy-finale club. But in order for his Saturnalia to “work,” it might be noted, he has to indulge the idea that “the media” is (or more properly are) at once too liberal and too powerful. This is of course an idea which is only believed by those who wish it true and by those who have made it untrue. It amounts to an easy option for conservative liberals. It surfaces frequently. In Primary Colors, as the Clintonesque spin-doctors enter a press enclosure in New Hampshire, they are described as “triangulating.” This is the term of choice—it's too much to call it a term of art—coined by our President's new favorite, the apolitical “consultant” Dick Morris. If you desired to summarize his strategy and tactics in one old routine, you might inquire: “Why did Bill Clinton cross the road?” The answer would be: “Because he wanted to get to the middle.”

These three authors belong to the world of “Politics” rather than “politics.” They are themselves a part of the apparatus, of those who “do” elections every four years; taking the polls and conscripting the wisdom and then, as if to save valuable time, “projecting” the result. This permanent class of the permanent campaign needs an occasional holiday, and also an outlet for the stories it was once told “on deep background.” But the excursion is a safe and controlled one, before the resumption of business as usual. That's why all these holiday narratives follow Miss Prism's maxim and take care that the good end happily, and the bad unhappily, which is (after all) “what fiction means.


  1. Godfrey Hodgson, Lewis Chester, and Bruce Page, An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968 (Viking, 1968).

  2. See Marshall Frady, The New Yorker, February 22, 1993. Also Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” The Nation, March 2, 1992.

  3. The assumption is the commonplace about “lesser evil,” as if Clinton offered the only home to dissent. There is no Jerry Brown among the field of imagined rivals.

  4. Sidney Blumenthal, This Town: A Play of Manners (Los Angeles Theaterworks, 1995). Those Washington journalists in the play who use high-profile “scandal” to increase their speaking fees are shown up as innocents at home by a New York muckraker who, flatteringly soliciting their “Beltway knowledge,” uses it to expose them as short-term predators. Even so, Mr. Blumenthal might be rethinking his notion of the Whitewater Clintons as the victims of a mere media canard.

Boyd Tonkin (review date 1 March 1996)

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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 farcical intrigue of a Michael Dobbs or an Edwina Currie—or even the abysmal mugging down in Annie's Bar.

They order these things differently in the U.S. Chicanery on Capitol Hill favours chamber-drama, not melodrama. As for the presidential race, it tugs some unknown contender from nowhere to supreme power (or supreme disappointment) like some accelerated 19th-century Bildungsroman.

That may help to explain why Primary Colors by “Anonymous”—the inside-track novel about a campaign that resembles Bill Clinton's in 1992—amounts to more than a long exercise in dirt-dishing. Free of the tiresome hamminess of British political fiction, it depicts credible characters—not Francis Urquhart-style cartoons—whose public masks do not yet fit them. They despise “politics as usual” but play it to the hilt. They have muddled and believable private lives. They neither speak nor act like wind-up dolls with party rosettes on. This is, in short, a quite outstanding novel of political process and motive that reads like a slightly hipper version of Gore Vidal.

But who is “Anonymous”? According to a computer analysis at Vassar College, it was Newsweek columnist Joe Klein whodunit. (The first paragraph contains the phrase “I am small”—klein—but he has denied authorship). At any rate, the writer has done heavy homework on the first stages of Clinton's campaign, when the Arkansas governor rode out a “portable shit storm” of scandal to survive by the skin of his ever-grinning teeth. But these roman-à-clef elements soon cease to matter. Any voter will recognise governor Jack Stanton and the “stark ferocity of his hunger” to be loved.

We trace his path across the “ceremonies of the stump,” and the “tabloid morass” of sleaze through the eyes of his black (or rather, “yaller”) factotum, Henry Burton. Cynical Henry falls for Stanton's feats of “aerobic listening,” his tears, his warmth, his easy rapport with “the folks.” The Governor's crew then fights the flak as the media “scorps” (those pests with a sting in their tales) bring out the smoking bimbos. Meanwhile, two prissy, green-tinged rivals join the race and challenge Stanton's down-home populism.

Other characters snap and crackle away, each defined by pungent tricks of speech. There's the campaign strategist—a foul-mouthed, redneck Machiavelli—and the candidate's ice-cool, ruthless wife. Best of all is Olivia the “dust buster,” the “manic, six-foot, 250-pound lesbian who knew where all the bodies were buried,” who rips like a profane tornado through the mess that Stanton leaves behind him.

Razor-edged epigrams and electrifying dialogue keep dullness at bay, despite the narrow focus of the plot. From the look of kids in TV advert (“a demographically correct display of acne-free teenagers”) to a glimpse of Stanton's wife dropping his hand “as if it were a dead rat” after her stand-by-your-man act on camera, every page fizzes with a thrilling political—and stylistic—intelligence. The literature of public life doesn't come much better than this. In 1946, Robert Penn Warren wrote a comparably strong novel about a rabble-rousing southern governor (All the King's Men). It's hard to name a more recent work that draws the double face of power-seeking—its altruism, and its egomania—quite so vividly. Among the self-effacing Shy Guys of US fiction, Pynchon and Salinger now have a serious competitor.

Christian Science Monitor (review date 6 March 1996)

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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 suddenly become celebrity's spotlight, the big enchilada of political prose.

It wasn't always thus. The early works of the Bronte sisters were published anonymously; so was Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. Closer to home, Democracy, Henry Adams's gloomy 1880 novel about Washington politics, also appeared anonymously. Nobody gave much of a hoot. A book, they figured, is a book. The ruling question was—is it a good book?

Nowadays we have celebrity, which is not the same thing as fame. A famous woman or man goes on being famous. A celebrity is only famous for a relatively short time. “Evel” Knieval is a daredevil who was celebrated for jumping his motorcycle over rows of parked cars and for other such risky antics. His act, while thrilling, was limited. It ceased to be interesting after a while. Now he isn't a celebrity anymore. Our newest celebrity—the lady who wins downhill skiing races—has double appeal: Not only is she a superb athlete, she also has a beguiling name, Picabo (pronounced peek-a-boo) Street.

In other words, this is big name time—even if many of the most prominent names cease to be big after awhile. It is, therefore, of abiding interest that an author who signs himself or herself Anonymous has caused such a whoop of media attention, guessing games, and finger-pointing.

Even more than writing an apparently accurate insider look at the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, Anonymous has stood the custom of the times on its head. This canny author can't cease to be a celebrity because he or she never was one in the first place. Whoever wrote Primary Colors clobbered us all with the power of implication; by putting “Anonymous” on the book's cover beneath the title, the implication was that the author was so hugely well known, so intimately knowledgeable about the 1992 Democratic presidential campaign, that signing his or her name to the novel was out of the question. Whispered conjectures were left behind; could the author be Tipper, possibly Al, you don't suppose Hillary—BILL HIMSELF?

It could be that big names are about to go the way of all fads and fashions—onto the trash heap of history, as Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (a former celebrity) used to say. It could further be that anonymity will become all the rage. If that is the case, we can call off the rest of the Republican primaries. We already know who the 1996 GOP nominee will be:

Anonymous, that's who.

Elaine Showalter (review date 7 March 1996)

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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 American paperback rights have been sold for $1.5 million, and Mike Nichols has bought the movie rights for another million. Garry Trudeau has put it into Doonesbury. Street vendors in Washington are selling buttons that read ‘I am not Anonymous.’

Primary Colors, the funny, literate and juicy roman à clef about the 1992 Democratic Presidential primary campaign, featuring an ambitious, visionary, greedy, gregarious and womanising Southern governor named Jack Stanton, seen through the eyes of a disillusioned aide, has generated two simultaneous media debates. One: is it really as good a novel as it seems, or are we dazzled by hype and the excitement of an election year? Two: is Anonymous a Clinton campaign insider who has sold his party down the river, or a clever journalist or novelist who has spent a lot of time watching The War Room and CNN?

In answer to the first question, Primary Colors is a terrific novel, and unless Nichols makes some dreadful mistakes, it will be a terrific movie. (Clinton staffers see Nick Nolte as a natural for Jack Stanton.) Most of the novel's reviewers have acknowledged its excellence. In the New Yorker, Christopher Buckley (himself a suspect) called Primary Colors ‘an absolutely dazzling book, the best political novel in many years.’ In Newsweek, Walter Shapiro found it ‘the best aide's-eye view of politics since Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.’ In The New Republic, Matthew Cooper, after revealing (‘full disclosure’) that he himself is now dating Mandy Grunwald, who held the position in the Clinton campaign of the novel's sexy heroine Daisy Green, says that ‘finally the modern campaign—and Clinton—have the novelist that they deserve.’ (I don't think he means to be snide.)

Dissenters such as Tom Carson, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, seem disappointed 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.’ In the New York Review, Christopher Hitchens concedes the ‘gift of slang and lingo,’ but testily concludes that the book is ‘slight’ and sentimental.

Word on the street is that Primary Colors, whoever the author, is a first novel. If so, it's the best fictional debut since Martin Amis. There isn't a slack line or a flat character in the book; even walk-ons like the Stanton family doctor, ‘thin almost to the point of consumption, and tilted somehow, like the Tower of Pisa, wearing a cape and a hat and small round glasses, like James Joyce,’ could be picked out of a crowd. The author has a nice ear for the tones and riffs of American speech, a sharp loving eye for tacky motels, country barbecue joints and New York subways, and a contagious fascination with the high-stake gambles of politics. Anonymous can come up with a word like ‘scorps’ for the press corps, whose nature is to sting, and toss off an informed reference to Doris Lessing. In the first half of the book, which follows the New Hampshire primary, those in the know have been impressed by the accuracy or verisimilitude of the information, the wicked caricatures of recognisable players from James Carville (the novel's ragin' Cajun, Richard Jemmons, defined by a ‘vehement opacity’) to Jesse Jackson (the Rev. Luther Charles, defined by rage, who had ‘peaked in full Afro and dashiki’ and now looked ‘plucked … Luther in a suit was like Dukakis in a tank’). In the second half, which takes off from the historical record to invent a White Knight who comes into the campaign after one of the candidates dies, clever plotting further raises the level of irony and provides some unexpected twists. Finally, the meditations on race, sex and the loss of political innocence of the novel's young male narrator, offspring of a black father and white mother, take the work far beyond the category of topical satire.

Anonymous has been strongly influenced by All the King's Men (1946). His narrator, Henry Burton, the preppy, intellectual grandson of a black American hero like Martin Luther King, sounds a lot like Warren's troubled and dislocated Jack Burden. His candidate, Jack Stanton, sounds a lot like Warren's Willie Stark, ‘a country hick,’ in the words of Stuart Burrows, ‘who through force of will, charisma and an ability to speak for the people, rises to become governor of an unnamed Southern state,’ and escapes condemnation despite his shortcomings because of ‘his profound, elemental love of life and desire to give shape to the half-imagined force within him.’ In the end, Burden writes, ‘I must believe that Willie Stark was a great man … Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that.’

Similarly, Jack Stanton's family, friends and staff, although frequently furious at his thoughtlessness and tendency to use people for his own purposes (‘Jack Stanton could be a great man,’ his wife Susan tells Henry, ‘if he weren't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganised, undisciplined shit’), forgive him because they believe in his courage, his intelligence, his energy, his capacity for ‘aerobic listening,’ his passion for human contact. They believe him when he claims to speak for history. ‘He was lovely with the people,’ Henry writes, ‘dispensing his meaningful handshakes, listening to their stories; he had a knack—no, it was more than a knack; it was something deeper, more profound and respectful—for making it clear that he had listened to them and understood, and cared.’

There are familiar scandals in Primary Colors, which features a Gennifer Flowers-like bimbo named Cashmere McLeod; and lots of the campaign sex that substitutes for a decent meal and a movie. Clinton-haters, of whom there are many, will find plenty to keep them going, and some of the novel's sub-plots echo the most scurrilous right-wing gossip. But Jack Stanton is a character of complexity and stature, an American colossus.

So who wrote Primary Colors? Nominations have included George Stephanopoulos, James Carville, Paul Begala, the New Yorker's Michael Kelly and Sidney Blumenthal, the screenwriter Erik Tarloff and New York political consultant Bob Shrum. New York magazine hired the Shakespeare scholar Donald Foster to run a computerised check of the text of the novel against several possible suspects, and announced that Newsweek political correspondent Joe Klein was absolutely the author, on the basis of several lexical similarities. Contrary to the feminist adage, though, few journalists seem to think that Anonymous is a woman. Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review calls Anonymous ‘he or she’ in paragraph two of his review, but ‘white, male [and] young’ by the end. Christopher Buckley goes way out on a limb and mentions Toni Morrison. Several journalists have suggested Mandy Grunwald's sister Lisa, the author of Summer and The Theory of Everything, but she is a very different kind of novelist. All these people have denied any connection with the book.

The odds seem to be that Anonymous was in New Hampshire during the 1992 primaries. But just on the basis of style, I would guess Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor of African-American Studies, New Yorker writer and the author of Colored People, a memoir of his childhood. He's just written a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton for the New Yorker. He'll deny it too, but if he's read the book, he'll know it's a compliment.

Richard K. (review date April 1996)

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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 revelations of marital infidelity. If it sounds like the script of a ‘B’ movie, then you probably won't be surprised to learn that Primary Colors is coming to a cinema near you. The Director, Mike Nichols, reportedly just paid over a million US dollars for the screen rights.

In the story, the candidate's name is Jack Stanton. In real life, of course, he is better known as Bill Clinton. Like Clinton, Stanton is vindictive, profane, and obsessively ambitious—a man who can't stand to be laughed at, a man who craves to be loved. At the same time, he is a brilliant communicator who's genuinely moved by the misfortunes of others—‘feeling their pain,’ as it has been called. Behind the choirboy facade, Governor Stanton is a heel, albeit the most likeable one since Willie Stark in All the King's Men. Both politicians always had someone around to fix things that go awry. That's the valedictory message of one departing aide who tells Stanton, ‘You never paid the bill. Never. And no one ever calls you on it.’

The real heroes in this book are the men and women of the campaign staff who put in twenty-hour days, suffering endless indignities from the man they hope to elect. And why? So that they can share the power which comes with tenure of the White House. The whole cast of Clinton characters is on board. The story is narrated by Henry Burton (actually the White House Counselor, George Stephanopoulos in blackface), a twenty-something Afro-American whose high ideals don't prevent him from sleeping with the boss's wife.

Those familiar with the contemporary political scene in Washington will recognize the campaign strategist, James Carville (called Richard Jeammons), the ‘take-no-prisoners’ professional politician who talks so fast his words run together (‘nevahbelievit’ and ‘seeyalater’). Governor Mario Cuomo makes an appearance as Orlando Ozio, whose bumbling costs him a chance for the presidency. Gennifer Flowers is renamed, delightfully, Cashmere McLeod. The Jesse Jackson lookalike, Luther Charles, is a foul-mouthed inner city black preacher with one eye on the ladies and the other on the white politicians he intimidates with his own brand of racial bigotry.

The pivotal character is Libby Hoffman, said to be modelled on Clinton's longtime Arkansas aide, Betsy Wright. Like Miss Wright, Libby is the person the candidate relies on to minimize the damage whenever the tabloids are after him. As pictured here, she is a lesbian and an expatriate from the local booby hatch. Miss Wright may want to consider suing if she can ever figure out who Anonymous really is.

Figuring out who Anonymous is has become Washington's favourite pastime. The Administration is said to be panic-stricken by the book, and President Clinton himself challenged the White House press corps to uncover the author. The thinking in the White House is that the book is so skillfully written it has to be the work of a journalist, although it's hard to believe that a reporter could fail to claim authorship of the number one best-seller in the US and number two in the UK.

New York Magazine turned the whole question over to Donald Foster, a Shakespearean scholar at Vassar. The professor checked the text of the book against writing samples of everyone close to Clinton. He concludes that Primary Colors was written by the Newsweek correspondent, Joe Klein, because Klein and Anonymous both love turning adjectives into adverbs and both have a fetish for the colon. Not to be outdone, the Washington Post brought in two scientists from the National Institutes of Health who invented a computer programme that checks texts for plagiarism. Their verdict? The Post was embarrassed to report they had fingered Sally Quinn, wife of the paper's one-time executive editor.

It goes without saying that the book is the work of an insider. Considering the fact that its publication coincides with the start of the 1996 presidential campaign, it is an insider with a grudge. You can probably eliminate all the suspects from Arkansas. As the Whitewater files have shown, few of them can put together a simple sentence, let alone write an entire book.

Anonymous could be one of those committed young liberals who stoked the fires of the 1992 campaign, only to be edged out of the inner circle by the President's new political guru, Dick Morris. The media specialist, Mandy Grunwald, is most often mentioned, but she's been out of the Washington limelight for some time now performing thankless tasks such as advising Tony Blair on how to be a Clinton clone. Another possibility is Carville's Republican wife, Mary Matlin. Their post-election wedding seemed less a marriage made in heaven than a political alliance dreamed up at Yalta. For the past year, Miss Matlin has been co-hostess of a witty TV talk show with Clinton's former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers. Between home and work, she has access to a string of Clinton anecdotes.

Don't spend too much time playing Guess the Author, however. To do so is to forget that what lies between the covers is the most fascinating analysis of an American political campaign in years. Where else would you find an entire page devoted to an amusing examination of how a candidate shakes hands—what he does with his left hand as he shakes with the right. Anyone who has ever dealt with the media will appreciate the passage on how the press nearly takes control of the Stanton campaign. Henry Burton laments that the more successful the candidate becomes, the more time he must spend coddling reporters. They suddenly appear, he notes, like gulls following a garbage barge, with one objective: ‘To watch us writhe and die.’

No one will ever mistake Primary Colors for great literature, but it is an undeniable treat for political junkies. The book works remarkably well for the first 250 pages or so, because it has the ring of truth. However, after a while the profanity and the deviousness begin to take a toll. Ultimately, Anonymous forsakes parody for The Big Climax. Sad to say, the ending not only lacks historical accuracy, but leaves the reader feeling manipulated.

Today, another presidential election is upon America. Every night on American television Americans can see Bill and Hillary shaking hands and smiling, promising to protect Social Security for the elderly and to provide jobs for the young. After reading Primary Colors, chances are good that Americans will never view campaign rhetoric in quite the same fashion again. Indeed, one reviewer predicts this book may end up having the greatest impact on American public opinion since Uncle Tom's Cabin. It's all part of the circus by which we in the United States choose our Presidents. And truth being stranger than fiction, more often than not, it works, the Clintons notwithstanding. As Mr. Carville would probably say, ‘Y'knowhattamean?.’

Anne Waldron Neumann (review date June 1996)

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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, for yellow-dog Democrats, and, I feel sure, by a yellow-dog Democrat.

Put this another way: Primary Colors is about the romance of politics, written by someone who loves politics, about characters who are themselves in love with politics. Appropriately enough, Primary Colors follows the classic eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romance-novel plot. The heroine—or in this case the first-person male narrator Henry Burton, a hot-shot young political adviser—falls in love at first sight, in this novel of politics, with presidential candidate Jack Stanton, a thinly disguised Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas. Henry succumbs to “TB” or “True Believerism,” the absence of which is supposed to separate consultants like him from lower-level staff: “You wanted to keep perspective. You wanted to see the horse as a horse and not Pegasus. But I couldn't.” In typical romance-novel fashion, Henry's love is tested to the utmost. His faith is strained by Stanton's record on Vietnam, by his “bimbo factor” (including a possible paternity suit from the under-age black daughter of family friends) and, finally, by his apparent willingness to use dirt against a seemingly invincible opponent. For a time, also in approved romance-novel fashion, this formidable opponent, Fred Picker, ex-Governor of Florida, threatens to rival Stanton in Henry's political affections. Things look bleak. But, as in all romance novels, the rival love collapses. Henry learns that, though Jack Stanton has feet of clay, Fred Picker has cold feet. He has neither the fire in the belly nor the love in his heart: “He had a parlor trick; he could perform—brilliantly, instinctively—for the cameras.” But “He didn't seem to have any higher purpose than that,” and “he didn't seem to know much about politics.” In short, Henry's apparently perfect potential partner is not a True Believer, not the committed pol he pines for. As in the romance novel, however, Henry's first love, Jack Stanton, turns out to be worthy after all—nearly as worthy as Henry believed. He turns over the damaging information to Picker (it was his lawyer-wife Susan—read Hillary Clinton—who really wanted to use it). And he promises to withdraw from the race, only to learn that Picker himself is planning to withdraw. The novel ends with the promise that Henry will reconsider his resignation and return to the revived Stanton campaign, perhaps a more effective consultant because less “worshipful.”

As this romance-novel framework may suggest, the greatest weakness of Primary Colors lies where it differs most from real life, because it differs, unfortunately, in the direction of implausibility. For example, Fred Picker enters the primary campaign to replace a Paul Tsongas-like ex-senator who suffers a massive heart attack while Stanton is destroying him on talkback radio. And the dirt on Picker involves not just possible bribe-taking but a cocaine habit and a homosexual liaison. (As to whether Stanton's liabilities match Clinton's, let me hasten to say, for Australian readers not up on the latest American dirt, that, whatever Clinton's problems with bimbos and alleged sexual harassment, he has not seemed drawn to seducing teenagers.)

These romance-novel echoes also suggest one of the books greatest strengths, however. In this intricate political “faction,” whose major characters nearly all match known figures on Clinton's staff or among his political rivals, the evidence of fictional shaping provided by the romantic echoes raises Primary Colors itself above a cheap parlour trick. Fictional shaping turns this roman à clef into political and moral allegory. If politics is the art of the possible, as Lyndon Johnson confirmed, Primary Colors artfully explores what might be the best politician we can possibly expect. Fred Picker's counter-example proves that we can't expect lack of ambition: “We gotta figure out how to communicate what we love about what we do. We gotta show them we're doin' this not for ambition or glory,” Jack Stanton says. “Not just,” Susan Stanton adds. “Not just,” her husband concedes, “but because we love doin' for the folks, finding things that work.” And if love of “folks” is essential in our ideal politician, we may have to expect bimbos: “You want a guy who's got juice, right? A human being … You should only work for guys who fuck around, Henry,” advises our hero's stepfather. Nor can we hope to free politics of televised parlour tricks. After his campaign gains momentum, Stanton laments, “How do we move this thing from retail to wholesale? How do we do the stuff we did in the malls and the union halls … if we're hopping from tarmac to tarmac in a big plane, shut off from the folks by Secret Service? … How do you do politics in a country that hates politicians? How do we show 'em who I really am?” The art of politics, paradoxically, is finding the artifice that shows the real: “You ever think about the fact that the riffs we do started with George Washington?” Stanton marvels. “Andrew Jackson massaged it some, and Lincoln—and then Boss Murphy here in New York, and FDR, Bilbo and George Wallace in the South. All of them, the giants and the shitheels, have massaged it, moved it, pushed it ahead.” Now the game is “too ornate and bullshitty … But you don't wrench the art of politics away from its roots so drastically without paying some sort of price. All the bullshit we do is there for a reason.”

In short, Primary Colors is a novel of political morality. But, written about thinly disguised real people by an author wholly disguised in anonymity, is it itself moral? Since I read it as allegorical praise of the ideals Clinton represents—since it acknowledges the feet of clay only to rekindle the faith—I find myself enthusiastically approving an endeavour I might otherwise condemn. Perhaps anonymity is more in this case than a clever marketing ploy, more than the tantalising possibility that we are reading an insider exposé. If we knew Primary Colors was written by a Clinton staffer, as many have speculated, we might discount what I am convinced is its defence of Clinton. Or, if we knew it was written by a nobody who read newspapers, its praise would have less influence than I, for one, hope it will.

But should Australians, who will never vote for or against Clinton, read Primary Colors? Yes, I think so. Primary Colors is both hilarious and endlessly fascinating. Of course, many of the abstruse insider details that intrigue Americans may irritate Australians, who cannot be expected to know why Stanton will never win the “Nina Totenberg vote” in the New Hampshire primary (listeners to a political commentator on American public radio) or that “Ted, Dan, and Tom” are the prime-time news anchors on the three commercial networks. Nor can even many Americans judge the accuracy of all the novel's political insights—for example, that eastern mine workers had less luck organising out west because “Western labor guys tend to be scary, anarchists—Wobblies, gun nuts. The guys from Brooklyn go out there to organise, they figure they've gotta be Wyatt Earp.” Nevertheless, Primary Colors should help Australians understand American idealism—at least the idealism of yellow-dog Democrats (I cannot speak for Republicans). And, if some Quadrant readers therefore fear that Primary Colors is awash in sloppy, bleeding-heart liberalism, they may be interested in Clinton/Stanton's long-term membership in the moderate Democratic Leadership Council and his belief that we cannot have “a new American spirit of community … without an equal sense of responsibility, without asking the same standard of moral behaviour from the less fortunate that we demand of each other—and which we should demand of the wealthiest Americans as well … It is as patronising as our opponents who say—well, usually they don't have the courage to say it, they merely imply—that it's useless to help the poor, there's nothing we can do for them.” This far-sighted compassion, this sensibility moderated by sense, this romantic idealism founded on prudential realism, is the real moral message of the eighteenth-century romance novel. I think it plays pretty well in any century, on any continent.

Leon Wieseltier (review date 12 August 1996)

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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 situationist in the White House, was deploring the corruption of American civilization by Joe Klein. “From time to time I read what Joe Klein writes and I say, ‘Yep, that's fiction.’” McCurry, of course, does not traffic in fiction. He is the man who, when asked what the president meant when, in the State of the Union address, he described this age as “an age of possibility,” replied with a straight face that it was “a holding-pattern phrase,” pending the president's discovery of his own mind. And he is the man who announced in one breath that the Defense of Marriage Act was “gay baiting, pure and simple” and that the president would sign it, and then a few days later announced, again in one breath, that the president was granting Americans the right to sue foreign companies using expropriated American property in Cuba and was suspending the same right. Like the man he serves, McCurry does not lie. You don't need to lie, when everything is true. Klein should have taken a lesson from the subjects of his book. When asked if he wrote it, he should have said that he did and he didn't.

All the president's men and women were profoundly offended that Klein had denied his authorship of Primary Colors. “A breathtaking act of mendacity,” reflected Paul Begala. “Am I surprised that Joe Klein lied?” said James Carville. “No, because in my opinion reporters lie all the time.” Dee Dee Myers thundered that “he looked his friends in the eye and he lied—for money.” Ann Lewis demanded to know “how would political journalist Joe Klein write about a political figure who behaved that way.” Never mind that Klein is not a political figure, that nobody's health or happiness is imperiled by his novel. The grounds of the Clintonites' indignation are transparently political. They hate Klein with a special hatred, because in his coverage of Clinton he broke the Clinton rules in the middle of the Clinton game. When Clinton was one thing, Klein praised him. When Clinton was another thing, Klein denounced him. He refused to admire all the Clintons. Klein's famous disenchantment with the president was based on nothing more controversial than the law of contradiction. He insisted that the president cannot be an old Democrat and a new Democrat at the same time. But the Clintonites have spent the better part of four years making the law of contradiction controversial.

Klein's revelation that he is Anonymous has thrown many of his colleagues into transports of ethical theory, and these fits of loftiness are rather more comical. Ed Kosner, fresh from the “Women We Love” issue, instructed that “the integrity of your reporting is a function of your personal integrity.” Ken Auletta, a journalist who believes anything that anybody with a cellular telephone tells him, said that he is “angry”: “He not only hurts himself, he hurts the business of journalism.” “This is a tough one,” declared Jonathan Alter, forevermore the man who was convinced that it was Luciano Siracusano. “I can't accept it,” said Mario Cuomo, whose job as a talk jock in New York is the most savory of his recent profit-making schemes. “It doesn't make any sense to me.” A vice president at CBS worried that “it's impossible to have a relationship with someone … who is not telling the truth.”

The CBS guy is wrong about Klein, but he is onto something. “A relationship with someone who is not telling the truth” is a fine characterization of the journalist's art. The elaborate system of rules by which journalists work—the arcana of “on the record” and “off the record,” “for attribution” and “not for attribution,” and all the varieties of “background”—are different legitimations of anonymity, different prescriptions for saying less than you know. Journalists are among the many professionals in this derangingly complicated society who are licensed for secrets. And a secret is not a lie. And a lie uttered to keep a secret that one has promised to keep is only the vexing entailment of a perfectly moral and professional commitment. There are circumstances in which it is a matter of honor to lie and thereby to keep a promise, and there are circumstances in which it is a matter of honor to tell the truth and thereby to break a promise. All these grays are lost on our black-and-white, rectitudinous, pathologically truth-telling culture; but there is something especially ridiculous about journalists preening as the humble servants of simple veracity.

Joe Klein is my friend, a few months ago, trapped in traffic on a rainy afternoon in a suburb of Washington, I asked him if he wrote Primary Colors. He looked me in the eye and said no. Now I know that he lied. I forgive him, and am delighted for him. I would have lied, too. It was not a lie that in any way did me damage. I have no claim upon the entire contents of my friend's mind. And friendship is not a loyalty test according to which his fidelity to me must be proved by his infidelity to you. There are things about myself, after all, that I wish some to know and others not to know; and I cannot count on a friend to guard my secrets who cannot guard his own. The relationship between confidence and confidentiality is more than etymological.

It is not only his personal trustworthiness that Klein has demonstrated. It is also his professional trustworthiness. He has what a leaker is looking for. There are “times when I've had to lie to protect a source,” he said at his press conference, explaining that this was one of those times. In this instance, of course, the reporter and the source were the same man; and Klein has been mocked for drawing a line between them, for defending himself with the multiplicity of his selves. But this, I suspect, is really the rub. By writing a novel, and by publishing it pseudonymously, Klein was choosing not to behave like a journalist. (A pseudonym is not a lie, it is a device, an ancient convention of another kind of writing.) He was implying that a journalist need not act like a journalist in everything that a journalist does; that journalistic ethics are only the ethics of journalism; that a journalist can carry what he has learned into another realm and then return to the realm of journalism. This is what irks the guild. (Not the six mil, surely. Who dares suggest that journalists are moved by money?) One morning the ornithologists woke to find that one of their company was a bird. He had done something more primary. He had written a small classic of political satire. Primary colors, indeed.

James Bowman (essay date September 1996)

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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 European past that we ought properly to value, but the largely unwritten traditions—involving honor and propriety, what is worthy of emulation and what is not—out of which these artifacts may be said to have sprung. It is because we have given too little attention to these matters that when Joe Klein was forced, after having been identified by a handwriting expert employed by The Washington Post, to admit to his authorship, there was no generally agreed upon standard of behavior according to which his previous concealment of it could be judged.

The result was the usual comedy that attends the not-infrequent displays of self-righteousness by the “journalistic community.” Greed, envy, and self-importance jostled for the upper hand as the professional wordsmiths sought to find ever more grand-sounding rationales for their indignation at the fact that Klein had lied to them. “No one begrudges him the money,” said Mark Halperin of ABC News. “No one begrudges him doing it anonymously in the beginning to protect himself. But on a personal level, many of his friends who asked him directly feel hurt because they're not used to being lied to repeatedly about something they came to care about a great deal.”

Just consider for a moment the assumption behind such a statement. I say to a casual friend (that is, one to whom I have no special obligation of trust): Are you sleeping with your secretary? Or have you ever had VD? Or what do you really think of your brother-in-law? If he doesn't answer me truthfully, does that mean he's lying? Of course not. He has every right to tell me to mind my own business. And if saying “Mind your own business” implies an answer he does not want to give, he has every right to lie. The evil of lying is not, in the solemnly Platonic circumlocution of Swift's Houyhnhnms, “saying the thing which is not”—something that everyone recognizes is sometimes permissible, even obligatory—but in the breach of trust. Where there is no obligation of trust, there can be no breach of trust. And a journalist who grills an unwilling source for information, information which will harm the source or his friends but will advance the interests of the journalist and his friends, can claim no obligation of trust to enforce the truth from him.

Back in the days when a general idea of honorable behavior, inherited from thousands of years of European history, was part of an educated man's standard moral equipment this would have been no difficult concept to grasp. But now that that sense of honor has gone, along with so much else from the European past, we have nothing to fall back on but a quasi-Marxist calculus of whose interest is “objectively” served and various sorts of humbug designed to disguise the naked cynicism of that calculus. So in the case of Joe Klein's lying, the humbug consists in the journalistic conceit that the profession is dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of the truth. Thus it is that such people as Mark Halperin think that the mere asking of a question creates the presumptive right to a truthful answer.

The only thing more absurd than the self-righteousness of Klein's journalistic pursuers was his own self-righteousness in answering them. In his press conference, for example, just after having been unmasked, he attempted to turn the tables on his questioners by saying that his subterfuge fell within a recognized category of justified deception: “I felt that there are times when I've had to lie to protect a source, and I put this in that category.” Or, as Rowan Scarborough in The Washington Times put it, “Mr. Klein justified his deception by saying he was just protecting a source—himself.” But he soon recognized the untenability of this position and offered up groveling apologies, not only for “lying” but for having said that he might lie to protect a source.

Howard Kurtz, in The Washington Post, offers an account of Klein's subsequent apology to his Newsweek colleagues:

With tears in his eyes and his voice cracking, Klein apologized to the staff for dragging Newsweek into the controversy over his secret authorship of Primary Colors. He praised the magazine and said he was “deeply sorry.”

“It was extremely emotional and pretty wrenching to sit through,” a top editor said. “He was genuinely tortured.” Said another: “This is what people have been waiting for.”

There is perhaps just the hint of the Moscow show trials here in the need for the victim publicly to confess and humiliate himself. Kurtz quotes a “veteran staffer” as saying that many of his colleagues “had been pushing him to try to be more contrite. Today,” the veteran added with self-satisfaction, “was the first time I felt it was really sincere.”

If there were any further doubts about his sincerity, Klein must have cleared them up when he told Kurtz in a telephone interview that “he now has more sympathy for politicians,” because “the intensity of the spotlight is so distorting and so difficult to deal with as a human being that we don't know what we're playing with.” In fact, he had said something similar even before his discovery, in a piece written by “Anonymous” for The New York Times Book Review in May:

People who've never read the book have speculated with great authority about who wrote it. I realize that I've been the commercial beneficiary of all this, and that much of it was inevitable, but it's still been pretty perverse and occasionally nauseating. Too late, I gained a better sense of how Jack Stanton must have felt as the witless, ravenous pack descended on him in New Hampshire.

Now there's a curious argument: if he had known how it felt to be a celebrity, he might not have been so hard on the celebrities in his book—and so might not have come to be a celebrity himself! It just goes to show you what knots Klein tied himself into in order to claim the absolution which is always on offer from the press for those who expose their (never too discreditable) feelings in public. His very reasonable desire to protect his own privacy had to be not just waived (retrospectively) but identified as horribly wrong. In fact, of course, it is only detrimental to a juicy story. But having identified it as evil he could then stake his claim to sympathy for the psychic damage committing such an evil had done him.

So he claimed that his deception of his Newsweek colleagues was “one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life” and, when he faxed them a handwritten note of apology, it was to let them know that

I had to make some very complicated decisions. … It's been a lonely, agonizing run these past few months—but it would be fatuous for me to complain too much, given the success achieved.

But it came with a price and to the extent that you had to pay part of that price—the energy expended defending me against a vicious, witless [that word again!], disproportionate assault—I deeply regret it.

And what exactly was the “vicious, witless, disproportionate assault”? What (given that not many of them are defending him now) could it be but the speculation that he was—as in fact he was—the author? Well, maybe not so witless after all!

At least he has the good grace to catch just the merest glimpse of the “fatuous” nature of complaining about his “agonizing” enrichissement—although not enough of one to make him excise the fatuity, apparently. In the same vein, he wrote to Andrew Heyward, the head of CBS News, resigning his commentary slot, that

this has been a confusing and exhausting few weeks for me—and I feel a strong need to simplify my life at this point. Specifically, I believe it would be extremely difficult to continue to keep my commitments to both Newsweek and CBS for the rest of this election year.

In the case of CBS there was a breach of trust—as arguably there was when Maynard Parker of Newsweek, who was in on the secret, allowed the magazine's readers to suppose that he (or it) wasn't. But the failure to make distinctions between these cases and those where Klein lied merely to frustrate idle curiosity means that he is in a way off the hook: he can appeal to his own suffering for a blanket pardon.

Of course he can't really suppose that Heyward gives a rap if he is confused and exhausted, any more than his colleagues at Newsweek are filled with compassion for his “lonely, agonizing run.” It's just that, lacking a language of honor, he—and we—have nothing left but the language of therapy for dealing with such matters. To be sure, this therapeutic tongue carries with it a certain delicacy which is analogous to old-fashioned politeness. It won't do, for example, for Mr. Heyward to say, as his counterpart a hundred years or so ago would have said, “D—your exhaustion, Sir!” He's got to pretend to be sympathetic, just as Klein has got to pretend to agonies of conscience which he clearly never felt until he was required to do so.

In other words, there is lying going on all round, but it is an acceptable kind of lying and one which it would be churlish and cynical for those with vague memories of a more manly standard of conduct to point out. So it is natural even for the injured parties to adopt the therapeutic jargon in reply. Richard M. Smith, Klein's boss at Newsweek, took him to task in the following terms:

The issue that has caused concern here is the repeated and emphatic denials. I know in looking back on it, Joe shares some of those concerns, too. Joe and I have talked about all aspects of this. It's been a good give-and-take, and we agree on most things.

In other words, this was something that our employee should not have done; but he feels bad about it, and I feel bad about it and “we agree on most things.” What more can we ask of them?

Such transparent attempts to disarm criticism are obviously undertaken, just as Klein's initial deception was, with commercial motives. Such motives are not themselves necessarily discreditable to either one—any more than it automatically lends substance to Klein's critics when they remind us that he has so far made more than six million dollars out of Primary Colors. But in both cases, the fact of a pecuniary interest ought to have warned off a great many of the solemn moralists of the media who have pronounced on the question of Klein's “journalistic ethics”—or, perhaps, on even weightier matters.

A particularly good example is Richard Turner of New York. This is a magazine which itself has an interest in the matter as Joe Klein's former employer and as the first publication to unmask him, with the help of a stylometric study by Professor Donald Foster of Vassar. Klein's vehement denials of Foster's conclusions not only kept the deception alive for months but reserved for Newsweek's corporate stablemate, The Washington Post, the honor of uncovering it. You can understand why the folks at New York might be left with a bitter taste in their mouths. Turner takes a real postmodern view of the scandal. To him it is all a tempest in a teacup, but he is annoyed and irritated that saying so “plays into somebody's spin”—to wit, that of CBS and Newsweek, who minimize the threat to their credibility by insisting that “it is important to remember that this isn't a matter of national security or affairs of state,” or that it is “closer to ‘Who shot J. R.?’ than to the Pentagon Papers.”

Rather than finding himself flacking for Klein's current employers, Turner adopts a tone of leaden solemnity about “some increasingly delicate issues involving the growing confluence of journalism and celebrity, the overlapping and sometimes conflicting pursuits of the modern omni-media ‘content provider.’” But as a friend and former colleague of Klein's, Turner is unable to reach any definite conclusion, taking two thousand words finally to get round to saying: “I don't know how much I buy the argument that Klein besmirches the journalism profession, but he's definitely crossed a line” and that “I'm not saying it's wrong for print reporters to be commentators on TV, for editors to socialize with the rich and powerful, for the converging media to put journalists in less-detached and more awkward places. But everybody had better be very careful.”

Just by the bye, what about that as shameful journalism? If you haven't got anything more to say on a serious moral issue than that “everybody had better be very careful,” hadn't you better apologize to the reader for wasting his time? But of course the absolute right of well-paid hacks to fill column inches has never been questioned in any part of the “debate” on journalistic ethics. Philosophers like Turner, or Richard Harwood of The Washington Post, write turgid and self-important pieces on the subject without ever realizing that the only ethical issue of any real interest is their own and their colleagues' self-importance.

Harwood, for example, begins by saying that “the unmasking of Newsweek's Joe Klein as the author of Primary Colors could open a broad discussion of lying and deception in the practice of journalism in America,” but he doubts that it will. He then goes on to quote Janet Malcolm's now famous indictment of her profession as “morally indefensible” and comments, trenchantly, that “that is too sweeping, too harsh.” Sissela Bok, on the other hand, a philosopher and author of a book called Lying, may be on to something when she says that it is the habit of lying which is the pernicious thing about it. The problem, says Harwood, is that even good journalists, like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, admit to lying and don't agonize enough about it. He ends with the characteristically dull assertion that “the journalism establishment” must deal “honestly and openly with the ethics and morality of what we do and how we do it” or “nothing much will change.”

Clearly, Harwood's muddled view of lying is also characteristic of “the journalistic community.” And of Klein himself, perhaps. Was it significant that, at one point in his self-defense, he said, in the Bob Dole-style third person, “Joe Klein has never lied in a column. And will never, at least not knowingly”? If a lie is told not knowingly it is by definition not a lie. But Klein seems to think that a lie is the same thing as a mistake or a mis-statement. It is one measure of the absurdly overinflated notion of themselves that journalists have that they appear to suppose that what they write, and what the next day wraps the garbage, is or ought to be the equivalent of Holy Writ.

It is true to say that there is a serious issue of Klein's credibility as a political commentator, if not as a journalist. Members of the Clinton administration, to whom Klein has been less than kind lately, were quick to seize upon his weakness. “Remember, again,” said Mike McCurry, the President's spokesman, “for us he wrote a piece of fiction and that's how we treat it. I think Joe Klein's shown that he's capable of writing fiction.” Similarly, George Stephanopoulos remarked that Klein “was projecting his dishonesty onto the Clintons. When he talks about their problems with credibility, trust, and veracity, he's accusing them of something he did.” Ann Lewis of the Clinton-Gore campaign was quoted as saying that Klein is a person who “writes a book, flat-out denies what he did, is confronted with the evidence, and says ‘no comment.’ How would a political journalist write about a political figure who behaved that way?”

Although this kind of comment may be a problem for Joe Klein if he intends to continue as a commentator, it is not really a problem for the rest of us, who are in a pretty good position to judge for ourselves who has the most problems with “credibility, trust, and veracity.” Nor is it even a problem for the “journalistic community,” though many journalists think it is because they have spent their lives living a lie of their own: the lie that they are fair and unbiased observers of the political scene. It was the fear of finding their own halos tarnished, probably even more than envy and jealousy, which energized so many of Klein's critics. It is the fear that their readers might be allowed to discover that they, too, have human passions and political beliefs.

Perhaps it might even be revealed that some of them have a Klein-like indignation at the cynical and corrupt behavior of the politicians they cover. If the expression of such indignation would be an honorable act, does that mean that concealing it, so as to pretend that one is godlike in one's professional ability to rise above such passions, is a dishonorable one? I think our European ancestors would have been able to tell us.

Christopher Hanson (essay date September–October 1996)

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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 suspicions that he was the famously faceless Anonymous, author of Primary Colors, a roman-à-clef skewering the Clintons. (The paper had discovered Klein's telltale handwriting on an original manuscript.) The scorps, as Klein calls reporters in the novel, were in a biting mood because of Klein's brazen, on-the-record denials of authorship in such major news outlets as CBS, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. (“For God's sake, definitely, I didn't write it.”) Klein tried to make light of the episode in a coming-out press conference in New York, showing up with an impish smile and a Groucho Marx disguise. But when the scorps lashed out with angry questions, Klein immediately transmuted himself from prankster to misunderstood altruist. He argued that he had only told white lies, like those used to shield a news source; that he had lied to protect his family and himself from the fishbowl celebrity life; that he wanted to protect his publisher.

But Klein's most delicious self-justification came earlier, in the May 19 New York Times Book Review, before he had been unmasked, when he spun anonymously: “… I have … saved (friends) from … the burden of listening to me strut and brag, feigning modesty while citing the latest sales figures. … Anonymity imposes a strict discipline and an almost religious humility. I am a better person for having kept my mouth shut. …” He was bragging about not bragging! Later, at his press conference, he was able to brag about the book (“It just wrote itself. … I was shocked by how easy it was”) and to brag again about not having bragged about it! “I enjoyed my humility,” he said. “I was protecting the integrity of this project.”

Of course, that “integrity” entailed keeping alive speculation that the book was written by a White House insider—a notion that intensified the guessing game over which fictional salacious incidents involving the Clintons were rooted in reality. Such speculation sold more books. So when Klein fell under suspicion as a possible author, he did his best to quell it, even voicing consternation to colleagues about an unflattering portrait of the Joe Klein-type character in the novel.

Klein's story unfolded as if he had taken the plot of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Victorian scientist is set on fatal course through discovery of magic potion that splits him into two beings, one seemingly upright, seeking truth, the other bent, doing dark midnight deeds) and played it out as farce rather than tragedy.

Like Dr. Henry Jekyll, Klein tried to divide himself into two beings. He took his compartmentalization effort almost literally, describing in his Book Review essay how he had achieved a kind of spiritual bifurcation: “There are two of us now. There is ‘me’ and there is ‘Anonymous.’ … A. was funnier than I am. A. was more demure. A. was more dignified. …” (Full disclosure: I was obliged to acknowledge to a snoopy gossip columnist in 1981 that I was the pseudonymous cjr writer “William Boot,” who, coincidentally enough, was funnier, more demure, and more dignified than I am. Also smarter, and more “together,” with a clearer sense of self.)

Like Jekyll—who described the initial sensation of being Hyde as “incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body”—Klein found being Anonymous an arousing experience. He reported in the Book Review, under the sheet of anonymity: “As publication approached, and the first, surprisingly favorable reviews began to appear, my spouse nuzzled my ear one evening and asked, ‘Can I, y'know, do it with … Anonymous tonight?’ It proved a distressingly memorable experience, although there was a metaphysical hangover: had I been unfaithful to myself? … The answer is no.” Thank God.

Once his Anonymous gambit took shape, Klein's life, like Jekyll's, became dangerously schizophrenic. Outwardly, he was the journalist-pundit, exuding moral rectitude, culling fact from rumor, reporting truth as he saw it—the man who once denounced as “despicable” those who were spreading charges about Clinton's private life “to make money.” Yet secretly he worked to breathe life into the most scandalous suspicions about the Clintons in the course of making a pile. (Klein's denial of any connection between the Clintons and his fictional “Stantons” is, of course, transparent nonsense.)

As the Newsweek pundit, he had written a scathing column (“The Politics of Promiscuity,” May 9, 1994) faulting Clinton for having a fragmented identity “composed of all sorts of persons”; for “always living on the edge, as if he were begging to get caught”; for “lawyering the truth … petty fudges, retreats, compromises, denials.” Sounds like a description of Klein himself.

He may have thought he could keep his professional duality concealed indefinitely. But ultimately he went the way of Jekyll, who lost control of his experiment and started turning into Hyde spontaneously, without warning, against his will, and was found out by suspicious colleagues. By the same token, Klein began wondering whether he was losing a grip on his original self (“I asked my agent: ‘Have I changed … ? Am I becoming Anonymous? Am I different now?’” he wrote in the Book Review piece.) Meanwhile, the relentless scorps closed in until, at last, The Washington Post hit pay dirt. The game was up.

Needless to say, in the frenzy that followed his unmasking (more than 500 articles and editorials, dozens of TV segments), Klein came under intense moralistic assault. The New York Times, for one, stung him in a lead editorial: “People interested in preserving the core of serious journalism have to view his actions and words as corrupt and—if they become an example to others—corrupting.” Meanwhile, Newsweek editor Maynard Parker was being lashed as well. He had known all along that Klein was Anonymous but allowed items to appear in the magazine which suggested that writers other than Klein were plausible suspects. The Dallas Morning News called this “a gross violation of journalistic ethics.”

Klein had his defenders, who said too much was being made of a trivial matter, but it was hardly trivial for his Newsweek colleagues. As one put it: “Every day I call somebody and leave my name, Mike Isikoff of Newsweek, and that calling card meant less after this incident.”

The Klein affair pointed up schizoid divisions not only within Klein but within Newsweek. One was between the newsmagazine star system, which showcases hotshots like Klein, and others who toil in relative obscurity. Some Newsweek staffers are convinced Parker played along with Klein's ruse because he was more interested in pampering an in-house celebrity than in putting out the most accurate magazine possible. A related fissure was between those who saw the Klein affair as a major ethical issue (i.e., many of the reporters) and those who viewed it as a p.r. problem to be managed with the right spin. In a memo to staff, Parker appeared to take the latter view, declaring: “… in retrospect I misjudged the impact of this story” (emphasis mine).

Within The Washington Post Company, there were other signs of a multiple-personality disorder. While Newsweek, a Post Company subsidiary, sanctioned Klein's ruse and helped perpetuate it, the Post was playing gotcha. After the Klein exposé hit the paper's front page, Post editors pursued the matter as a major issue while Newsweek's editors belittled it (“This is more a matter of who shot J. R. … Everybody should get a life,” was Parker's initial reaction). Only on August 12 was the split sutured up, when Newsweek president Richard Smith issued a note to readers: “Newsweek made a serious mistake in going along with the deception. … We will never allow ourselves to be put in that situation again.”

The affair also reflects a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde quality in the news business as a whole. The incident was bizarre enough to be memorable to nonjournalists and confirmed a widespread impression that we play a two-faced ethical game. That's too sweeping, but not entirely off the mark.

As Jekyll, we decry deception and expose secrets. As Hyde, we thrive on both, protecting secret sources who often have axes to grind. Some of us mislead informants to get information, tape people clandestinely, don disguises, even pose as grieving relatives to get access to plane-crash victims (a New York Post reporter allegedly did this during the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 explosion). In a recent column on such contradictions, former Washington Post ombudsman Richard Harwood noted that Mike Wallace (who has acknowledged lying when necessary to nail down a story) only got into trouble when he secretly filmed an interview with a journalist after assuring her that she would not be on camera: “Journalists, he learned, were not fair game for lying. But other deceptions by CBS met with the approval of the network.”

When things finally settled, Klein had resigned, under pressure, from a CBS consultancy and been shorn of Newsweek reporting duties. But after a two-week suspension, during which he toned down his self-defense and apologized for causing distress to his colleagues, Klein returned to his column in high dudgeon, blasting Clinton for “monumental callousness” on welfare policy. Klein is back and America's got him. You can't keep a good man down.

William Bedford Clark (essay date 28 December 1996)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2170

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 F. Scott Fitzgerald. Warren made the quite understandable mistake of praising The Great Gatsby, a novel he had reviewed as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt University some years before. Fitzgerald—as they say in Texas—pitched a fit. It would appear that the persistent critical acclaim lavished on The Great Gatsby was a very sensitive point with Fitzgerald, who believed that he had done greater things and that his other writing was unjustly ignored by comparison. Justly or not, The Great Gatsby seems destined to remain the best known and most highly regarded of its author's works.

The same must be said of Warren's All the King's Men, and like most students of the Warren canon I have often speculated on the degree to which that novel's perennial success, measured in dollars as well as dissertations, may have struck him as a mixed and bittersweet blessing. After all, Warren had published two novels prior to All the King's Men, and seven more would follow.

His role as novelist aside for the moment, Warren began and ended his career as a poet, indeed was named this country's first official Poet Laureate at the end of his life, and along the way he published short fiction, influential criticism and assorted volumes of social and cultural commentary, not to mention the pioneering textbooks he brought out with Cleanth Brooks, textbooks that transformed the teaching of English in American universities. Be that as it may, whenever his name appears in print it inevitably bears the epithet “author of All the King's Men.” Warren hated equating people with labels, a tendency he thought was accelerated by the objectification of the individual in our technetronic age, but like it or not he was and is likely to remain “that man who wrote the book about Huey Long.”

All the King's Men turned 50 this year. Since its initial appearance in 1946, Warren's novel has become a part of the overall cultural fabric of the United States to an extent that is rare for any work of fiction, and its appeal has consistently spanned the chasm between what we used to call “high” and “low” culture—that is before postmodernism taught us to collapse all such categories in a suicidal rush toward relativism. Without question, its Pulitzer-prize status and the success of the film version, which garnered Academy Awards for best picture and best actor in 1950, helped to impress the title All the King's Men upon the collective mind, though the movie bore precious little resemblance to the novel.

A Bantam paperback edition was soon to be had on newsstands and in bus stations in tank towns across the country—this at a time when “serious” fiction was repackaged with an eye toward the casual reader—and Warren's novel, with its tough-guy narrator, sexually charged passages (however chaste they seem today) and cumulative pattern of violence had plenty to recommend it to readers of Mickey Spillane. In 1953 All the King's Men was added to the Modern Library list, attesting to its canonicity, and by the end of the decade the paperback edition was reissued as a Bantam classic. Thus, by the 1970s, when Woodward and Bernstein named their tense, quasi-novelistic account of the Watergate affair All the President's Men, they could safely assume that the allusion of their title would not be lost on a moderately literate audience. The political commentator David Broder has cited All the King's Men as one of two essential books for anyone interested in understanding the workings of U.S., so it is hardly surprising that a recent film like City Hall, starring Al Pacino and John Cusack, echoes Warren's novel in certain key respects. Even more to the point is the now-notorious case of the political roman-à-clef Primary Colors, one of this year's best-sellers and a book that carries on a complex intertextual dialogue with Warren's tale of political manipulation, abuse of power and the betrayal of our better selves.

Published anonymously, Primary Colors purports to be an insider's account, only lightly fictionalized, of Bill and Hillary Clinton's collaborative march to the Democratic nomination in 1992. Until a few months ago, speculation about the identity of the author was intense, and no doubt, as has been suggested, that element of mystery did more than a little to promote sales. We now know that Primary Colors is the work of Joe Klein, a correspondent and columnist for Newsweek. Klein, something of a media personality, who had earlier denied quite emphatically and for the record that he was “Anonymous,” was flushed out after his handwriting was compared with notations on the original type-script.

Because he deceived his fellow members of the press, Klein has been scorned by the media. It remains to be seen whether he will satisfactorily rehabilitate himself in the eyes of his colleagues or pursue, as has been suggested, a full-time career as a novelist. Aside from the question of Klein's journalistic credibility, Primary Colors, as a piece of fiction, is creditable enough. Let me pose an interesting question: How does Klein's book, in its unflinching portrayal of the assumptions operative in American politics today, implicitly embrace the ethos (now ostensibly, lost) that informs its predecessor?

Primary Colors, like All the King's Men, is the story of a Southern governor as told by an intimate advisor who has first-hand knowledge of many of the events he recounts. In place of Warren's narrator, Jack Burden, Klein gives us Henry Burton, who, like his counterpart, is drafted into the governor's entourage after a period of disillusionment with politics-as-usual. Both Burden and Burton are functionaries, albeit highly prized functionaries because of their respective political skills, and both have decidedly ambivalent attitudes toward the men they serve. (Klein puts a peculiar spin by making his narrator a man of mixed race.) The governor in Primary Colors is Jack Stanton, whose name recalls not only Jack Burden but Adam Stanton from All the King's Men. On the surface, Klein's New South governor seems the antithesis of Warren's populist demagogue, Willie Stark, with his “meat-ax” approach to political warfare, but it gradually becomes clear that the differences that divide them are largely a matter of style.

Jack Stanton is a Boomer-generation version of Willie Stark, smoother, but no less given over to earthy sexual appetites, particularly those of a sexual nature. Stanton may shift from the eviscerated discourse of policy wonks to the fuzzy rhetoric of the therapeutic culture with virtuosic ease, while Stark's public voice typically alternates between the engaging folksiness of the vernacular and the scurrilous stomp-and-gouge brag of a redneck bully, but in private both men speak the same language. Both rely upon an instinctive combination of animal cunning and focused aggression to work their will on those around them, and both ultimately derive their power from a force of personality that tends to subsume less willful and directed individuals. In effect, they come to occupy the vacuous spaces in the lives and psyches of their constituents and close associates alike. To put it somewhat differently, their power exists in direct ratio to the weakness of others. Warren understood this principle quite explicitly, and, even if he had never read All the King's Men, Klein could hardly have overlooked the degree to which politician and voter participate in a kind of symbiosis that may be as mutually destructive as it is at times salubrious. Any politician who feels that furthering an agenda depends upon a measure of deception from time to time may count upon an electorate that obliges with willing self-deception.

Warren and Klein alike take pains to depict in detail yet another symbiotic relationship, the sinister implications of which have increased exponentially over the half-century since the publication of All the King's Men. At a point in history, when, as Daniel Boorstin warned us long ago, image dictates reality and perceptions more than facts drive the course of events, a politician and the press (in the broadest sense) may well enter into a compromising interdependence. Both novels offer memorable scenes in which the natural antipathy between those who would govern and those who would inform collapses into mutual exploitation. The candidate, after all, furnishes the “commodity” the journalist purveys—news—and that commodity may be doled out generously or grudgingly. It may be withheld when it could adversely affect the marketing of a candidacy or, failing that, it may be released so as to minimize what political operatives call “fallout.” Warren's Willie Stark and Klein's Jack Stanton fear the damage inherent in negative publicity, but each is a past master at playing the press like some kind of unwieldy instrument. Given the fact that the journalist, no less than the candidate, is a creature who must balance the high rhetoric of his calling with the low pragmatism of his immediate goals, such connivance may not be so unnatural after all.

Warren's novel is a case study in the limits of pragmatic power; it charts the degree to which one may employ base means toward lofty ends before ends and means collide and success equals defeat, cancelling out the very ideals that had led to a compromise of motivating principles in the first place. Willie Stark, who wanted to practice a politics of difference, becomes no less a grafting politician than his nemesis MacMurfee, and by the end he recognizes that he has become the very thing he hates most. This recognition gives All the King's Men that level of tragic stature critics have rightly noted and admired. Like Willie, Jack Stanton is an idealist gone astray, a reformer who nonetheless has no illusions when it comes to the nasty imperatives of politics—the art of the possible—and who commits himself to the bottom line of getting results.

Yet in primary colors we have no Aristotelian moment of crucial self-awareness, and this is not merely a function of plot. Clearly, the novel's story line is less sweeping than All the King's Men; it chronicles the rise, albeit uncertain and precarious, of the protagonist, not his rise and fall. Even so, it would be mistaken to think of Jack Stanton as simply a Willie Stark who has yet to stand self-convicted in the light of new wisdom bought at the price of failure. There is no articulated moral center in Klein's novel, certainly no character toward which the ethically adrift might gravitate, as they do toward Lucy Stark in All the King's Men. Klein, like his narrator Henry Burton, may implicitly deplore this lack of fixed moral orientation, but he is altogether powerless to address its absence except as a given.

The politics of Primary Colors is post-modernist, which is to say wholly self-reflexive: Campaigning for office is no longer a necessary evil, a prerequisite for public service. It has become autotelic. The political process is process for its own sake, pure and simple. Willie Stark, still an honest man, recognized early in his career that “a man don't have to be Governor,” though in his human vanity and the heat of political maneuvering he loses sight of that fact until the novel's final chapters. Such a proposition would never occur to Jack Stanton, whose only bulwark against nothingness is politics at any price.

All the King's Men is a book about hope, as its epigraph from Dante makes clear. Hope, for Warren, springs out of blood and sorrow. Primary Colors, on the other hand, has no corpses strewn across the stage, but, for all its comic energy and brilliant satiric moments, it is by far the darker book. One is struck by its hopelessness. Fifty years ago, looking back upon the Depression from a perspective tempered by the Second World War, Robert Penn Warren delineated the perils inherent in modern democracy even as he sought to affirm the promise of the social covenant. What Warren did not foresee was the possibility of a “postmodern” democracy, but by the time he delivered his Jefferson Lecture in 1974 he clearly saw the shape of things to come. Developments have continued apace. The very concept of self has been made problematic and with it the Founders, dream of self-governance. Warren, never content to despair, had insisted that literature could play a role in the reclaiming of ourselves. If Warren is right and the joke is on his detractors, we may be sure that All the King's Men will continue to speak to its readers' needs well into the third millennium.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1123

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 of, say, Joe Klein with Primary Colors, but because it is fiction, at least you won't have to triple-check your facts or worry about defaming anyone, right? Well, maybe not. As Klein found out, writing fiction is no guarantee of immunity from a libel suit. In the latest twist in the Primary Colors saga, he and his publisher, Random House, Inc., have been sued for defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the first few pages of Primary Colors, a southern governor contemplating a run for the presidency visits a Harlem adult literacy program run by a female librarian named Baum. A few pages later, the governor and Baum emerge disheveled from a hotel room. Now Daria Carter-Clark, a librarian who played host to then Governor Bill Clinton at her adult literacy program in Harlem, has come forward to declare that she is the fictional Baum. She also says that everyone knows the fictional governor is intended to be Bill Clinton. More important, she says, she never had sex with Bill Clinton after his trip to the library, or at any other time. Carter-Clark claims that she was defamed because she was portrayed as promiscuous, immoral, and unprofessional.

It may seem nonsensical to sue for defamation (publishing false and derogatory information about someone) based on a work of fiction. After all, how can fiction be “false”? But it is, as a matter of law, possible. It is just relatively rare to get anywhere with such a lawsuit. In addition to the usual hurdles a defamation plaintiff faces, you also have to prove that readers familiar with you would reasonably know that you are the one the author is writing about. And courts have been reluctant to stifle the creative process by allowing such lawsuits to go to trial. Claims such as Carter-Clark's are often dismissed before they get anywhere near a jury.

But as a recent case illustrates, authors cannot count on that. A reader submitted a short story to Seventeen's “New Voices in Fiction” series. Seventeen published the story, identifying the author as Lucy Logsdon “from southern Illinois.” The story told of a fight between the narrator and a high school classmate, identified only as “Bryson,” who is described as a “platinum-blonde, blue-eye-shadowed, faded-blue-jeaned, black-polyester-topped shriek.” At one point, the narrator also refers to Bryson as a “slut.”

Enter young Kimberly Bryson, also of southern Illinois, who says she is the Bryson in the story. She also says that calling her a “slut” in a national magazine is defamatory and places her in a false light. She sues the story's author and Seventeen's parent company, Rupert Murdoch's News America Publications, Inc.

Like Carter-Clark, Bryson claimed that she was defamed because she was portrayed as promiscuous. Like Joe Klein, the novice author's primary defense is that she wrote a work of fiction. Two lower Illinois courts agreed and dismissed the claim; one declared that “slut” was merely an opinion uttered by “a fictional character about another fictional character.”

But the state's highest court reversed those decisions and ordered that the case go forward. The Illinois Supreme Court brushed aside the label “fiction” and said it was reasonable for people who knew the real-life Bryson to conclude that she and the fictional Bryson were one and the same. The court relied heavily on the use of the same unusual name and the setting in southern Illinois. The dissent thought the court had made it too easy for Bryson to sue for defamation and feared the opinion would “pave the way for frivolous lawsuits whenever something caustic is written, even in a fictional story.”

Presumably Joe Klein will now find out if that dire prediction comes true. In his case, the fictional librarian and her alleged real-life counterpart do not share the same name. Still, Primary Colors became a best-seller at least in part because we all knew who the major characters were “supposed to be.” (The only real mysterious identity for a while was the author.) If the fictional Governor Jack Stanton was a stand-in for Bill Clinton, why not Ms. Baum for Ms. Carter-Clark? In addition, Klein was along for the ride when campaigner Clinton visited the Harlem program. Nonetheless, as much as some of the actions and characters in the book mirror real life, others are clearly “fiction.”

These messy facts will all be sorted out by a jury if the case goes to trial. But will it ever get there? Bryson is not binding in New York state, where Klein's case will be decided and where courts are generally protective of authors' First Amendment rights. “The Primary Colors case will be dismissed,” predicts Jan Constantine, general counsel for News America Publications, Inc. She also says that, though her client may have a harder time in Illinois, News America will continue to fight the Bryson case as it heads toward trial.

The still larger question these cases raise is how much breathing room we should allow fiction writers (or journalists turned novelists), who inevitably draw on real-life experiences to create their fictional worlds. Labeling a work “fiction” cannot give the author carte blanche to defame someone. Yet the Illinois court's sweeping language in allowing Bryson's case to go forward is alarming. The court said that the story was “not so fanciful or ridiculous that no reasonable person would interpret it as describing actual persons or events. … [It] portrays realistic characters responding in a realistic manner to realistic events.” But isn't that what many authors strive for? Under the Bryson court's broad language, only science fiction writers could feel truly protected against a defamation charge.

“What is also really disturbing about Bryson,” says lawyer Constantine, “is that the story was part of a program to encourage young writers. Now we may not be able to do these kinds of programs because, as a practical matter, you cannot vet every one of these submissions. Publishers looking for new voices will be at risk.”

Indeed, if the Primary Colors case goes anywhere, even seasoned journalists may think twice before spinning their reporters' notebooks into the great American novel they have always been meaning to write.


Primary Colors