Joe Klein a.k.a Anonymous
April 3, 1998
Web posted at: 3:50 p.m. EST (2050 GMT)
(CNN) -- It hit book store shelves with a thud heard all over Capitol Hill. And the kicker was, the author was Anonymous. "Primary Colors" is an unblinking and clever look at a womanizing, doughnut-eating Southerner seeking the presidency, come hell or high water.
"Newsweek" columnist Joe Klein finally emerged as the author and drew some ricocheting verbal fire. But whatever criticism he received, he more than made up for it in book sales. The novel is one of the most popular political books ever.
The similarities between the book and Clinton Administration are hard to ignore, and a film based on the book captures some of the surface qualities of the current White House.
Here's the first chapter of Klein's "Primary Colors." Judge for yourself.
He was a big fellow, looking seriously pale on the streets of Harlem in deep
summer. I am small and not so dark, not very threatening to Caucasians; I do not
strut my stuff.
We shook hands. My inability to recall that particular moment more precisely is
disappointing: the handshake is the threshold act, the beginning 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, 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 a
follow-me nod. I didn't have the time, or presence of mind, to send any message
back at him. Slow emotional reflexes, I guess. His were lightning. He was six
meaningful handshakes down the row before I caught up. And then 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.)
We were sweeping up into the library, the librarian in tow, and now he had his
big ears on. She was explaining her program and he was in heavy listening mode,
the most aggressive listening the world has ever known: aerobic listening. It is
an intense, disconcerting phenomenon--as if he were hearing quicker than you can
get the words out, as if he were sucking the information out of you. When he
gives full ear--a rare enough event; he's usually ingesting from two or three
sources--his listening becomes the central fact of the conversation. He was
doing this now, with the librarian, and she was staggering under it. She missed
a step; he reached out, steadied her. She was middle-aged, pushing fifty, hair
dyed auburn to blot the gray, unexceptional except for her legs, which were
shocking, a gift from God. Had he noticed the legs when she almost went down on
the stair? I couldn't tell. Howard Ferguson III had insinuated himself next to
me, as we nudged up the crowded staircase, his hand squeezing my elbow--Lord,
these were touchy fellows--saying: "Glad you changed your mind. Jack's really
excited you could do this."
"What are we doing?" I asked. Howard had called and invited me to meet Governor
Jack Stanton, who might or might not be running for president. The governor was
stopping in New York on his way to do some early, explanatory wandering through
New Hampshire. The invitation came with an intriguing address--in Harlem, of all
places. (There was no money in Harlem and this was the serious money-bagging
stage of the campaign, especially for an obscure Southern governor.) It also
came with shameless flattery. "You're legendary," Howard had said in a dusty
midwestern voice, cagey and playful. "He wants to lure you out of retirement."
Retirement: I had fled Washington after six years with Congressman William
Larkin. It had been my first job out of school--and I was a victim of his upward
mobility, from member to whip to majority leader. Too much. I hadn't been ready
for power; I'd kind of enjoyed the back benches. It was too soon for me to be
someone, the majority leader's guy, the guy you had to get with if you wanted
something in or out of this or that. And so, on my thirtieth birthday, an
epiphany: "I'm sorry, sir--I need a break," I told the congressman.
"Don't you believe in what we're doing?" he asked.
You mean, counting heads? Lemme outta here. I was going out with a woman named
March then; she was great-looking, but she worked for Nader and came equipped
with a lack of irony guaranteed to survive the most rigorous crash testing. I
found myself having fantasies of working my way through the months: April, May,
June. . . . I don't remember what I told her. I told her something. "Henry,
isn't this a little young for a midlife crisis?" she asked.
No. I called Philip Noyce at Columbia. I'd known him all my life. He was a
colleague of Father's--back when, back before Father left Mother and began his
World's Most Obscure Universities Tour. In the event, Philip got me a gig. I
taught legislative process. As midlife crises go, it had been a busman's
Now I thought I might be ready to resume . . . things.
Anyway, I was curious. What was Jack Stanton doing up in Harlem when he should
have been down on Wall Street trying to impress the big spenders? Was he trying
to impress me? I doubted it. More likely, he had invited me along for racial
cover. I was, I realized, the only black face in his entourage. Howard Ferguson
certainly was about as far as you could get from dark. I noticed a discrete
bauble of perspiration moving diagonally down the side of his forehead into his
weird Elvis sideburn, as if his sweat were rationed: he was so dry, so
thin-lipped austere--and his eyes burned so hard--one imagined that whatever
juice he had inside was precious; if he didn't stay lubricated, he might catch
fire. Howard was legendary himself, sort of: vestigial, a prairie ghost. He was
born to a line of arsonists. His great-grandfather Firefly Ferguson had set the
wheat fields ablaze and run for governor from a jail cell. Howard wore Firefly's
parched, sandy face, thinning hair parted in the middle--and a pink flowered
Liberty tie: I do not take this life, these lawyer clothes seriously, it said.
His role in the Stanton operation was elusive--months later I'd still be trying
to figure it out. He was a man who never tipped his hand, who never expressed an
opinion in a meeting, and yet gave off the sense that he had very powerful
convictions, too powerful to be hinted among strangers. He had known the
governor forever, since the antiwar days. "You ever been to an adult literacy
program?" he asked, then chuckled. "Jack eats this shit up. Says it's like going
So it was. It was a better room than the usual government-issue Formica and
cinder block. There were none of the relentlessly cheery posters of books and
owls. It was a dark, solemn place--a WPA library. The bookcases were oak and
went most of the way up the walls; there was a mural above, a Bentonian,
popular-front vision of biplanes buzzing the Statue of Liberty, locomotives
rushing through wheat fields, glorious, muscular laborers going to work--a
Howard Ferguson dreamscape. (They didn't need hortatory read books propaganda
back then; there were other struggles.) The class was seated around a large,
round oak table. They were what the WPA muralist had in mind: a saintly
The librarian, condescending to them in the reflexive, unconsciously insulting
manner of public servants everywhere, introduced the visitor: "Governor Jack
Stanton, who has been a great friend of continuing education, and is now running
for . . ." She tossed a flirtatious look his way.
"Cover," he said.
"Do you want to say a few--"
"No, no--y'all go on ahead," he purred. "Don't mind me."
He took a seat away from the table, deftly respecting the integrity of the
class. I sat diagonally across the room from him; I could watch him watching
them. Howard stood behind me, leaning against a bookcase. They introduced
themselves. They were waitresses, dishwashers and janitors, most in their
twenties and thirties, people with night jobs. Each read a little; the women had
an easier time of it than the men, who really struggled. And then they said
something about their lives. It was very moving. The last to go was Dewayne
Smith, who weighed three hundred pounds easy and was a short-order chef. "They
just kept passin' me up, y'know?" he said. "Couldn't read a lick, had a . . .
learning disbility." He looked over to the librarian to make sure he had said it
"Dewayne's dyslexic," she said.
"They just kept a passin' me up--third grade, fourth grade--and I'm like too
proud, y'know? It was like no one noticed anyways. I sit in the back, I ain't a
mouthy broth--person, I don't cause no trouble, I stick to my own self. So I go
on through, all the ways through. I graduate elementary school. They send me to
Ben Franklin, general studies. They coulda sent me to the Bronx Zoo. No one ever
tell me nothin'. No one ever say, 'Dewayne, you can't read--what you gonna do
with your sorry ass?' Scuse me." He looked over at the governor, who smiled,
urging him on.
"This was twenty years ago," the librarian interjected. "We're better about
catching those things now"--as if that canceled out such monumental callousness,
the numb stupidity of the system.
"Anyway, graduation come. My momma come. She take the day off from the laundry
where she work, puts on her church dress. She don't have a clue nothin's wrong;
me neither. I been skatin' through? So we're there and Dr. Dalemberti is callin'
out the names and what we did, like 'Sharonna Harris, honors,' or 'Tyrone Kirby,
Regents diploma,' and everyone's gotta just stand there on the stage, while they
come up one by one. So they get to my name--goin' alphabetical, y'know--and Dr.
Dalemberti says, so everyone hear it, 'Dewayne Smith receive a certificate of
attendance.' You can hear people buzzin', coupla folks laughin' a little, and I
gotta go walk up there, and get this . . . it look just like a diploma, y'know?
Same kind of paper--funny, how I'm thinking people won't notice 'cause it's the
same kind of paper. But that don't work: everyone know the truth now. And I'm
thinkin': Sucker. These folks expect you a fool, they got rid of everyone else
can't read, they drop out. And my reward for stickin' around is--I gotta stand
there, burnin', and I'm tryin' not to look at anyone, tryin' not to look too
stupid, y'know? But feelin' stupid as a rock. The girl come up after me gigglin'
a little, still laughin' 'bout me, y'know? She nervous cause she gotta stand
next to the idiot. Like it's catchin' or somethin'. And I see Momma out there
with her hat on and her purse in her lap. She wearin' her white church gloves.
She got her glasses on, and tears comin' down from behind her glasses, like
someone hurt her bad, like someone die."
I kind of lost it then. I tried to gulp down the sob, but Dewayne had caught me
somewhere deeper, and earlier, than politics. Damn. I shuddered, tears leaked
out the side of my eye. And: Do you know how it happens at a moment like that,
when you are embarrassed like that, you will look directly--reflexively--at the
very person you don't want to see you? I looked over at Jack Stanton. His face
was beet-red, his blue eyes glistening and tears were rolling down his cheeks.
The first thought was--relief: relief and amazement, and a sudden, sharp, quite
surprising affinity. This was followed, quickly, by a caveat: Weakness? Ed
Muskie in the snow in New Hampshire? But that evaporated, because Stanton had
launched himself into motion, rubbing his cheeks off with the back of his
hands--everyone knew now that he had lost it--standing up, standing over the
table, hands on the shoulders of two of the students, leaning over the table
toward Dewayne and saying, "I am so very, very deeply grateful that you'd share
that with us, Dewayne." It wasn't nearly so bad as the words sound now. He had
the courage of his emotions. "And I think it is time we made it impossible--I
mean impossible--for anyone to get lost in the system like you did. We have to
learn to cherish our young people. But most of all, I want to thank you for
believing, for having faith--faith that you can overcome the odds and learn and
succeed." It was getting a little thick, and he seemed to sense it. He got off
the soapbox, kicked back, circled the table over to where Dewayne was; I had him
in profile now. "Takes some courage, too. How many y'all tell your friends and
family where you're going when you come here?" There were smiles.
"Let me tell you a story," he said. "It's about my uncle Charlie. This happened
just after I was born, so I only got it from my momma--but I know it's true.
Charlie came home from the war a hero. He had been on Iwo Jima--you know, where
they raised the flag? And he had taken out several machine-gun nests of Japs . .
. Japanese soldiers, who had a squad of his buddies pinned down. First one with
a grenade. Second one by himself, with his rifle and bayonet and bare hands.
They found him with a knife in his gut and his hands around an enemy soldier's
throat. He had two bullets in him, too."
Dewayne said, "Shit."
"Yeah, that's right," Stanton said, moving clockwise around the table now, like
a big cat. "They gave him the Medal of Honor. President Truman did. And then he
came home to our little town, Grace Junction. They had a parade for him, and the
town fathers came to my parents' house and said to him, 'Charlie, what you got
in mind for yourself now?' Charlie said he didn't know. Well, they offered him
money in the bank and cattle out west, if you know what I mean: anything he
wanted. The mayor said Charlie could have a full scholarship to the state
university. The banker said he could understand if Charlie didn't want to go
back to school after all he'd been through, so he was offering him a management
job, big future, at the bank. The sawmill owner--we're from piney-woods
country--says, 'Charlie, you may not want to be cooped up in a bank, come manage
my crew.' And you know what? Damned if Charlie didn't turn them all down."
Stanton stopped. He waited. One of the women said, "So what he do?"
"Nothin'. He just lay down on the couch, smoked his Luckies, let himself go. . .
. No one could get him off that couch."
"Oh, I got it," said a wiry Hispanic with a pencil-thin mustache. "He got his
head fu-- ah, mess up. He got one of them post-dramatic things, right?"
"Nope," Stanton said, very calmly. "It was just that, well . . . He couldn't
Heads snapped, someone said What?, someone whistled, someone said, "No shit."
"He couldn't read, and he was embarrassed, and he didn't want to tell anyone,"
Stanton said. "He had the courage to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, but
he didn't have the strength to do what each of you has done,
what--each--of--you--is doing--right--here. He didn't have the courage to admit
he needed help, and to find it. So I want you to know that I understand, I
appreciate what you are doing here, I honor your commitment. And when people ask
me, 'Jack Stanton, why are you always spending so much money and so much time
and so much effort on adult literacy programs?' I tell them: Because it gives me
a chance to see real courage. It inspires me to be stronger. I am so grateful
you've let me visit with you today."
I have seen better speakers and heard better speeches, but I don't think I'd
ever heard--at least, not till that moment--a speaker who measured his audience
so well and connected so precisely. It was an impressive bit of politics. And
they were all over him then, clapping his back, shaking his hand, hugging him.
He didn't back off, keep his space, the way most pols would; he leaned into
them, and seemed to get as much satisfaction from touching them, draping his big
arm over their shoulders, as they got from him. He had this beatific, slightly
goofy look on. And then Dewayne said, "Wait a minute." The room fell silent.
"What about Charlie?"
"Well, it took a while," Stanton said, more conversationally. They were all
friends now. "He started hanging 'round the high school when I got up there. He,
uh--" Stanton was embarrassed. He was making a decision. He went ahead with
it--"Well, I was the manager of the varsity baseball team and Charlie liked to
sit with me on the bench, helping out--and that grew into helping out around the
gymnasium, and finally they offered him a job when Mr. Krause died."
"Who Mr. Krause? What job he got?"
"Oh, he was the school janitor."
He stayed with them for a time, answering questions, signing autographs. The
library lady pitched Stanton about the need for more money--there was a long
waiting list of people who wanted to get into that program but had to be turned
away. Then they all followed him back downstairs, and out to the car. Howard
Ferguson and I trailed the crowd. Howard squeezed my arm gently, just above the
elbow, kind of chuckled--a strangled guffaw--and shrugged, as if to say: What
can I say?
"How do you know him?" I asked, having to ask something.
"Oh, a long time," he said.
The governor was down on the sidewalk now, chugging through another round of
meaningful handshakes. Ferguson and I stood over by the car. "So what do you
think?" Howard asked.
I said something enthusiastic, but I really was wondering: Is he expecting me to
say something like "Where do I sign up?" Didn't they want to sit down and say,
Here's what we're doing and here's what we'd like you to do and what do you
think about this issue, or that person, and how do you think someone should run
for president of the United States these days?
Stanton came over. Looked at me. So? "Well, that was something," I said.
"I can't believe we can't rustle up enough dough to make this available to
anyone who wants it," he said. (What was this going to be--a policy discussion?)
"Why didn't you guys fund it better?"
Because my former boss was a weenie. But do you just say that straight off? If
you badmouth the old boss, what does that tell the prospective new boss about
your loyalty? "Well, it was late, we got trapped in a formula fight," I said and
gobbledygooked on about rules and amendments and assorted horseshit, but he
didn't listen very long. In fact, he turned away halfway through a sentence--no
pretense about just shutting me down--and asked Ferguson, "Where?"
"Times editorial board," Howard said laconically. "You're only about a half hour
late right now."
Stanton suddenly was red in the face--and I mean the mood had changed with
blinding speed: from sunshine to tornado in a blink. "You call them?" he
demanded, eyes squinting down. If the answer was no, I was afraid Stanton would
"Of course," Howard said. "Told them traffic."
Stanton lightened as suddenly as he'd darkened. Clouds scudding on a windy day.
"I love New York," he said, back to aw-shucks-I'm-just-a-poor-country-governor.
"Easiest place in the world to be late."
(C) 1996 Machiavelliana, Inc.
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