'Primary Colors': Good Enough to be true

February 04, 1996|By SUSAN BAER | SUSAN BAER,SUN STAFF

"Primary Colors," by Anonymous. Random House. 366 pages. $24

The guessing game surrounding the author of this novel of politics has already created a "Primary Colors" buzz inside the Washington beltway. But the "Deep Throat"-like mystery is purely a bonus when it comes to the allure of this book. It needs no such gimmick.

Hip, energetic, funny and eye-opening, this thinly-veiled and somewhat kaleidoscopic account of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign - in this case we have Jack Stanton, the charismatic governor of a small southern state, and his high-powered lawyer wife Susan (who, yes, wears a hairband) - is a marvel of political fiction.

Providing an only slightly satire-tinged window into today's spin and image-driven political process, the book works on many different levels, sparkling with secondary and even tertiary colors from beginning to splashy end.

Students of presidential politics and campaigns, especially the Clinton campaign, are sure to revel in the authenticity of the events, dialogue and personalities. For starters, there is candidate Stanton, a man of huge appetites who has womanizing and draft problems, can policy-talk anyone under the table and makes a comeback with his second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.

Swirling around him is a crew of bold, in-your-face players, most of whom can be easily matched to real-life counterparts. There is campaign strategist Richard, for instance (the James Carville character), who is described by Lucille (the Susan Thomases character) as "some hillbilly who looks like he was sired during the love scene from Deliverance..."

Those less acquainted with the primary process are likely to find the book instructive - perhaps even shocking - in its portrait of the dehumanizing, game-show quality of modern-day politics.

The smart dialogue - "Someone should tell the professor that seersucker plus TV equals death," a campaign aide snaps about a Paul Tsongas-like candidate - suggest the author is a practiced scribe rather than a pol, and make this book a treat to swing through.

The writing is dense with flavor and sass as well as profane campaign bluster and (at times inventive) jargon. Reporters are "scorps" (for scorpions).

But it is the richly-drawn characters who are the primary agents of color in this work, such as Libby, the deliciously foul-mouthed "dustbuster" who cleans up after the governor's bimbo eruptions, and the guv himself, deeply flawed but with enough charm, heart and gray matter to engender devotion - even from his steely wife.

At the heart of the novel is narrator Henry Burton, the young, bright Stephanopoulos-like character who becomes the candidate's right-hand man. The grandson of a Martin Luther King-like figure, Henry is of mixed-race parentage and wages his own personal campaign to come to grips with his racial identity and mission. His conflict, and his relationship with another campaign worker, anchor the wild, frenetic ride they're all on.

There are some twists in the book that are so goofy and outlandish as to seem unbelievable and thus misplaced: Susan Stanton seduces young Henry; the eccentric "dustbuster" holds a gun to a Stanton enemy's private parts; a campaign worker commits suicide.

Then again, we've seen enough of modern-day politics to know that few things should be counted out.

Susan Baer has been a Washington correspondent for The Sun for eight years, covering politics and Washigton life. Before that she was editor of The Sun's magazine for six years.

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