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Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics ()

Orrin's All-Time Top Ten (or twelve) List - Political

It's kind of remarkable that in spite of the intense media scrutiny to which we subject our Presidential hopefuls these days, when election day rolls around we remain unlikely to know them very well or understand them at all.  In something of a paradox, this is actually the media's fault to a significant degree.  Since at least the 1960 race, with the success of Teddy White's first Making of the President book and the ascension of television as the dominant provider of news coverage, we have come to understand the quadrennial campaign for the White House as a narrative drama, replete with fascinating heroes (the candidates), colorful characters (typically the consultants), devious villains (the "Special Interests"), turning points (Iowa & NH), huge set piece scenes (Conventions), showdowns (the Debates), and the thrilling climax (Election Day).

Of course, the most obvious thing missing from this plot line is ideas, but pick up a newspaper during a campaign and you are much more likely to read about the process itself than about anything the candidates actually said.  The other major problem with this whole scenario is that it tends to favor, not the better candidate, but often the candidate who best fits the elements of the plot.  Take a couple of perfectly competent but colorless men like Bob Dole and Mike Dukakis, surround them with professional but low key staffers and let them run serious campaigns on the issues, and the press will proceed to pummel them into submission, not necessarily for any ideological reasons, but because they make it hard to draw an audience to the show, refuse to follow the conventions of the predetermined script.  Only later, long after the dust has settled (the confetti been swept, so to speak), will an accurate picture begin to emerge of who the contestants actually were.

In recent years we've gotten some particularly insightful books about men who became president, but only after the subject campaigns had ended.  Though it concerned the 1988 campaign, What it Takes : The Road to the White House (Richard Ben Cramer) served as an excellent guide to both George Bush as he ran for re-election in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.  And in 1996, voters interested in Bill Clinton had two really revealing portraits to choose from : in nonfiction, the excellent biography First in His Class (David Maraniss) and a superb fictional treatment in Joe Klein's Primary Colors.  In fact, it's arguably true that, for anyone willing to do the reading, there have never been two presidential candidates about whom it was possible to know more about who they really were, as opposed to their public personae, than Bob Dole and Bill Clinton in 1996.  It's also hard to believe that had voters taken the time to read these books Bill Clinton would still have won.

The Maraniss book remains unsurpassed as an overall depiction of Clinton's path to power, but Primary Colors is invaluable for the insight it offers into how Bill Clinton seduced his followers.  Joe Klein, as George Stephanopolous revealed in his memoir, All Too Human, was one of the first members of the press corps to believe in the Clinton candidacy and so was in a unique position to author an account of that campaign from it's earliest days in the snows of New Hampshire to the candidate's improbable victory.    In fact, when the novel was published anonymously, many folks simply assumed that Stephanopolous was the author.  Indeed, the narrator, Henry Burton, is pretty clearly modeled on Stephanopolous, though in a twist which perhaps reveals all too much about the sensibilities of folks like Klein, in this case he's black.

Fittingly, the key moment in the book is the first page, when Henry meets the Clinton doppelganger, Governor Jack Stanton, for the first time :

    He was a big fellow, looking seriously pale on the streets of Harlem in deep summer. I am small
    and not so dark, not very threatening to Caucasians; I do not strut my stuff.

    We shook hands. My inability to recall that particular moment more precisely is disappointing: the
    handshake is the threshold act, the beginning of politics. I've seen him do it two million times now,
    but I couldn't tell you how he does it, the right-handed part of it--the strength, quality, duration of
    it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh. I can, however, tell you a whole lot about what he does with
    his other hand. He is a genius with it. He might put it on your elbow, or up by your biceps: these
    are basic, reflexive moves. He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. If he gets any higher
    up your shoulder--if he, say, drapes his left arm over your back, it is somehow less intimate, more
    casual. He'll share a laugh or a secret then--a light secret, not a real one--flattering you with the
    illusion of conspiracy. If he doesn't know you all that well and you've just told him something
    "important," something earnest or emotional, he will lock in and honor you with a two-hander, his
    left hand overwhelming your wrist and forearm. He'll flash that famous misty look of his. And he
    will mean it.

    Anyway, as I recall it, he gave me a left-hand-just-above-the-elbow plus a vaguely curious "ah, so
    you're the guy I've been hearing about" look, and a follow-me nod. I didn't have the time, or
    presence of mind, to send any message back at him. Slow emotional reflexes, I guess. His were
    lightning. He was six meaningful handshakes down the row before I caught up. And then I fell in, a
    step or two behind, classic staff position, as if I'd been doing it all my life. (I had, but not for
    anyone so good.)

There is Bill Clinton, his undeniable appeal and his ultimate deceit all served up in three paragraphs.  Early in the century E. M. Forster admonished us : Only connect.  As if human problems would somehow succumb if only we could all share something of ourselves.  The particular genius of Bill Clinton lies in his uncanny (perhaps even frightening) ability to convince people that they have connected with him in just such a sense.  This has served to create almost unbreakable bonds of loyalty not merely between him and his absurdly loyal staff, and fellow Democrats, but also (and it pains me to say it) with the American people.  For all of the horrible things that he has done and for all of the really big things that he might have achieved had he only tried, there is still a core level on which most people feel that his presidency has somehow been an experience in which they shared.  No matter how much his critics may belittle that dewy-eyed look, the lip biting and that wretched phrase, "I feel your pain," there simply is some level at which people buy the whole act, accept that he really does understand them and care about their problems.  I used the word genius above and I do not think that characterization is too strong; Bill Clinton has a political genius, is a Genius.  That I feel his gift to have been wasted in the service of his own personal aggrandizement does not change that galling fact.

The book goes on to depict a series of scandals, mostly involving women, which the candidate, his wife and his staff are forced to defuse, with varying degrees of truthfulness and savagery.  Eventually though, when crunch time comes, Stanton shows himself willing to sink to almost any level to cover up the sins of his past, but also capable of relating to the pain of another candidates past failings.  Whether this latter is a moment of genuine empathy or not, it suffices to convince Henry that the governor is ultimately a man worth serving and his other doubts are set aside.

Several matters of note arise regarding the scandal.  First, to Henry (and seemingly to Klein) the fact that the governor fathered a child upon the teenage daughter of a friend is weighed in the balance against his capacity to "feel" the pain of others and is found to be of lesser import, somehow less revealing of his true character.  Second, it is not the governor who is really required to make the soul killing moral compromises here; it is his staff who are called upon to do the dirty work.  Though willing, they too are ultimately victims of his appetites (in fact, one of them, like Vince Foster, ends up killing herself after the compromises finally become unbearable).  Finally, though even back then the rumors of much worse behavior than this were rampant, it is revealing that Klein's imagination extended so far and no further.  One wonders how the Kleins and Stephanopolii of the world can reconcile their service to Clinton with the reasonably credible charges of women like Juanita Broadrick, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey.  Is there some level of sympathy for and empathy with the people as a whole that justifies in their minds his predatory behavior towards specific women?  One hopes not, but the failure of a single Clinton aide ever to resign in protest at his various pathological behaviors at least raises the question.

Primary Colors does not aspire to, nor does it achieve, the lofty heights of Robert Penn Warren's great novel of Huey Long, All the King's Men.  But it certainly takes it's place among the better political novels ever written.


Grade: (A-)


Book-related and General Links:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of Primary Colors
    -REVIEW : of WITH ENOUGH SHOVELS Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War. By Robert Scheer (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : WHICH SIDE WERE YOU ON? The American Communist Party During the Second World War. By Maurice Isserman (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE EMBASSY HOUSE By Nicholas Proffit (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of ON DISTANT GROUND By Robert Olen Butler (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of TURTLE BEACH By Blanche d'Alpuge (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of DREAMS DIE HARD By David Harris (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of UPHEAVAL IN THE QUIET ZONE A History of Hospital Workers' Union, Local 1199. By Leon Fink and Brian Greenberg (Joe Klein, NY Times Book Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Anonymous No More : A Conversation With Joe Klein (Michael Cromartie, Books & Culture)
    -INTERVIEW : Joe Klein & Gail Collins : A Conversation (Columbia Journalism Review)
    -INTERVIEW : Man with no name : Michael Ellison talks to Joe Klein, the author of Primary Colors, about spin, which he claims is dead, although the politicians haven't realised.  (Monday August 14, 2000, booksunlimited uk)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Joe Klein (Yahoo!
    -BOOK SITE : Primary Colors (Random House)
    -Special Edition of Entertainment Weekly on Primary Colors
    -ESSAY : ÝAnonymous No More (Michael Cromartie, Books & Culture, November/December 1996)
    -ARTICLE : The Mystery No Insider Can Unravel (TIME)
    -ARTICLE : 'Newsweek' columnist says he authored 'Primary Colors' (USA Today)
    -ARTICLE : "Primary Colors" Joe Klein a.k.a Anonymous (April 3, 1998, CNN)
    -ARTICLE : Forensic expert who unmasked Joe Klein prefers to be anonymous herself (Valerie Carino / Raleigh News & Observer)
    -INTERVIEW : Primary Colors by Anonymous, has many wondering who wrote this thinly veiled fictional look at Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the Presidency. Essayist Roger Rosenblatt postulates who Anonymous might be, and reviews the merits of the book. (Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Primary witness  (Robert McCrum,  Sunday February 20, 2000, booksunlimited uk)
    -ESSAY : THE LIARS CLUB : Joe Klein is not only a disgrace to his profession, he may be nuts, too. (DAVID CORN, Salon)
    -ESSAY : Journalism: Joe Klein's Crime; Jessica Mitford's Legacy (Randolph T. Holhut)
    -ESSAY : Will "Primary Colors" author score another win? : Joe Klein's new roman à clef will be a tough sell (Craig Offman, Salon)
    -ESSAY : JOE KLEIN'S TRUE COLORS? (American Review)
    -ESSAY :  Primary Targets (James Fallows, NPR Commentary -- March 8, 1996)
    -ESSAY : JOE KLEIN'S "SHOCKING" CONFESSION : The Mainstream Media's Double Standard (Edward Zehr, Washington Weekly)
    -ESSAY : Sloppy Joe : Media Rant on Primary Colors  (Jon Katz,  Mediaville, Wired)
    -ESSAY : Regular Joe : Impolitic on Primary Colors (John Heilemann, Wired)
    -ESSAY : My Tryst With Anonymous (Charles McGrath, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY : It beats working in the White House (Mugger, Jewish World Review)
    -ESSAY : Integrity, Politics, and the Art of the Possible (Peter Landstrom)
    -ESSAY : Lurking About in Hyde Park With The Disembody Politic (Alan J Rosenblatt, George Mason University)
    -REVIEW: of Primary Colors By Anonymous (Michael Lewis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors AUTHOR! AUTHOR! : Anonymous Should Take A Bow: His (Or Her) Novel About Clinton'S 1992 Campaign Deserves To Sweep The Bookstores (WALTER SHAPIRO, TIME)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors (Bill Nichols, USA Today)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors by Anonymous (Joe Klein) (Bear Cave)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors (PAT H. BROESKE, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of THE RUNNING MATE By Joe Klein (Erik Tarloff, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE RUNNING MATE By Joe Klein (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Running Mate (Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Running Mate (Alan Attwood, The Age au)
    -REVIEW : of PAYBACK: Five Marines After Vietnam. By Joe Klein (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of Payback by Joe Klein (Stanley Karnow, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Woody Guthrie by Joe Klein (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)

    -BUY IT : Primary Colors (1998) VHS (
    -BUY IT : Primary Colors (1998) DVD (
    -INFO : Primary Colors (1998) (IMDB)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors (Stanley Kauffmann , New Republic)
    -REVIEW : of Primary Colors (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW : Primary Colors paints a portrait of winning (Stephen Hunter - The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : (Charles Taylor, Salon)
    -REVIEW : (James Bowman, American Spectator)
    -REVIEW : Choose Life : Primary Colors is a pale imitation of our great national soap opera. (David Edelstein, Slate)
    -ESSAY : Compromising Positions (Peter Biskind, Premiere)
    -BUY IT : The War Room (

    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA: "william jefferson clinton"
    -William J. Clinton  Forty-Second President 1993- (
    -BOOKNOTES: Bill Clinton.  Title: Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century (CSPAN)
    -ARCHIVES : Clinton Files (Reason Magazine)
    -SPECIAL REPORT: Clinton Accused (Washington Post)
    -UNDER OATH:  A Political Cantata for Tenor, Mezzo-Soprano  and Independent Counsel  Music by Steve Hilton Texts* from the sworn testimony of William Jefferson Clinton and Monica Lewinsky  *Edited by Tom Simon
    -ETEXTS: IMPEACHMENT OF PRESIDENT WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON (Government Documents in the News, U of Michigan)
    -The Impeachment of President Clinton (North Texas Libraries)
    -Full Coverage : Clinton Accused (Washington Post)
    -Clinton: Impeaching the President (CBC)
    -Clinton in Crisis (Guardian Unlimited)
    -The History Place - Impeachment: Bill Clinton
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    -ESSAY: Apr 23, 1998 William A. Edmundson: CLINTON & THE JONES CASE  (NY Review of Books)
      -Free Republic: Whitewater
    -EXCERPT: Hillary's Big Mistake The decision that spawned impeachment (George Stephanopoulos, Washington Monthly)
    -DEPOSITION: In the matter of: :  WHITE HOUSE TRAVEL : DEPOSITION OF  : GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (House Government Oversight Committee)
    -ESSAY: The Art of War:  George Stephanopoulos on Fighting the Media (Trevor Butterworth, NewsWatch Associate Editor)
    -ARCHIVES: "George Stephanopoulos" (Salon)
    -REVIEW: of All Too Human A Political Education. By George Stephanopoulos (Gary Wills, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of All Too Human (Gabriel Schoenfeld, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of All too Human  History vs. Loyalty (James Fallows, The Washington Monthly)
    -REVIEW: Anthony King reviews All Too Human: A Political Education by George Stephanopoulos (political Science Quarterly)
    -REVIEW: of All Too Human (Owen Ullman, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: (Tony Peregrin, New City Chicago)
    -REVIEW: of All Too Human All the President's Man   George Stephanopoulos's odyssey from star-struck, ambitious young politico to older, wiser, much richer pundit is an emblematic generational story -- not in a good way  (WALTER KIRN, New York)
    -REVIEW: BETWEEN HOPE AND HISTORY Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century By President Bill Clinton (RICHARD BERNSTEIN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: The Adventures of "But-Man"  Between Hope and History: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century , by Bill Clinton (John J. Pitney Jr., Reason)
    -REVIEW: (Susan B. Garland, Business Week)
    -REVIEW: (Marsha Vande Berg, Book Page)
    -REVIEW: of A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President  By JEFFREY TOOBIN (THOMAS POWERS, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President By JEFFREY TOOBIN (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Bill Clinton and the American Character (Richard John Neuhaus, First Things)
    -ESSAY: The World According to Clinton (Andrew J. Bacevich, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Punishment Yes, Impeachment No (James Nuechterlein, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Who Elected Clinton: A Collision of Values (John Green, Lyman Kellsedt, James Guth, & Corwin Smidt, First Things)
    -ESSAY:   It's the Reagan Economy, Stupid  (Lawrence Kudlow, Chief Economist, and Stephen Moore, Economist, Cato Institute, Jan 31 2000, CNBC)
    -ESSAY: The Clinton Principle (GARRY WILLS, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Facets of Clinton: His Character (NY Times Magazine)
    -ESSAY: The Hard Questions: Gatsby Returns (Jean Bethke Elshtain, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Clinton the Concilitator Finds His Line in the Sand (ALISON MITCHELL AND TODD S. PURDUM, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Is Clinton a Conservative?: The Secret of Bill's Success   (Stephen Moore, Intellectual Capital)
    -ESSAY: on Clinton Fatigue: TRB FROM WASHINGTON Give It a Rest (SEAN WILENTZ, New Republic)
    -ESSAY:  Is 'Clinton Fatigue' a Myth? (Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe)
    -ESSAY:  Editor! Editor! Taking the Bows for Anonymous (BRUCE WEBER, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: A Triumph of Misinformation :  Most of what everyone "knows" about the demise of health-care reform is probably wrong--and, more important, so are the vague impressions people have of what was really in the Clinton plan (James Fallows, The Atlantic)
    -ESSAY: Can the President Think?  The chaos and paralysis of the Clinton presidency reflect the chaos and paralysis of Bill Clinton's mind--and he is not going to change. (Edith Efron, Reason)
    -REVIEW: of THE AGENDA Inside the Clinton White House. By Bob Woodward (Andrew Sullivan, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Agenda Inside the Clinton White House By Bob Woodward (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: Sep 19, 1996 Joan Didion: The Deferential Spirit, NY Review of Books
       The Choice by Bob Woodward
       The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House by Bob Woodward
       The Commanders by Bob Woodward
       Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA 1981-1987 by Bob Woodward
       Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi by Bob Woodward
       The Brethren by Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong
    -REVIEW: of SHADOW Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate. By Bob Woodward (Michael Lind, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Shadow by Bob Woodward (James Nuechterlein, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Shadow REWIND:  How Woodward Goes Wayward  In his latest best-seller, Bob Woodward doesn't let pesky facts or contradictory evidence get in the way of the story (Steven Brill, Brill's Content)
    -REVIEW: of Shadow Successors ignored  Watergate lessons :  Bob Woodward traces rot of modern U.S. presidency back to Nixon (YVONNE CRITTENDEN, Toronto Sun)
    -REVIEW: Lars-Erik Nelson: Undemocratic Vistas, NY Review of Books
       The Corruption of American Politics: What Went Wrong and Why by Elizabeth Drew
       Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate by Bob Woodward
    -REVIEW: of  THE CHOICE By Bob Woodward  (1996)(MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE CHOICE By Bob Woodward (Michael Lewis, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Choice by Bob Woodward Suiting Up for the Race (David J. Garrow , The Washington Post)
    -REVIEW: of The Choice (Jonathan Alter, Salate)
    -REVIEW: Mark Danner: Slouching Toward Dayton, NY Review of Books
       To End a War by Richard Holbrooke
       Sarajevo Daily: A City and Its Newspaper Under Siege by Tom Gjelten
       The Choice: How Clinton Won by Bob Woodward
    -REVIEW: of Behind the Oval Office Winning the Presidency in the Nineties. By Dick Morris (James B. Stewart, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of . . . And the Horse He Rode In On The People v. Kenneth Starr. By James Carville (Jonathan Lear, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of LOCKED IN THE CABINET By Robert B. Reich (Richard Bernstein, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Feeding the Beast The White House Versus the Press. By Kenneth T. Walsh (David Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A VAST CONSPIRACY The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President By Jeffrey Toobin (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Washington and The Contract With America (James Fallows, The Atlantic)
    -REVIEW : of The Truth of Power : Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House by Benjamin R. Barber ( ALEXANDER STAR, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of 'The Best of Times: America in the Clinton Years' by Haynes Johnson (Christopher Caldwell, Washington Post)