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[Primary Colors]

By Walter Shapiro

(TIME, Jan.29) -- Anonymous Should Take A Bow: His (Or Her) Novel About Clinton's 1992 Campaign Deserves To Sweep The Bookstores

I am beginning to understand how CIA counterintelligence whiz James Jesus Angleton felt during his obsessive Ahab-like hunt in the 1960s for a Soviet mole who had buried himself in the agency. All life becomes reduced to a hall of mirrors, as someone you almost certainly know has constructed a dual identity of shocking duplicity.

[Mandy Grunwald]Along with such Clinton campaign veterans as George Stephanopoulos and Mandy Grunwald, I spend my waking hours trying to decipher a political riddle far more baffling than Hillary Clinton's uncanny knack for picking winners in the commodities markets. Who is "Anonymous," the reclusive author of Primary Colors (Random House; $24), the sensitively wrought, deftly drawn, acid-tongued political novel that is a thinly veiled re-creation of the 1992 Democratic primary race?

Largely because I covered much of the Clinton campaign for this magazine, the Washington Post listed me among the possible suspects. But while I had the opportunity, I, along with any other journalist I can imagine, lacked motive. Reporters are an ego-crazed bunch, and who could resist publicly crowing if you had written a novel even half as good as Primary Colors?

But few campaign insiders--even the speechwriters and the imagemakers--could boast the writing talent to pull off a work of fiction that is the best aide's-eye view of politics since Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men, published in 1946. Narrated in the voice of Stephanopoulos-clone Henry Burton (a tip of the hat to Warren's Jack Burden?), the novel captures with eerie precision the psychological bonds between the Clintonesque candidate (hyperambitious Southern Governor Jack Stanton) and his most indispensable adviser. Here is Burton, who is portrayed as the grandson of a Martin Luther King-like civil rights martyr, describing his duties for the Governor:

"I learned to read his moods, when to talk and when not. I became inured to personal details, his chronic heartburn, his allergies. I became his Maalox bearer. I saw him angry, and thrilled, and frustrated, and depressed...He was incredibly undisciplined about time, and making decisions, and figuring out who should do what on staff, but there was a strict precision about self-revelation. He was always in control."

As I read Primary Colors, I built my own code book--a list of the characters matched with their real-life counterparts. Around page 90 I gave up in exhaustion, having deciphered three dozen names (an insider's Who's Who that includes Grunwald, James Carville, Harold Ickes, David Wilhelm, Stan Greenberg, Bob Kerrey, Tom Harkin, Paul Tsongas and Mario Cuomo). Some of the portraits are so deliciously vicious, I can only assume the author is settling personal scores. Take this description of the fictional stand-in for Hillary's much feared close friend Susan Thomases: "She was awful beyond imagining. She was one of those people with no sense of human spatial dynamics--always a step too close--and no sense of propriety."

Could the novel be a reconstruction limned by a writer who saw the campaign documentary The War Room eight times and read every published word on the campaign? I doubt it. There are scenes that are just too nuance filled to be rendered in such perfect-pitch fashion by even the best campaign reporters. A prime example is a minor strategy debate between the characters who represent Al From, the head of the Democratic Leadership Council, and Frank Greer, Clinton's first media adviser. I have known Greer for 20 years, and I can testify that Primary Colors captures his Southern good ole boy diction with preternatural precision. Who but a campaign staff member could have known that Greer's influence began to wane the second Clinton saw him as too much the orthodox liberal Democrat?

In the novel, the candidate, Clinton/Stanton, is priapic beyond even the wildest imaginings of the American Spectator. Clinton bashers will treasure the author's rendition of how Susan Stanton (Hillary) reacts to the news that Cashmere McLeod (Gennifer Flowers) had her husband on tape: "Susan hauled off and slapped him right across the face. It was a perfect shot, a resonant splat--God, she was even good at that."

For all its verisimilitude in capturing the political spectrum, Primary Colors transcends the genre in creating a plot that departs from literal campaign history to better illuminate Henry Burton's loss of innocence and voyage of self-discovery. The novel pivots around Libby Holden (very loosely inspired by Betsey Wright), the Governor's former chief of staff, fresh from the loony bin, who calls herself "the Dustbuster" and sets about to clean up the mess from the candidate's self-destructive personal life. Holden is the classic truth teller--bound to the Stantons, but also sadly clear-eyed about how their youthful idealism had been transformed into chilling cynicism in the pursuit of power.

Personal curiosity is just one reason why I so badly want Anonymous to turn himself or herself in. Primary Colors is simply too good a novel for its author to squander a career in politics or government service. Words cannot describe how much I wish I had written it.

For more, see Larry King Live

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