Primary Colors. – book reviews

Michael Cornfield

Political novels are frequently vehicles for writers to deliver a message to the public. Just as often, politics provides the setting for a story which is really an exercise in suspense, horror, romance, what’s your pleasure.

Primary Colors is different. It brings up numerous issues (about policies, leadership, the electoral process), and it sticks to comedy (with one flawed excursion into melodrama), but first and foremost it is, as it says on the jacket, a novel of politics. The book wants readers to know what presidential campaigning feels like, and to consider whether politics is a worthwhile endeavor for self-respecting adults. Happily, miraculously, Primary Colors wears these weighty topics like a scarf in the wind. It is a best-seller not just because it is based – OK, riveted to – the story of Bill Clinton’s route to the 1992 Democratic nomination, but because it is also a rollicking pleasure to read.

Like its forefathers (Democracy, All the King’s Men, The Gay Place), Primary Colors has as its main subject a sensitive young intellectual who harbors a deeply ambivalent attitude toward a charismatic politician. Or, in this case, politicians, since Susan Stanton is nearly as compelling a figure to Henry Burton as her husband, Governor Jack Stanton. As their top staffer, Henry’s loyalty comes into constant question. Political professionals and purists alike ask Henry what a guy like him is doing working for people like them. Why doesn’t he bail when there’s nothing more to be gained (say the professionals), and his conscience to lose (the purists)?

Henry asks himself these questions when there’s a moment between crises. The plot abounds in them. It is classically organized in terms of three challengers Stanton and his team must defeat, each tougher than the last.

Act One concerns a certain Governor of New York who may or may not enter the race. The battle takes place in a barbecue joint, a hotel room, and the media. Stanton triumphs in this expertly rendered “invisible primary” after he does not take the advice to go negative in defining the public contrast between himself and the Empire State Democrat. Henry isn’t sure whether this is the instinct of a genius at work, or the luck of a wimp.

Act Two spans New Hampshire to Florida. After the New Yorker folds, “Wall Street cracked open like a pinata…and we had the hot candidate.” Then the scandals hit. The bimbo’s name is Cashmere McLeod, or “Ready Cash,” as the New York Post dubs her. During a debate, Stanton’s rivals scrupulously avoid referring to his tabloid troubles, but Henry notices how their energy level has risen. Then one of them, a certain New Englander with stringent and cerebral policy proposals, utters the word “moral.” Stanton flinches, and Henry sees who the next serious opponent is.

Until Act Three, Primary Colors delivers the pleasures of a ride we loved when we were kids. (Look out! Here comes the Vietnam-era incident!) The author commands all the literary skills needed to make familiar material seem fresh and fun. Then, right in the middle of a chapter, Primary Colors jumps the track. The New Englander’s health problems surface as they did not in real-life, and I am not certain who, if anyone, the third and final challenger resembles.

The story wobbles a bit on its way to the big climax, but the hero undergoes the obligatory soul search, helps save the day, and wins back the girl in splendid fashion. There is just enough ambiguity in the ending to provoke readers into thinking over whether the Stantons (and, by implication, American politics) are worth the trouble. Not an irrelevant topic these days.

Primary Colors plays its race card delicately. Henry Burton is so obviously patterned after George Stephanopoulous that his mixed lineage seems an ornamentation at first. But the crises he must resolve reveal the book’s true colors, and they, like he, turn out to be black and white and all the shades which tolerance, understanding, and democratic politics can produce.

Message aside, Primary Colors depicts virtually every aspect of the campaign world in observant and witty prose. It shows you how to persuade Jewish seniors in Florida, how to stiff Geraldo and get away with it, and how to top the other guy’s counterattack to your negative spot. It knows that maneuvers will go awry when they are based on the assumption that people pay as close attention to politics as strategists do, and that “you can talk logistics forever and never talk logistics enough.” The only serious omission is fundraising. Maybe next time.

And speaking of money, my guess is that the decision to publish this novel anonymously was not a simple marketing ploy. There was not enough build-up for the book; it has become a hit on buzz, not hype, although, to be sure, the guessing game has amplified the applause. My guess is Anonymous does not want to be badgered with “Is that unconfirmed stuff really true?” and “What will you do next?” questions – and wants the same for the real-life correlates to the novel’s characters. If I’m right, we will learn the author’s identity either when the movie is released, when the next novel comes out, or when the Clintons depart public life, whichever comes last.

Dr. Michael Cornfield teaches at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management in Washington, D.C.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Campaigns & Elections, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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