The Word on the Street

Elaine Showalter

  • Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics by Anonymous
    Chatto, 366 pp, £15.99, February 1996, ISBN 0 7011 6584 7

At Kramerbooks, Washington’s best bookstore-café, there’s a menu of ‘Primary Colors Specials’, including Lasagne di Paul Begalanese and Pork Chop George Stephen-applesauce. There’s a copy prominently displayed in the new books section of the White House library, and 742,000 have been shipped to bookstores to meet the demand. It’s number one on the New York Times bestseller list; North American paperback rights have been sold for $1.5 million, and Mike Nichols has bought the movie rights for another million. Garry Trudeau has put it into Doonesbury. Street vendors in Washington are selling buttons that read ‘I am not Anonymous.’

Primary Colors, the funny, literate and juicy roman à clef about the 1992 Democratic Presidential primary campaign, featuring an ambitious, visionary, greedy, gregarious and womanising Southern governor named Jack Stanton, seen through the eyes of a disillusioned aide, has generated two simultaneous media debates. One: is it really as good a novel as it seems, or are we dazzled by hype and the excitement of an election year? Two: is Anonymous a Clinton campaign insider who has sold his party down the river, or a clever journalist or novelist who has spent a lot of time watching The War Room and CNN?

In answer to the first question, Primary Colors is a terrific novel, and unless Nichols makes some dreadful mistakes, it will be a terrific movie. (Clinton staffers see Nick Nolte as a natural for Jack Stanton.) Most of the novel’s reviewers have acknowledged its excellence. In the New Yorker, Christopher Buckley (himself a suspect) called Primary Colors ‘an absolutely dazzling book, the best political novel in many years’. In Newsweek, Walter Shapiro found it ‘the best aide’s-eye view of politics since Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men’. In the New Republic, Matthew Cooper, after revealing (‘full disclosure’) that he himself is now dating Mandy Grunwald, who held the position in the Clinton campaign of the novel’s sexy heroine Daisy Green, says that ‘finally the modern campaign – and Clinton – have the novelist that they deserve.’ (I don’t think he means to be snide.)

Dissenters such as Tom Carson, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, seem disappointed that ‘the book isn’t unadulterated junk. Unexpectedly, it’s a work of some literary as well as reportorial skill, not to mention some literary as well as meretricious ambition.’ In the New York Review, Christopher Hitchens concedes the ‘gift of slang and lingo’, but testily concludes that the book is ‘slight’ and sentimental.

Word on the street is that Primary Colors, whoever the author, is a first novel. If so, it’s the best fictional debut since Martin Amis. There isn’t a slack line or a flat character in the book; even walk-ons like the Stanton family doctor, ‘thin almost to the point of consumption, and tilted somehow, like the Tower of Pisa, wearing a cape and a hat and small round glasses, like James Joyce’, could be picked out of a crowd. The author has a nice ear for the tones and riffs of American speech, a sharp loving eye for tacky motels, country barbecue joints and New York subways, and a contagious fascination with the high-stake gambles of politics. Anonymous can come up with a word like ‘scorps’ for the press corps, whose nature is to sting, and toss off an informed reference to Doris Lessing. In the first half of the book, which follows the New Hampshire primary, those in the know have been impressed by the accuracy or verisimilitude of the information, the wicked caricatures of recognisable players from James Carville (the novel’s ragin’ Cajun, Richard Jemmons, defined by a ‘vehement opacity’) to Jesse Jackson (the Rev. Luther Charles, defined by rage, who had ‘peaked in full Afro and dashiki’ and now looked ‘plucked ... Luther in a suit was like Dukakis in a tank’). In the second half, which takes off from the historical record to invent a White Knight who comes into the campaign after one of the candidates dies, clever plotting further raises the level of irony and provides some unexpected twists. Finally, the meditations on race, sex and the loss of political innocence of the novel’s young male narrator, offspring of a black father and white mother, take the work far beyond the category of topical satire.

Anonymous has been strongly influenced by All the King’s Men (1946). His narrator, Henry Burton, the preppy, intellectual grandson of a black American hero like Martin Luther King, sounds a lot like Warren’s troubled and dislocated Jack Burden. His candidate, Jack Stanton, sounds a lot like Warren’s Willie Stark, ‘a country hick’, in the words of Stuart Burrows, ‘who through force of will, charisma and an ability to speak for the people, rises to become governor of an unnamed Southern state’, and escapes condemnation despite his shortcomings because of ‘his profound, elemental love of life and desire to give shape to the half imagined force within him’. In the end, Burden writes, ‘I must believe that Willie Stark was a great man ... Perhaps he could not tell his greatness from ungreatness and so mixed them together that what was adulterated was lost. But he had it. I must believe that.’

Similarly, Jack Stanton’s family, friends and staff, although frequently furious at his thoughtlessness and tendency to use people for his own purposes (‘Jack Stanton could be a great man,’ his wife Susan tells Henry, ‘if he weren’t such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganised, undisciplined shit’), forgive him because they believe in his courage, his intelligence, his energy, his capacity for ‘aerobic listening’, his passion for human contact. They believe him when he claims to speak for history. ‘He was lovely with the people,’ Henry writes, ‘dispensing his meaningful handshakes, listening to their stories; he had a knack – no, it was more than a knack; it was something deeper, more profound and respectful – for making it clear that he had listened to them and understood, and cared.’

There are familiar scandals in Primary Colors, which features a Gennifer Flowers-like bimbo named Cashmere McLeod; and lots of the campaign sex that substitutes for a decent meal and a movie. Clinton-haters, of whom there are many, will find plenty to keep them going, and some of the novel’s sub-plots echo the most scurrilous right-wing gossip. But Jack Stanton is a character of complexity and stature, an American colossus.

So who wrote Primary Colors? Nominations have included George Stephanopolous, James Carville, Paul Begala, the New Yorker’s Michael Kelly and Sidney Blumenthal, the screen-writer Erik Tarloff and New York political consultant Bob Shrum. New York magazine hired the Shakespeare scholar Donald Foster to run a computerised check of the text of the novel against several possible suspects, and announced that Newsweek political correspondent Joe Klein was absolutely the author, on the basis of several lexical similarities. Contrary to the feminist adage, though, few journalists seem to think that Anonymous is a woman. Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review calls Anonymous ‘he or she’ in paragraph two of his review, but ‘white, male [and] young’ by the end. Christopher Buckley goes way out on a limb and mentions Toni Morrison. Several journalists have suggested Mandy Grunwald’s sister Lisa, the author of Summer and The Theory of Everything, but she is a very different kind of novelist. All these people have denied any connection with the book.

The odds seem to be that Anonymous was in New Hampshire during the 1992 primaries. But just on the basis of style, I would guess Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor of African-American Studies, New Yorker writer and the author of Colored People, a memoir of his childhood. He’s just written a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton for the New Yorker. He’ll deny it too, but if he’s read the book, he’ll know it’s a compliment.