''Primary Colors'' reminds us of Watergate | EW.com

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''Primary Colors'' reminds us of Watergate

'Primary Colors' reminds us of Watergate -- The author remains a mystery, but the content is what matters

Nobody knows his name, and so far, that’s helped turn his book into a genuine event: By keeping his identity secret, even from his editor, the author of Primary Colors has managed to get lots of people talking about his novel. Just who is Anonymous? Inquiring minds have wanted to know ever since last June, when Random House reportedly paid a hefty six-figure price for a thinly veiled account of Bill Clinton’s 1992 primary campaign without being told who the author was. Not even Random House publisher Harold Evans, who dealt with Anonymous through his agent, knows the secret: At the time he acquired the novel, Evans accepted the word of an agreed-upon third party, who vouched that the author was legit. ”I signed the contract, and I haven’t seen the countersignature,” says Evans. ”It’s the first occasion where I’ve put my name to a partnership and not known who the partner was.”

Whoever the author is, it seems to be someone who had — and may still have — extraordinary access to Clinton. Could it be James Carville? George Stephanopoulos? A political journalist, like The New Yorker’s Sidney Blumenthal or Newsweek’s Joe Klein? Screenwriter Erik Tarloff, whose wife, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, chairs the President’s economic council? Of course, he could be a she. Like Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s ex-press secretary. ”I can’t even guess,” says Paul Begala, Carville’s former partner. ”I do know that this is apparently the No. 1 parlor game in Washington.”

Carville has denied writing the book, and publishing and political pundits have no reason to doubt him. Whoever wrote Primary Colors seems more worldly and introspective than the killer strategist who coauthored All’s Fair with wife Mary Matalin. It probably isn’t Stephanopoulos either, even if the book’s narrator is a short, eligible bachelor who fulfills the No. 2 role in the campaign. Though he served as Clinton’s director of communications, hardly anyone believes Stephanopoulos can write so lyrically.

One thing’s certain: Anonymous aims high. Though the book has thrills aplenty, he’s clearly striving to deliver a moral drama a la All the King’s Men rather than a juicy roman a clef. The narrator, political operative Henry Burton, signs on with Gov. Jack Stanton, the Clinton character, and later wrestles with his conscience as the campaign bogs down in muck.

As long as it’s in the muck and sticking reasonably close to the facts (and lies) of 1992, Primary Colors is great fun. The descriptions of the campaign trail, from the union-hall meetings to the rubber-chicken dinners, are superb, as is the portrayal of Stanton’s relationship with his wife, Susan. It’s only when Primary Colors departs from its tasty combo of imaginative journalism and insider politics that it becomes ordinary. The denouement, involving a Friend of the Stantons who tries to hold them to a higher moral standard, is completely unbelievable. But these are minor flaws, considering the book’s achievement: It’s made the tedium of the primaries a fascinating read. A-