'Primary Colors' yet again: The vast, amoral success of wonkery at its ultimate

February 25, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Maybe anybody in America who has not spoken out by now on "Primary Colors" by Anonymous (Random House. 366 pages. $24) should shut up. It has been reviewed virtually everywhere that reviews are published, including these pages. It has engaged columnists whose concerns range from the frothiest gossip to the profoundest questions of national destiny. It's the top best seller in America, fiction or nonfiction.

Having finished a thorough, thoughtful reading, I am dismayed.

Not by reviewers' enthusiasms: By and large they have judged it a fascinating, fast-paced, even compelling, political page-turner that gets great additional power from the fact that it appears to be a virtually fact-accurate rendition of the Clinton primary election campaign of four years ago. Fair enough.

Not by the increasing vulgarity of the Anonymity gimmickry, through which the closely held identity of the author has generated vast acreage of speculation and analysis, all of which doubtless has contributed to the commercial success. Fine. We have had fun with that on these pages and elsewhere in The Sun. And may again. Finally, the market is master.

I find myself dismayed, rather, by the central amorality of the book, and by the absence of attention that that has received.

Smartest of the worst

I have spent most of my life covering politicians and politics. I have spent virtually all of my life taking politics and its effect upon real human life very seriously. As a reporter and an editor I have spent thousands of attentive hours with men and women who have been corrupt and clever and cynical and venal and mendacious to extents that have strained the limits of language to describe.

A distressing truth is that the smartest of the worst of the sleazy ranks are almost always more enchanting people than ordinary decent politicians.

So I do not come naked or naive to this novel's cast of characters, who are hell-driven in the pursuit of public power and the devil take all else.

Strangely, "Primary Colors," finally and above all else, is a presentation of an anemia of soul, an emptiness of spirit that is not typical of most of the great thieves and public miscreants of my experience.

The book does not totally ignore ethical values, humane principles. For pages on end, it plays with ideas very close to decency, that border upon integrity, that flirt with the peripheries of human ideals. But finally, when the last page is turned, the last metaphor has been gleaned for irony, the book has trivialized away every moral concern with rationalizations that leave the stage swept bare of all dignity.

When the book is done, there is only one character who has clung to even remotely convincing integrity. She is the book's most endearing person: Olivia (Libby) Holden, a gray-haired, hippy-clothed, brilliant, pistol-toting, blue-eyed, massively self-confident, on-and-off insane, aggressively lesbian "dustbuster" - investigator of opponents' hidden scandals and plasterer-over of the candidate's pathological womanizing. She acts like a relentless, pure-hearted jungle predator.

And at the book's end she is dead by a .357-Magnum round she has put through her own heart.

Vincent Foster? Of course, the chatterers all agree.

I'll leave the implications of that for other times. They are perhaps important.

But for now: This is a book written by a political junkie for political junkies. Is it written for politicians? Of course not. It's written for people who spend time watching CNN, and perhaps even more, C-Span. In craft, it appears to be a first novel. It is obviously written by a professional writer. It is obviously written by a New Yorker, who thinks New York and what happens there is more serious, more important, than it is.

Abjectly amoral

But I believe the source of my dismay is that it is written by somebody who seems truly to admire Bill Clinton, or rather Jack Stanton, the book's chief character. Its author elaborately presents the Stantons and their inner circle as abjectly amoral, as believing all principle is far less important than other things. This is a book in which finally there are no consequential human forces except opportunism, process and fornication.

"Anonymous" offers no insight into the vacuousness, the vapidness of such soulless, driven lives, ultimately devoid of pride or of poetry.

It is thus a cruel book, because it arises from a cruelty of perception. I found not a paragraph - not a hint within a paragraph - of genuine concern about the purposes of government or the redeeming potentials of individual human experience. Process dominates. This is wonkery to the ultimate.

I wanted to scream: "Get a life! Get love! Care! About something, anything!" Anything beyond getting the job.

So finally, it is a book that pronounces the moral bankruptcy of today's politics.

It does that very, very well. The implication is blood-chilling. Is it intentional or not?

Who's Anonymous? I'll keep my money on David Kusnet, who was Mr. Clinton's chief speechwriter - or, rather, on his nominee, Newsweek's Joe Klein, as Mr. Kusnet argued here two weeks ago. Perhaps there was help from Mandy Grunwald, the Clinton campaign's advertising operative.

Will the identity ever be known for sure? Well, with 917,000

copies in print and four or five millions of dollars of foreign, paperback and movie rights rolling in, somebody is going to have a jump in personal prosperity. Be patient a while longer.

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