Primary Colors

jack stanton

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics’ is a 1996 roman à clef, a work of fiction that purports to describe real life characters and events — namely, Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. It has been compared to two other novels about American politics; Robert Penn Warren’s ‘All the King’s Men’ (1946) and ‘O: A Presidential Novel’ (2011). The book was originally published by an anonymous author, who was later found to be columnist Joe Klein. Klein completed a sequel of sorts, ‘The Running Mate’ in 2000, focusing on the ‘Primary Colors’ character of Charlie Martin.

An early reviewer opined that the author wished to remain unknown because ‘Anonymity makes truthfulness much easier.’ Later commentators called the publishing of the book under an anonymous identity an effective marketing strategy that produced more publicity for the book, and thus more sales, without calling into question the author’s actual inside knowledge.

Several people, including former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet and, later, Vassar professor Donald Foster, correctly identified Klein as the novel’s author, based on a literary analysis of the book and Klein’s previous writing. Klein denied writing the book and publicly condemned Foster. He denied authorship again in ‘Newsweek,’ speculating that another writer wrote it. ‘Washington Post Style’ editor David von Drehle, in an interview, asked Klein if he was willing to stake his journalistic credibility on his denial, to which Klein agreed.

After ‘The Washington Post’ published the results of a handwriting analysis of notes made on an early manuscript of the book, Klein finally admitted that he was ‘Anonymous.’

The book begins as an idealistic former congressional worker, Henry Burton, joins the presidential campaign of Southern governor Jack Stanton, a thinly disguised stand-in for Bill Clinton. The plot then follows the primary election calendar beginning in New Hampshire where Stanton’s affair with Cashmere, his wife’s hairdresser, and his participation in a Vietnam War era protest come to light and threaten to derail his presidential prospects. In Florida, Stanton revives his campaign by disingenuously portraying his Democratic opponent as insufficiently pro-Israel and as a weak supporter of Social Security. Burton becomes increasingly disillusioned with Stanton, who is a policy wonk who talks too long, eats too much and is overly flirtatious toward women. Stanton is also revealed to be insincere in his beliefs, saying whatever will help him to win. Matters finally come to a head, and Burton is forced to choose between idealism and realism.

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