The Running Mate, the latest by former Newsweek wonk Joe Klein, isn’t so much a sequel as a companion piece to Klein’s controversial ”Primary Colors.” Both take place in the same parallel political universe, but ”Mate” features only a few scenes with Clinton stand-in Jack Stanton. Instead, the protagonist is Sen. Charlie Martin, a minor figure in ”Colors” (he was one of Stanton’s Democratic opponents, described as a ”hippie Vietnam vet”).
Martin is briefly considered and rejected for the VP spot during Stanton’s initial bid for the White House, yet ”Mate”’s title refers more specifically to the senator’s significant other, Arabella ”Nell” Palmerston Belligio, a cheeky swimsuit designer and distant relative of the British royal family. She reluctantly joins Martin’s reelection campaign in an unnamed Midwestern state, and her unorthodox personal life (she and her kids still live with her first husband, who has AIDS) becomes fresh meat for the media monster.
”Mate” is packed with colorful secondary characters , and Klein often captures their essence in a thumbnail detail. ”His face sagged under the weight of years of feigned comprehension,” he writes of one TV pundit, and a House member is limned as ”a culinary populist who never left a kielbasa uneaten at a Pulaski Day picnic in his New Jersey district.” It’s just this kind of inside-the-Beltway insight that makes ”Mate” such a potent fix for political junkies. When Klein explains why sexual indiscretions hurt Stanton more than Martin (”Veterans received special dispensation: They were assumed to have warrior libidos”), we instantly understand why the past carousing of draft dodger Clinton became a major issue while former POW McCain’s never did.
Klein, who left Newsweek in 1996 to become Washington correspondent for The New Yorker, lends the book legitimacy by utilizing genuine – or at least genuine-sounding – D.C. lingo: The ”sec-def” (secretary of defense) works in ”the building” (the Pentagon), not to be confused with ”the department” (the State Department). When one of Martin’s friends is offered a job as an ”under” (undersecretary) at ”the building,” he groans, ”Wrong side of the river.” (The Pentagon is across the Potomac in Virginia.) While his prose grows overripe in the love scenes between Martin and Nell (”her tongue was careful, emotionally intelligent”), Klein has a sharp ear for dialogue. ”What a coincidence,” the scandal-scarred senator retorts when introduced to a consumer reporter. ”I’VE been consumed by reporters.” No wonder Elaine May lifted so much of ”Colors”’ banter verbatim for her Oscar-nominated screenplay.
”Mate” grapples with some of the same issues as ”Colors” did – negative campaigning, media invasion of candidates’ privacy, and public cynicism. Yet ”Colors” occasionally hewed too closely to the facts, such as when Stanton considered discussing infidelity allegations with Steve Kroft on a post-Super Bowl edition of ”60 Minutes” (gosh, where’d Klein dream that scenario up?). ”Mate,” on the other hand, simultaneously rings true and feels completely original. Removed from all the gimmickry and controversy, Klein reveals himself to be a brilliant political portraitist, one who can paint not only in primary colors but also in more complicated shades.