Published November 1, 1996
Michael Cromartie talks with anonymous-no-more author Joe Klein about his fictional political tale, Primary Colors.
Early in 1996, Random House published Primary Colors, a novel about the 1992 Democratic primaries, though featuring a fictionalized set of characters. The author was “Anonymous.” Readers loved it (the book soon moved to the top of the bestseller list); critics praised it to the skies. Michael Lewis, writing in the New York Times Book Review (Jan. 28, 1996), observed that
“Primary Colors” is an odd book. But maybe the oddest thing about it is how good it is. In spite of its sins it is far and away the best thing I have read about the 1992 campaign; it breaks all the rules and lives to tell about it. The author’s portrait of Mr. Clinton is astonishingly powerful. I doubt that anyone who reads the book will ever again think of the President in quite the same way. I’m not quite sure why this should be, except there is a wonderful honesty about it, a refusal to give in to the conventional interpretation of people and events that cripples so much that is written about politics.
Speculation about the author’s identity was intense. Among the many names proposed, one that surfaced repeatedly was Joe Klein, longtime columnist and senior editor at Newsweek magazine. Klein denied that he was Anonymous, and rumors continued to swirl until the Washington Post broke the story, offering compelling evidence that Klein was indeed the author of Primary Colors.
What followed was a firestorm of commentary, heavily critical of Klein (and of Newsweek editor Maynard Parker, for helping to preserve the secret). By lying about his authorship of the novel, it was said, Klein had damaged the credibility of journalists everywhere and further eroded public confidence in the media. Some critics found irony in the exposure of Klein’s deception. Was this the same Joe Klein who wrote a widely quoted piece about President Clinton’s character flaws (“The Politics of Promiscuity,” Newsweek, May 9, 1994)? Why, the man is himself a bare-faced liar!
Dissenters–including Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, William F. Buckley, Jr., in National Review, and Richard John Neuhaus in First Things–noted that Klein’s “deceit” followed inexorably from the choice to assume anonymity. Did he not have that right? Now you can decide.
In August, Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center met with Klein in New York and asked what he had learned from his roller-coaster ride as Anonymous.
What motivated you to write Primary Colors, and why was it a novel?
I don’t know what motivated me to write the book, and it was a novel because it was a novel. It was a fictional situation that came to my mind and just exploded out of me. I guess when I thought back on it, because it was such a shocking event–I mean the creative act of doing this–I realized that I’d been covering American politics for 25 years and that I hadn’t seen anything that quite captured the intensity, the craziness, the velocity, and the humor of it. The ’92 campaign was, I thought, some kind of watershed. There was a level of complexity to it that journalism couldn’t reach. I didn’t know whether fiction could either, and I certainly didn’t know if I could do it. But once I started doing it, the book just took off on its own. I found that I was learning a lot about myself and about people through these characters.
Some real, some imagined?
No, they’re all imagined. There are some who bear a closer resemblance to real people than others, but the first scene in the book is the only thing that ever actually happened in life. I went to an adult reading program in Harlem with Bill Clinton at one point. But in the scene, as it appears in the book, within a matter of pages Jack Stanton separates himself in my mind from Bill Clinton very clearly. Suddenly he starts talking about his Uncle Charlie, who may or may not have won the Congressional Medal of Honor; we never really find out for sure. Bill Clinton didn’t have an Uncle Charlie. Anonymous’s feelings about Jack Stanton are very different from my feelings about Bill Clinton, and Henry Burton’s feelings about Jack Stanton are different from mine and Anonymous’s.
So for those who sit around and speculate about who’s who and what’s what . . .
It’s a useless enterprise.
Because they’re a combination of all kinds of observations you’ve made in covering politics for a long time and on how certain people operate in the political world.
Right. People say, “What you did to so-and-so is unfair.” In my mind, so-and-so ain’t so-and-so.
Did the process of developing these fictional characters give you any better insight into the role character should play in politics?
Just that character is an incredibly complicated concept. This is something I’ve believed throughout my ten-year tenure as a political columnist, that we only define character negatively in journalism. There are positive and negative aspects to character. Many of the standards that we hold these people to are just incredibly unfair and incredibly stupid. As a journalist, I took the side of the quarry as opposed to the pack in every character issue battle we’ve had over the past ten years. I sided with John Tower, I sided with Barney Frank, I sided with Clarence Thomas, I sided with Bill Clinton on Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, and a number of other things.
Because I believe that the phenomenon of the witch hunts is more important than any of the misdemeanors. A hundred years from now people are going to look back on this period the way we look on the Salem witch trials. And now having lived through a circumstance like this myself, I’m even more adamant about this. The one exception I ever made to that rule, you had a part in: the conference on Character and Political Leadership that you held at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which I took part in. It led me to the conclusion, which I still hold, that the lack of discipline in Bill Clinton’s private life had carried over to a lack of discipline in his public life.
Which led to your much discussed article on “The Politics of Promiscuity.”
Yes. Promiscuity in the dictionary definition is all about discipline. Sex comes way down in the definition–below appetite, by the way. In any case, character is a complicated thing. In many ways I think we should be looking for people who have done questionable things to be leading us.
In Primary Colors I quote Bill Bennett: “Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” I think if you look back in religious history and in legend you find that the great leaders are the ones who have been through the tough times, have seen temptation, and have succumbed to temptation. They’re the ones you can trust.
After all the praise that Anonymous received for writing Primary Colors, were you surprised at the criticism you received when your identity was revealed? It got positive reviews all over the place before.
No, I was not surprised at the criticism that I received. I had a sense that the mob was after me. It stopped being a game for me when it really became a manhunt. It was a very complicated group of decisions that I had to make surrounding this.
Could you have envisioned, when you first decided to make the book anonymous, some of the conundrums it was going to put you in?
No, but some of the conundrums that people think are conundrums are not conundrums. I have absolutely no guilt, no question, no doubt at all in my mind that I had an absolute right to privacy in this case, and that it had nothing to do with my journalistic credibility or integrity. Not a thing–apples and freight trains.
The conundrums were almost entirely personal and they had to do with friends and the nature of friendship. I noticed this very early on. I won’t name this person, but one of my very, very closest friends, someone to whom I’ve told just about everything, called me just before the book appeared and said, “Have you read this book that everybody is saying you wrote?” I said, “You’ve read it?” And this person said, “Yes.” I said, “Tell me about it.” I managed to get through the entire conversation without ever doing a direct lie, at which point I called my agent and said, “I can’t bear this; I cannot handle this.” The reason I was able to get through that conversation so easily was that this person assumed that I would never ever not tell if I had done it. That quality of credence that I had built up among my friends over the years was sorely called into question by this deception. That was the toughest part about it.
But it was necessary. People who have reviewed the book have since said to me, “If I had known it was you, I never could have reviewed it that way.” I wanted the book to have a clean read, to be judged on its own merits without any baggage.
In all of the criticism you received about hiding your identity, were there any occasions where you felt something valid was said, where you said, “Ouch, that hurt”?
There were people who had criticisms where I said, “Ouch,” but I didn’t buy their criticisms. I respected them as people. There were friends who said, “You lied to me.” That hurt, and I’ve spent many hours talking it through with friends. But the kind of public criticism I got? The notion that journalism would be hurt by this is totally absurd. To my mind, and in keeping with what I was saying to you before about the phenomenon of the witch hunt, journalism is hurt far more by the spectacle of journalists making a big deal over this than it is by anything I’ve done.
Take someone I respect, Ken Auletta, who writes press criticism for the New Yorker. He called me a liar, said what I’d done was bad for journalism. So I called him up and said, “OK, let’s talk about it.” We did, and I described the following circumstance–something that had actually happened. Two days after the contract for the book was signed by my agent, a reporter from the New York Times called me up and said, “Hey, what about this novel everybody says you wrote?” I said “What novel?” A nondenial denial. Then she said, “Random House just signed a contract for this novel about the 1992 presidential campaign that was anonymously written, and people say it was either you or Michael Kelly or Sidney Blumenthal.” I said “Well, have you talked with them?” She said, “Yes, they both said no. What about you?” (By the way, at this point only four chapters were written.) I said, “I work five days a week for Newsweek. I work weekends for cbs. How could I have ever found the time to do this?” Another nondenial denial. She didn’t give up, though. She said, “Yes or no?” And I said, trembling, “No.”
How in the world would she know about the book two days after the contract was signed?
It’s just journalism–this is the world of publishing. It was hot. So for the next hour, Ken Auletta and I played psychodrama where I was the reporter and he was Joe. He said, “Well, you could have said something else.” I said, “Try it, try anything.” In every last instance the New York Times would have reported, “Michael Kelly said no, Sid Blumenthal said no, and Joe Klein said the lox at Zabar’s is wonderful.” It would have been some kind of evasion. There was finally no way to dodge the yes-or-no question.
How will this experience help you in the future in the way you cover politics?
Well, I think it’s going to intensify the way I’ve been feeling throughout, which is that we have to let these people be human beings. By the current standards, there is no way that Winston Churchill could become president of the United States. This is a man who the first thing he did every morning was pour himself a scotch. Franklin Roosevelt poured himself a pitcher of martinis every night, cheated at poker, and cheated on his wife. They were flawed men, but they were also great men, and their peccadilloes didn’t render them unfit for leadership.
At one point I went in to Andrew Hayward, who had just taken over as president of CBS, and offered him my resignation. We had a very pleasant conversation, and he asked me what I had learned over the past week, having been through a press conference and all the rest. I said, “You’re the first person my age to run one of these things, and you’ve got a big problem here because we–collectively we–are like a 14-year-old boy who has just discovered sex, and we want to do it as frequently and as indiscriminately as we want. It feels fabulous, it feels wonderful. And it’s entirely irresponsible. What your job should be–believe me, I’m in no position to give you advice about this right now–but I think that your job should be getting us past pubescence.”
That’s the way I feel about journalism today. We are entirely indiscriminate in our use of this magnificent piece of equipment that we have. The intensity of the spotlight is distorting, both on the upside and the downside.
I found myself in that press conference saying things that I truly didn’t believe, just out of defensiveness. When I’ve talked to other public figures about it, they say it happens to them a lot.
Why is it that so many politicians who run for the presidency talk about their own religious faith? Clinton quotes Scripture; Carter quoted Scripture; Reagan had a religiosity about his presidency; they all feel obligated occasionally to meet with Billy Graham. What does this say about our leaders or about our politics?
It’s not about our leaders. They do what they do because we demand it of them. We ask for the appearance of piety. The current trend is for people like Newt to go and build houses as part of the Habitat for Humanity program, or Clinton to rebuild a church. As transparent as that is, I think it’s a step in the right direction.
I like to see politicians show their piety through exertion, through sweat equity, through physical labor. And even if you think they’re phonies-there are going to be a lot of phonies building houses over the next decade, I predict–you’re still getting a church or a house out of it.