A highlight of Newt Gingrich’s ill-starred run for the Republican presidential nomination came during a televised debate in January when the moderator asked him a pointed question about his messy divorce.
Gingrich responded with an assault on the media: “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office.” The remarks won an ovation from the audience, and for the rest of his candidacy Gingrich attacked the media as often as possible.
We often hear that reporters and pundits are scandal-obsessed, focused on only the horse-race aspect of politics, unconsciously biased, and generally an obstacle to honest communication between the public and their leaders.
Tension has always existed between those who govern and those who report on government -- just recall the Pentagon Papers or the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate. But today’s climate, in which large swaths of the public see the media as a corrosive influence on political life, really started to emerge in the 1990s. And the classic treatment of the subject, which still helps to explain a great deal about American politics, is the novel “Primary Colors,” a roman a clef about Bill Clinton that is actually, at heart, a story about the corruption of politics by the news media.
When it was published in 1996, “Primary Colors,” like “Democracy” a century earlier, gained immediate notoriety because it appeared anonymously. Eventually, the veteran political journalist Joe Klein admitted to being the author; but until then, anonymity was a brilliant marketing move, allowing readers to wonder just how much inside knowledge went into the novel’s portrait of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.
Anyone old enough to remember the strange Democratic primary of that year will be able to identify most of the novel’s characters. Governor Jack Stanton, the charismatic, brilliant, needy, irresponsible candidate, is plainly Clinton, down to the sound of their names, just as the steely, ambitious Susan Stanton is Hillary Rodham Clinton, pre-Senate and pre-State Department; and so on down the list. Only the narrator, Henry Burton -- whose name echoes Jack Burden in “All the King’s Men” -- doesn’t correspond so precisely to a real-life figure.
“Primary Colors” is a satire, but Clinton’s actual story is so lurid it can hardly be satirized. When, in the first pages, we see candidate Jack Stanton casually bedding a librarian he meets at a campaign stop, we think of Monica Lewinsky. Likewise, when Stanton’s New Hampshire campaign is rocked by the revelation that he had an affair with one Cashmere McLeod, the name might seem over the top -- until we remember Gennifer Flowers.
“Primary Colors” raises the stakes by introducing a scandal that seems to have no basis in fact -- though Klein cleverly keeps the reader wondering whether he knows more than we do. Stanton, Burton is shocked to learn, may have impregnated a 15-year-old black girl, the daughter of a family friend. If even the possibility of this were to become known, Stanton’s already imperiled candidacy would be ruined. Cynically, he entrusts Burton, who is black, with a mission to intimidate the girl’s family into keeping quiet -- knowing that his own blackness will make him all the more effective as a fixer.
In summary, then, the plot of “Primary Colors” seems to follow a familiar model: an idealist brought low by the dirty business of politics. The difference is that this novel never manages to sound really outraged by Stanton’s sexual misdemeanors.
Rather, Klein, like many of Clinton’s real-life admirers, sees them as the inevitable overspill of the candidate’s famous empathy, his need for personal connection with everyone he encounters. The novel’s first page describes Stanton’s caressing, complicit handshake:
“He might put [his hand] 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 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’ll mean it.”
This kind of touch might get out of control, but it can hardly seem unwelcome. And Klein never leaves us in any doubt that Stanton is a genuine idealist, who seeks office only in order to do good. “I don’t think I’d be baring my butt for random whipping by that self-righteous, hypocritical pack” of critics, as Stanton tells Burton, “if I didn’t believe that you can, on occasion, make people’s lives a little better.” Whenever we see Stanton consoling an unemployed voter or enthusing about an adult-literacy program, we are meant to be sure that the nation would be better off with him as president.
No, the real animus of “Primary Colors” is directed against those critics, the members of the media. (This alone should have been a clue that “Anonymous” was a journalist.) Stanton, Klein shows, is a master of retail politics; like Clinton, the “comeback kid,” he is able to pull his New Hampshire campaign out of a tailspin of scandal by the sheer energy with which he presses the flesh. But once the campaign goes national, journalists -- whom the novel refers to in political lingo as “scorps,” short for scorpions -- surround the candidate like a bubble, depriving him of oxygen and making it impossible for voters to really hear him.
Stanton perceives himself not as a corrupt politician but as a victim of media scandalmongering, and the novel basically agrees with him: “Someday, I predict, there will be a fraternal order of those raped by the media,” he rants. If it weren’t for journalists’ obsession with scandal, their reduction of every substantive issue to a question of image, Stanton would not have to threaten that 15-year-old girl. By shifting the guilt for the dysfunction of modern politics onto the press, Klein effectively exonerates the candidate and his handlers, who are seen as smart players of a game whose rules they did not make.
In the years since “Primary Colors,” changes in the media landscape have made Klein’s critique more acutely relevant. One of the novel’s charges is that scandal sheets such as the National Enquirer dig up dirt -- Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers, for example -- which the mainstream media go on to legitimize by reporting on the tabloids’ coverage. This dynamic, in which scandal moves from the fringe to the mainstream, has been hypercharged by the Web: The Drudge Report became famous during the Monica Lewinsky scandal as a clearinghouse for the latest rumors and tips. Klein’s complaint that journalists don’t respect the line between public and private life now seems laughably quaint -- thanks in large part to Bill Clinton himself, who made “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” a national punch line.
From “Democracy” down to “Primary Colors,” the best American political novels have been about the gulf between our ideals and the sordid reality that lies behind them. Their subjects are bribery, extortion, blackmail and scandal; their villains are corrupt party bosses, ambitious pols and reckless journalists. But perhaps the recurrence of the theme of disillusionment offers some reason for hope. It is only because Americans have an indestructible faith in the power of our ideals and institutions that we are perpetually shocked to hear about their failure.
Political fiction can be seen as the necessary antidote to our credulity. The novelist reminds us that politicians are all too human; that from the founders to the present day, our politics have never been pure. But that doesn’t seem to stop us from hoping that, one day, they will be.
(Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at the New Republic and a columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author of “Why Trilling Matters.” The opinions expressed are his own. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 of his series on classic political novels.)
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