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'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

That's one of many episodes that reveal a street-level knowledge of politics and policy, particularly in New York neighborhoods far from the glass towers of midtown Manhattan. The author is fascinated by former Governor Mario Cuomo and cruelly contemptuous of former Mayor David Dinkins.

He or she knows that Dinkins' chief political aide, Bill Lynch, is a gifted mediator between the black political leaders of Harlem and Bedford Stuyvesant - and even that Lynch grew up on a farm. And the author also seems interested in Boston, mentioning it several times although the novel's action never moves there.

The author also seems to be a chastened liberal, concerned about working people and the poor but skeptical of unions, civil rights activists and government programs. Halfway through the novel, there's a second stunning scene: a politically wounded Stanton tells unemployed shipyard workers that he can't "bring these ... jobs back or make your union strong again ... because we're living in a new world now, a world without borders - economically, that is."

These clues point to Klein, a columnist for Newsweek who used to cover politics for New York magazine and still lives in the New York area.

Gutsy, goofy

He has written about many of the people and problems that figure in "Primary Colors." His viewpoint is similar to the ideology implicit in this novel - centrism-with-an-attitude. He's been critical of Cuomo, dismissive of Dinkins and disappointed by Clinton. He's been gutsy and sometimes goofy about racial issues, once predicting - inaccurately - that Spike Lee's film, "Do the Right Thing," would set off riots in New York City.

He wrote a sympathetic biography of the radical troubadour Woody Guthrie but later soured on the Left. He could easily have written the hilarious scenes about patronizing white liberals that enliven "Primary Colors." He cut his journalistic teeth in Boston as a writer for a leftish weekly newspaper. And someone very much like Klein appears in the novel: "Jerry Rosen was the political writer at Manhattan magazine. He was a friendly - and an important - one."

Sure, Klein has denied authorship. But, if he wrote this novel, he could have reasons for reticence. Anonymity has been a brilliant marketing ploy. Being connected with this novel could complicate his coverage of this year's campaign. And he could be protecting sources or even collaborators from within the Clinton camp.

It would be encouraging to think that Klein - or someone with his principles and profession - wrote "Primary Colors." It would mean there's more merit to this book and more honor to its author than if some Clintonite wrote it out of greed or rancor. Say it's so, Joe.

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton during the general election campaign in 1992 and the first two years of the administration. He is the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties." He has been cited as "Anonymous" in several published speculations, but, of course, denies it.

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