Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics

Primary Colors book cover

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by Anonymous (later revealed as Joe Klein, a NY Times columnist)
Random House (1996)

Just when we think we can’t stand to watch another insulting political debate, listen to one more second of biased talk radio, watch the TV networks TRUMP HUMP, “enjoy” the clown show that has become the run for the U.S. Presidency in 2016, Page Turners from the Past has to dig up Primary Colors. The incredible and credible “faction” not only gives us remarkable insights into the inter working of one of America’s favorite sports – a Presidential political campaign – it presents us with a look into the complexity of the characters who run for the highest offices of the land and the people who steer them along the way.

The novel, commonly referred to by the more literary as a roman a clef, is in fact that: a work of fiction that thinly describes real characters (Bill Clinton) and events (his first run for the Presidency), and has been compared to political classics like All the King’s Men and O: A Presidential Novel.

This beautifully crafted insightful novel takes us on a merry ride (loaded with laughs) along with a governor from an unheard of southern state through the perils of the primaries, and all the backroom and upfront politicking—glad-handing, debates, fund-raising, negative TV ads, dirt digging, deal making, touching and feeling – right to the door steps of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The young protagonist and storyteller is Henry Burton, a savvy, politically experienced front man who (God forbid we have one of these working in politics) is good and grounded but a bit too idealistic. He sees Jack Stanton (“Bill Clinton”) for what he is, and what he’d like him to be: a man who cares, a man who is going to make a difference; and so Burton, the grandson of a famous Southern civil rights leader and son of a white mother and black father, stands at Stanton’s side in his tumultuous uphill fight to gain the Presidency.

And in a sense Burton is right about Stanton.  Along with his tragic flaws the candidate comes equipped with a most sincere concern for the well-being of the people.

But ah, that aforementioned touching and feeling that takes place on the road to the White House!  Well, the candidate is the master, the evangelist of politics. No one can work a crowd like Jack Stanton; he comes at them with a smile, a wink, a nod of the head and a variety of handshakes that move voters to the front of his political tent.

Problem!  The touching and feeling (and other transgressions) doesn’t stop there with Stanton and as the campaign works its way from New Hampshire to South Carolina, swings west to Colorado and then down into Florida, the political ship hits the SPAM (Oh, Jack’s a big eater. He gets engrossed in conversation as he’s working voters at barbecue luncheons and actually steals food off their plates,)

But diet is the least of the Stanton campaign’s worries. Women come popping out of the woods and the support team (our incredible characters in Primary Colors) fights off candidates with one hand while desperately doing damage control with the other.  In New Hampshire he is outed for denying being jailed as a protester in Chicago back in ’68 and using political connections to bail himself out.  Then—right behind that—Stanton lands on the front page of SPLASH, a supermarket tabloid, for having been a regular visitor to his wife’s hairdresser where the “blow dry” had little to do with cosmetology.

But soldiering on, playing not so gently in the background—cracking the whip, bringing out the votes, exploiting the competition’s weaknesses, having their own “campaign sex” all the while attempting to keep Jack’s pants up— are those behind the scene rainmakers who move voters to the polls to elect a Jack Stanton.

The most entertaining characters include:

Henry Burton meets the candidate and the novel begins: We shook hands. My inability to recall that particular moment more precisely is disappointing: the handshake is the threshold act, the begging of politics. I’ve seen him do it two million times now, but I couldn’t tell you how he does it, the right-handed part of it—the strength, the quality, duration of it, the rudiments of pressing the flesh. I can, however, tell you a whole lot about what he does with his other hand. He is a genius with it. He might put it on your elbow, or up by your biceps: these are basic, reflexive moves. He is interested in you. He is honored to meet you. If he gets any higher up your shoulder—if he, say, drapes his left arm over your back, it is somehow less intimate, more casual. He’ll share a laugh or a secret then—a light secret, not a real one—flattering you with the illusion of conspiracy. If he doesn’t’ know you all that well and you’ve just told him something “important,” something earnest or emotional, he will lock in and honor you with a two-hander, his left hand overwhelming your wrist and forearm. He’ll flash that famous misty look of his. And he will mean it.

Anyway, as I recall it, he gave me a left-hand-just-above-the-elbow plus a vaguely curious, “ah, so you’re the guy I’ve been hearing about” look, and follow me nod. I didn’t have the time, or the presence of mind, to send any message back at him. Slow emotional reflexes, I guess. His were lightening. He was six meaningful handshakes down the row before I caught up. And when I fell in, a step or two behind, classic staff position, as if I’d been doing it all my life. (I had, but not for anyone so good.)

Jack Stanton works the crowd—sharing a few laughs at first—here in a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, union hall:  “Now look, now look. Let me get serious a little. Let me tell you something. Truth Number One. There are two kinds of politicians in this world. Those who tell you what you want to hear—and those who never come around.” There were cheers and laughter. “The second kind, the ones who don’t come ‘round here, they’re the ones who tell the uptown folks what they want to hear. Those boys don’t deliver much either.”

Cept at tax time,” the blowsy woman said.

Fair enough. They do deliver then. But what’s anyone done for you lately? Right? ApplauseThey were curious now. They wanted to know what was coming.

Well, I’m here right now, and I’m lookin’ at you, and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you what you wanted to hear in any case, right?”  Nods and applause.  “So let me tell you this: No politician can bring these shipyard jobs back. Or make your union strong again. No politician can make it be the way it used to be. Because we’re living in a new world now, a world without borders—economically, that is. Guy can push a button in New York and move a billion dollars to Tokyo before you blink an eye. We’ve got a world market now. And that’s good for some. In the end you’ve gotta’ believe it’s good for America. We come from everywhere in the world, so we’re going to have a leg up selling to everywhere in the world. Makes sense, right? But muscle jobs are going to go where muscle labor is cheap—and that’s not here.  So if you all want to compete and do better, you’re going to have to exercise a different set of muscles, the ones between your ears.”

Uh-oh,” said the woman.

And Stanton did something really dangerous then: he didn’t indulge her humor. ‘Uh-oh is right,” he said. “And anyone who gets up here and says he can do it for you isn’t leveling with you, So I’m not gonna insult you by doing that. I’m going to tell you this: This whole country is gonna have to go back to school. We’re gonna have to get smarter, learn new skills. And I will work overtime figuring out ways to help you get the skills you need. I’ll make you this deal: I will work for you. I’ll wake up every morning thinking about you. I’ll fight and worry and sweat and bleed to get the money to make education a lifetime thing in this country, to give you the support you need to move on up. But you’ve got to do the heavy lifting your own selves. I can’t do it for you, and I know it’s not gonna be easy.” He stopped, paused. There were no smartass remarks now.

Susan Stanton, Jack’s wife, is the woman behind the man but sadly there are times when she has to get in line.  Here having gone through the embarrassment of  her husband being accused of an affair on the front page The Flash, she—back to business—steps in as they make their next move after a surprising and rewarding second place projection in New Hampshire.The governor ambled over to the table. There was a fruit platter and some sandwiches. “Don’t!” Susan said. “You fell off the wall, you didn’t crack—but you’re still looking like Humpty- Dumpty.”

She said this lightly, but with an edge. He narrowed his eyes, and took some grapes. “Henry, how early can we get on and off, and go home,” he asked.

Polls close at eight,” I said. “You’ve got to stay and do the nets. You want to do Nightline?”

No!” Susan said. “And no press conference. Those jerks had us buried all of them. Let them stew in it.”

Well, we aren’t gonna be able to make em disappear,” Stanton said.

They weren’t able to make you disappear either, “Susan said. “And so they’ll have to come to terms with that. We’re going to tighten this up now, Henry. We’ve got a new set of priorities. We’ll do local TVs first, networks second, local pencils third, national pencils last.”

Oh so many great characters, the least of which isn’t Richard Jemmons, the campaign strategist with a genius of seeing or suspecting the future and an eye—for muffins (female interns) and the ability to believe that all good-looking women looked like Winona!

We meet Richard:  Henri, you think it’s possible for a black girl to look like Winona?” Richard Jemmons asked.

Oh, yeah, I forgot. You don’t like black girls much.”

*** you.”

But then again, there’s that Mexican girl in scheduling. Maria Whtsis—she’s got the hair and the mouth. So if a Mexican look like Winona, then maybe. . .”

Richard are you diseased.” And he was. He was manic, obsessive, very strange-looking, thin as a whippet—his body and all his features were narrow, thin lips, thin nose, dark thinning hair, which made his thick , black-frame eyeglasses seem enormous; everything about him was sharp except his eyes, which where opaque. He never seemed to b e looking straight at you, never quite took you in—and that quality, a vehement opacity, defined him. Every conversation was a monologue, more or less. He was an explosive talker, though not always comprehensible—all honks and bleats, mutters and half swallowed imprecations. He was also, reputedly, the best political strategist in the party.

And then there’s Olivia Holden, life friend of the Stanton’s—a smut digging, dirty tricks specialist, just home from a mental hospital.

Olivia Holden was wearing, I swear, a tan down vest, an orange-and-green tie-dyed muumuu and an Aussie outback hat. She was enormous, with fierce, piercing blue eyes, hair turning gray, skin that was waxy pale and translucent in a sickly way. She was lugging a large leather satchel. Everything stopped—even the phones seemed to stop ringing—when she marched into the Mammoth Falls headquarters two days after the New Hampshire church debacle. The office staff was somewhat depleted,; most of the troops were up in Manchester. There were others working the phones, plus some new staffers—people I didn’t know, hired by Brad Lieberman and a few of the old muffins. The Olds dealership felt open, airy; all Mammoth falls did, after New Hampshire. The world seemed a quieter place. Except for Olivia.

“I’m HERE,” she announced. “Who’s talking to me?”

I was. Lucille—who had made herself more of a presence in the campaign now—and Brad Lieberman were joining me.

“Henry Burton I said

“Ah, HAH,” she said, not introducing herself at the stake.

“Henry Burton I said

“Brad Lieberman,”


“Hello, Lib,” Lucille said.

“Shit for brains!” Libby greeted her. “You learned how to watch your mouth? Remember the geezers? Remember the geezers?” I will not let you **** up this campaign like Florida! I WILL NOT LET IT HAPPEN!”

“That was twenty years ago,” said Lucille—a new, diffident Lucille. Olivia Holden had done her first good deed.

One more look from Henry Burton’s perspective into those ego driven, thoroughbred (in some cases) horses who run the race of all races—to the Presidency of the United States. I had come to expect that any politician I admired would be like Jack Stanton—larger than life, as formidable in the flesh as he appeared on television. But Freddy Picker wasn’t. He was, resolutely, life-size—in every respect but one. He had a parlor trick; he could perform—brilliantly, instinctively—for the cameras. He didn’t seem to know much about politics. What Picker realized in New Haven—about the desperation of the crowd—Stanton had known from the womb. Jack Stanton also understood, intuitively, that the real challenge was far more difficult than simply meeting their expectations. It was about exceeding their expectations. It was about inspiring them. If you couldn’t do that, you were Millard Fillmore. It was a very tough game. There were only two or three winners per century, a fair number of the losers were burned at the stake.

Wrapped in all these characters we ride along through the race. There’s a love story, more than enough drama, hate and sadness to go around and in the end a twist and turn that will win your vote for this bestseller than ended up as a great movie starring John Travolta and Emma Thomson. .

So if you’ve tired of The Donald’s big hands building big walls, Ted’s “On my first day as President,” empty promises, Hillary knocking down barriers, Bernie pantsing the one-percenters, ask your librarian, order through your independent bookseller or try where you can buy Primary Colors for what (should the subject come up) I’m sure The Donald would call “Chump change!” To order simply click on the book’s cover.