(On Cable TV, November 2016) As I slowly digest the results of the 2016 American Presidential election (albeit not without a few gastric refluxes along the way), I thought that a fictional take on the 1992 Clinton campaign would soothe my nerves. Alas, no such luck: After the sheer weirdness of 2016, Primary Colors seems positively sedate even in its stew of political corruption, adultery, dirty tricks and dark secrets. People in 1998 still obviously cared about moral flaws, which is more than seems to be the case in these dark days of November 2016. Adapted from a roman à clé penned as “Anonymous” by political journalist Joe Klein, Primary Colors purports to talk about the Clinton campaign, albeit with many details scrubbed and others pushed well past the point of fiction. John Travolta shows up with a full-on Bill Clinton impersonation, even though there isn’t as clear a Hillary analogue in Emma Thompson’s character. The protagonist of the story is a young political operative who (as with seemingly every political operative drama since, from The Ides of March to Knife Fight to Our Brand is Crisis) has a crisis of conscience after discovering his candidate’s darkest secret. It’s handled decently enough, with twists and turns that justify the fiction moniker. Characters and actors of note are Kathy Bates as an unexpectedly idealistic battle-axe, Larry Hagman as a veteran politician, Billy Bob Thornton as a redneck strategist (compare his character with the one he plays in Our Brand is Crisis) and Adrian Lester as the overshadowed protagonist … among many other notable names in smaller performances. As a fictionalized look in the primary campaign process, Primary Colors is not bad—and even after nearly twenty years remains just as interesting. But it may not be as effective right now, as I look at the headlines and wonder when we veered off in this absurd alternate reality. Hopefully it’ll look a bit wilder in four years.
Warner, 1996, 507 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60427-5
From time to time, a book appears which become more than a book. For a quirk or another, it becomes not something that talks about something, but something that’s talked about. Recent example include Kitty Kelley’s unflinching biography of Nancy Reagan (Her Way), the scientifically-racist The Bell Curve, James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy and… the “anonymously” written Primary Colors.
In Primary Colors‘ case, the identity of the author was the subject of the discussions. Warner Books was pushing a satirical novel about American politics, in which a previously unknown southern governor (and his domineering wife) dealt with sexual scandals and other assorted problems on the way to the Democratic convention. Given the parallels with the Clintons, if it was written “anonymously” then it must have been the work of someone closely related to the Clintons! Could it have been the work of George Stephanopoulos, the press secretary? Or another person high up in the Clinton organization? Whodunit, Whowroteit?
The game amused political America for a few weeks, until it was discovered that Joe Klein (a Newsweek journalist who covered the campaign.) wrote the novel. The game wasn’t over yet (more than a few journalists questioned the ethics of Klein, who reportedly went in rages of denial at his coworkers and friends before it was conclusively proven that it was him) but the controversy was enough to send Primary Colors riding on top of the bestsellers lists.
But what about the book?
Well, it’s just about everything we’ve been promised: a scathing look at American politics, starring the Stantons, close (but not perfect) representations of the Clintons. The events described in the book are, fortunately, quite fictional, and it makes for some mesmerizing reading about modern politics in America. The wheeling, dealing and back-room back-stabbing are all well-described, at the exception of a few rough spots where the author might have tried to be too clever for his own good.
The story is narrated by Henry, one public relation whiz who joins the Stanton team early on. (The narrative stops before the presidential campaign.) During the book, Henry will fall in love with a fellow co-worker, deal with personal issues, discover shocking “truths”, make friends and influence people. His personal odyssey become at times more interesting than the campaign itself. He’s sympathetic, and he should be: A few passages are unusually moving, and the reader will run the gamut of emotions, from humor to disgust, back to exhilaration and loss.
A strong stable of supporting characters help round out an already solidly-written novel. Klein’s style is not without quirks, but mostly carries the reader through to the story he’s telling. This isn’t an “anonymous” novel because the author disavowed his writing; Klein should be proud to have produced quite a good piece of prose. There are a few rough spots, and the conclusion is of the “make up your own” type, but Primary Colors is an interesting book in its own right. It’s appropriately cynical, fairly funny and compulsively readable. A must for every political pundit.