One-Minute Book Reviews

April 23, 2008

‘Anonymous’ No More — Does Joe Klein’s ‘Primary Colors’ Still Hold Any Interest Now That We All Know Who Wrote It?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:37 am
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A veteran political reporter satirizes sexual harassment and more on the campaign trail

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics. By Anonymous (Joe Klein). Random House, 384 pp., $13.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Guessing who wrote Primary Colors was a white-hot political parlor game in 1996, when the novel first appeared under the byline of “Anonymous.” But this former No. 1 bestseller is interesting for more than identity of its author, eventually revealed to be the longtime Washington journalist Joe Klein.

Primary Colors sends up the first presidential campaign of Jack Stanton, a Southern governor and stand-in for Bill Clinton. And Washington insiders had little trouble figuring out who might have inspired characters like first lady Susan Stanton (Hillary Clinton), campaign aide Henry Burton (George Stephanopoulos) and strategist Richard Jemmons (James Carville).

But Klein aims to do more than satirize the players in the 1992 Democratic primaries. Primary Colors is about the cost of political leadership in America and, perhaps, anywhere. “Two-thirds of what we do is reprehensible,” Jack Stanton says, while making clear that politicians will go on doing that reprehensible two-thirds because they think it justifies the good one-third.

Like most campaigns, Primary Colors is messy. It begins as a cynical – if effective – satire, then goes off the rails when it sinks into farce and axe-grinding. And yet, there are so few credible novels about political campaigns that Primary Colors, for all its imperfections, is still one of the best we have.

In one of its most famous scenes, a middle-aged political strategist whips out his penis at campaign headquarters in an attempt to lure young press aide to his hotel room. She looks at it and says, “I’ve never seen one that … old.” The strategist turns red and runs out of the room. Campaign aides – who have been eavesdropping – cheer. And for that scene alone, Primary Colors would deserve a cheer or two of its own.

Best line: On Mario Cuomo, the former governor of New York: “His fantasy is a race where he doesn’t run and nobody else wins.”

Worst line: A comment by a 250-pound lesbian campaign aide: “YOU ARE OUTTA HERE, you slimetudinous sack of snail wuzzle.”

Published: October 1996 (first edition).

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

2 Comments »

  1. I second that cheer! I loved reading Primary Colors!

    Comment by Kelly — April 27, 2008 @ 11:34 am | Reply

  2. Thanks, Kelly. It’s often hard for me to figure out whether to write about books that aren’t new but also aren’t old enough to be classics. (The Pennsylvania primary gave me an excuse to do this one.) So I’m glad to know that they can sometimes hit the mark.

    Some of the jokes from “Primary Colors” are so funny. I wonder if pundits will bring some of the back as the election approaches?
    Jan

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 27, 2008 @ 11:52 am | Reply


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