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).
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© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.