Like any good presidential scandal, the brouhaha over the 1996 novel “Primary Colors” went through several phases. First, there was the question of just how thinly disguised this roman a clef about Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign was (e.g., did Hillary really sleep with George Stephanopoulos?). Then there was the guessing game over the secret identity of its author, Anonymous (could it be…George Stephanopoulos?). After Newsweek wonk Joe Klein was outed as the writer, much ethical hand-wringing ensued over whether he should’ve confessed to his editors sooner. Finally, there was Mike Nichols’ 1998 movie, disastrously released during the depths of Monica mania.
Lost amid all the hoopla was the fact that Colors was a savagely intelligent, terrifically vivid work of fictionalization. That same fate shouldn’t befall The Running Mate, Klein’s equally excellent follow-up. The author’s name is on the cover; the main character is acknowledged to be a composite of the six current U.S. senators who served in Vietnam (including John McCain, Bob Kerrey, and John Kerry); and considering the voluminous red ink that Colors generated for Universal, there wouldn’t seem much chance of a big-screen adaptation (although it’d make a great HBO miniseries).
Mate isn’t so much a sequel as a companion piece to 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.
That’s only one of Mate’s multiple tabloid-ready subplots. Martin is falsely accused of fondling a female aide and learns that he fathered an Amerasian son while overseas. When he investigates sexual-harassment charges against Stanton’s secretary of defense designate, the book starts to suffer from scandal fatigue. Yet it heats up again as it concentrates on Martin’s bitter electoral battle against Leland Butler, a motorcycle-riding muffler salesman and talk-radio loudmouth.
Mate is packed with colorful secondary characters like Butler, 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. A-