Politics revealed in vivid 'Colors' Essay: Unmistakable facts make a gem out of 'Primary Colors,' an honest political 'novel' by an author who told everything but his/her name.

February 10, 1996|By Theo Lippman Jr. | Theo Lippman Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Did you know Hillary Clinton seduced George Stephanopolous during the 1992 presidential campaign? I didn't either till I read "Primary Colors," by Anonymous. But it's right there in the book. That and much much more about the Clintons and many other figures from the campaign.

Anonymous might issue a disclaimer to the effect that it is wrong for a reader to confuse what happens in a novel -- a work of fiction, of the imagination -- with what happened in real life. But Anonymous would be wrong. "Primary Colors" isn't a work of the imagination. It is a hybrid sort of fictive fantasy and journalism unrestrained by the usual rules, meant to convey certain truths about certain characters and the democratic process.

As such, it would be easy to dismiss it as opportunistic trash. But outrageous political roman-a-clefs have a good pedigree and can be valuable -- even reformist. As irresponsible and even immoral as "Primary Colors" is, I think it could be a step in the right direction.

"Truths" in the second paragraph is the wrong word. "Facts" is what this book contains, masquerading as truth or insight or explanation. Its popularity is due almost entirely to its appeal to the reader to believe Gov. Jack Stanton is Bill Clinton, Susan Stanton is Hillary, Orlando Ozio is Mario Cuomo, Cashmere McLeod is Gennifer Flowers, Henry Burton, the narrator, is Stephanopolous, and on and on and on. Is, not based on.

Anonymous' descriptions of them, the situations they appear in, the roles they play in the campaign are almost identical to real life. Carl Cannon, The Sun's White House correspondent, says one scene of the novel is so true to life that it had to have been written by someone who was there. More than that, some of the real life people who are characters in the book say their very thoughts are accurately presented. You have to assume they told someone those thoughts -- someone who is or who reported them to Anonymous.

So this isn't fiction. Those critics -- and there have been several -- who compare it to Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" miss the whole point of such a novel. Leaving aside that Warren was a poet who used the English language beautifully in his novel, his book was clearly based on Huey Long, the assassinated Louisiana demagog. But Willie Stark was just as clearly not Huey Long.

Warren was asked once about using "recognizable figures" in a novel. "Recognizable figures?" he replied. "I don't think they are recognizable figures from my treatment of them. Writing a story about an actual person and using him as a kind of model are really not the same. I don't pretend that Willie Stark is Huey Long. I know Stark, but I have no idea what Long was really like."

Warren was writing about history and philosophy and life. He was writing about character not characters. He was teaching Shakespeare at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1935 when Huey Long was slain there, and, he liked to say, Julius Caesar was as much on his mind as Huey Long when he decided to write "All the King's Men."

Very successful political novels (550,000 copies of "Primary Colors" are in print) that had their origins in real life come along every few decades. The last real blockbuster with a Washington flavor was "Advise & Consent" -- Allen Drury's 1959 novel about lTC the Senate. "Primary Colors" is much more like it than like "All the King's Men." Though most of the action in "Primary Colors" takes place outside Washington, the point of the story is a man's and his aides' effort to make him president. Washington is their goal and their souls.

Also, the nuts and bolts of politics and governance are an integral part of the narratives in both "Colors" and "Advise." Also the characters in both are pretty one-dimensional if not cartoonish. To his credit Drury, who had covered the U.S. Senate for the New York Times, based his characters on recognizable figures rather than simply reproducing them heroically or as lampoons. (Most literary critics would agree that Drury was not good at creating truly believable characters, but one dissenter is Speaker Newt Gingrich. He said this in a recent college lecture: "I can tell you as a practitioner ["Advise & Consent" is the single most accurate book ever written about how Congress works. Because . . . you see people come alive.")

One of the first successful Washington novels to be based closely on real people was "Democracy" written anonymously by Henry Adams in 1880. Some say "Primary Colors" should be measured against it. A more apt comparison is "Revelry," Samuel Hopkins Adams' 1926 novelization of the corruption of the Warren Harding administration. It was thinly disguised reporting. Muckraking pretending to be fiction.

In fact, it was so obviously a report on real people's sins and crimes that even liberal Democratic opponents of the Republican Harding complained that it was unfair. The book was suppressed in Washington and a play based on it was banned in Philadelphia. But then as now book buyers like the inside story on scandal, and "Revelry" sold 100,000 copies. (More, I believe, than Adams' subsequent nonfiction account of the Harding scandals, which more or less justified the novel.)

One liberal critic who did not attack "Revelry" was Bruce Bliven of the New Republic. He wrote, "More novels like 'Revelry' would mean more honesty in office."

Could be. My own belief is that more journalism like "Primary Colors" -- that is, reporting on the real inside stuff about campaigns and governing, even the supermarket tabloid type stuff -- would mean more honesty in politics and government. "Primary Colors" is four years too late.

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