'PRIMARY Colors' -- Outside the White House beyond the Beltway

The Argument

Unmasking 'Anonymous': A suspect lays the book at Joe Klein's doorstep.

February 11, 1996|By DAVID KUSNET | DAVID KUSNET,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In Washington's political and journalistic circles, the talk is all about "Primary Colors," a thinly disguised account of Bill Clinton's long march to the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sure, you've heard the media buzz: This book is such a dead-on portrait of the Clintons that it could only have been written by an insider.

Washington's conventional wisdom is wrong.

Except for flashes of insight about New York politics and the gritty realities of urban schools and union halls, which suggest that it was written by a street-smart, iconoclastic New Yorker, there's little that couldn't have been culled from a data base of the mainstream media and a pile of old supermarket tabloids.

So, in the guess-who-wrote-it sweepstakes, my money's on:

Joe Klein.

Mr. Klein is a journalist who's covered campaigns from the New York mayoralty to the U.S. presidency - and has learned as much on the sidewalks and subways as in the capital's corridors of power.

No one's guessing about the identity of the characters in this novel. There's candidate Jack Stanton, his wife Susan, and a youthful aide who narrates the novel, Henry Burton - George Stephanopoulos transformed into the grandson of an African-American civil rights hero. The only mystery is the author, who's presented in bold, blue letters on the cover as "Anonymous."

Is this just another incestuous inside-the-Beltway mini-frenzy? You bet. But it's still worth watching.

It's casting an X-ray on Washington's interlocking elites who are revealing themselves to be simultaneously self-obsessed and self-hating. They're finding it easier to imagine a close Clinton associate betraying the president than an enterprising outsider using such time-honored techniques as research and imagination. It's a telling sign that some establishment types attribute their own success to access, not sweat and shoe-leather.

This conventional wisdom isn't only unfair to Clinton and his cadre of current and former staff. It also reflects the insiders' contempt for the journalist's craft and the novelist's art.

After all, isn't it the journalist's job to learn things and unlock secrets? The news media's harshest critics would hesitate to say what many Washington reporters are admitting: They could never have uncovered the supposed "inside stuff" in this novel, so some insider must have written it.

And the media buzz is also unfair to the nation's novelists. Why couldn't a novelist have imagined the thoughts of prominent politicians and captured the sound and feel of a campaign? Even an era when too many novelists write mostly about themselves, there are still some capable of creative empathy.Whoever wrote "Primary Colors" (Random House. 366 pages. $24) has cause for pride - and shame. It's a "good read," with fast pace, great dialogue and a shrewd sense of how politics is played in an era of attack ads, tabloid trash and 24-hour news cycles.

But it's also immoral.

It recycles rumors about prominent figures and offers monstrous portrayals of obscure operatives whose identities are obvious to their colleagues and - who knows? - to their children's classmates, as well. To laugh at these crude caricatures is to enjoy the literary equivalent of a drive-by-shooting.

Of course, if this really is the work of a Clinton insider, it is an unforgivable breach of faith. To watch Democratic insiders feed the media frenzy is to conclude that many are morally, if not mentally, capable of writing this book. Some seem more concerned with keeping their own names in play than with defending the good names of their president, their party and their peers. On a recent Larry King show with a panel of former Clinton aides, only former strategist Paul Begala had the decency to say it's a sleazy book, and he'd like to strangle the author.

By dishing out the gossip but glossing over larger issues, "Primary Colors" is destined to be a potboiler, not a classic. Two great political novels, Robert Penn Warren's "All the King's Men" and Edwin O'Connor's "The Last Hurrah," were about flamboyant populists from the Great Depression: Louisiana Governor Huey Long and Boston Mayor James Michael Curly. Both novels survive because they address lasting issues: how flawed leaders can command the loyalty and improve the lives of people hurting from hard times.

The best clues

"Primary Colors" has flashes of a better novel that would sell fewer copies but engage future generations. These passages offer the best clues to the author's identity because, unlike anecdotes about the Clinton campaign, they draw upon the intellectual journey of a lifetime. The novel begins with a story of stunning insight and impact: candidate Stanton comforts a short-order cook at a Harlem literacy program who tells how the schools "kept passing me up" from grade to grade, until he graduated from high school without ever learning to read. To tell that story, the author needs to know a shameful secret of American education - "social promotion" of students who lack even minimal skills.

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