Primary Colors by Anonymous (Joe Klein)
366 pages, 1996, Random House
Review score: **** out of *****
Primary Colors is a fictional account of a presidential primary campaign. The book is obviously based on the Clinton campaign in 1992 and it has the feel of an inside job. The details of the campaign and the portraits of the candidate, Jack Stanton and his wife Susan, seem like they must have been drawn by someone who viewed Bill and Hillary Clinton up close. One Clinton insider, on being asked if he wrote the book commented "I only wish I had. Unfortunately I don't write that well". Primary Colors is a stellar piece of writing. Not only does the anonymous author have a gift for prose, he also has a fine eye for characters and an intimate knowledge of politics. The author also has a subtle sense of humor, which is finely laced throughout the story. In writing this book review, I noticed that the copyright is held by Machiavelliana Inc. Perhaps like Machiavelli, the author has been driven from politics and this is his memoir of a time when he was in the midst of events.
Reading Primary Colors, I found that Bill and Hillary Clinton constantly brought to mind. Clinton is once again running for president and the "Whitewater" scandal threatens to reach out its tentacles and drag him down. Like Jack Stanton in Primary Colors, Clinton has been a politician since his college days. And with politics comes inevitable compromise. Although Stanton has walked so far down the path of compromise that he sometimes forgets where he stared, his core ideal is to help people. The Bill Clinton of 1996 is a far less noble creature than Jack Stanton of '91-'92. Clinton has sold out his natural supporters to avoid any sort of controversy. In many ways I find the character of Jack Stanton in Primary Colors more attractive than the Bill Clinton I read about in the paper. At one point, when the Stanton campaign is in deep trouble, Stanton is speaking at a ship yard. With little to lose, he reaches out to his audience.
Well, I'm here now, and I'm lookin' at you, and you wouldn't believe me if I told you what you wanted to hear in any case, right? So let me tell you this: No politician can bring these shipyard jobs back. Or make your union strong again. No politician can make it be the way it used to be. Because we're living in a new world now, a world without borders -- economically, that is. Guy can push a button in New York and move a billion dollars to Tokyo before you blink an eye. We've got a world market now. And that's good for some. In the end, you've gotta believe it's good for America. We come from everywhere in the world, so we're gonna have a leg up selling to everywhere in the world. Makes sense, right? But muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap -- and that's not here. So if you want to compete and do better, you're gonna have to exercise a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears. And anyone who gets up here and says he can do it for you isn't leveling with you. So I'm not gonna insult you by doing that. I'm going to tell you this: This whole country is gonna have to go back to school. We're gonna have to get smarter, learn new skills. And I will work overtime figuring out ways to help you get the skills you need. I'll make you this deal: I will work for you. I'll wake up every morning thinking about you. I'll fight and worry and sweat and bleed to get the money to make education a lifetime thing in this country, to give you the support you need to move on up.
In writing these fine speaches for Jack Stanton, is Anonymous putting words in Clinton's mouth? Or did Bill Clinton actually say some of these things? There certainly were more ideals in 1992 than there are in 1996. The sad truth is that Clinton has lived up to few of his promises. Reading about Stanton, I kept feeling that this sad future lay ahead of him too. Today the best that can be said about Bill Clinton is that he is not Bob Dole. In Primary Colors, people work and bleed for Jack Stanton's campaign because they believe in him. Who will work and bleed for Clinton now? And if they do, what ideals do they think that Clinton will deliver on? After selling out the Gay community, backing the Communications Decency Act, vetoing the bill to suppress shareholder nuisance suits and attempting to outlaw cryptography, I suspect that Clinton will not get the welcome in San Francisco and Silicon Valley he once got. In the 1996 campaign, it seems unlikely that there will be photo opportunities at Silicon Graphics.
Like Bill Clinton, Jack Stanton has a hard time keeping his pants on around good looking women. Jack Stanton's campaign suffers from its own "bimbo eruptions". The man Anonymous describes is complex and like great men, has large virtues and failings. One has the feeling that even now the author loves a part of Clinton, which he labeled Jack Stanton.
Ian Kaplan - 6/96
Newsweek Columnist Joe Klein admits he is Anonymous
Joe Klein, Newsweek columnist and political reporter, has confessed to being Anonymous. No, not the one who wrote those Victorian novels you read in high school, but the one who wrote the novel Primary Colors.
Posted by Jon Callas, to his mailing list Eristocracy.
I am not familiar with Joe Klein's work, although I wish I was, given the quality of the writing in Primary Colors. Apparently Klein covered the Clinton campaign for New York magazine, before moving to Newsweek.
At one point the Washington Post made up a list of twenty five people who had been suggested as authors of Primary Colors. Speculation about the authorship of Primary Colors became a popular topic at parties and I have to confess that I asked a couple of Stanford political science Phds this question at a party recently (their guess was George Stephanopolos, a popular choice).
Several sources have suggested that Klein was the anonymous author behind Primary Colors. On the Washington Post list Klein was given the odds of 25:1, against. One of those who believed that either Klein or a clever Klein immitator wrote the book was Vassar College english Professor Donald Foster, who used computer analysis of the text to match Primary Colors with Klein's writing. Klein denied these accusations until he was informed that the Washington Post had done a handwriting analysis of corrections he made to a galley of Primary Colors. This analysis showed that Klein was the author and Klein finally admitted it. Klein's repeated denials have led some to question his journalistic eithics.
Some Primary Colors links
And then there was Admiral Jeremy Boorda, who committed suicide when Newsweek threatened to disclose that he wasn't entitled to wear two tiny combat ribbons. Boorda removed them as soon as questions were raised about whether he was entitled to display the medals - but then took his own life anyway. Newsweek self-righteously justified its dubious pursuit of the story on the grounds that the medals weren't the issue - character was.
Book review table of contents
back to home page