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NPR Commentary -- March 8, 1996

Primary Targets

by James Fallows

A few weeks ago, before there were real primaries to report on, the political press was consumed by figuring out which reporter or campaign aide might have written Primary Colors. The resulting buzz made the book the number-one national bestseller, but I am beginning to wonder how many of the million copies now in print have actually been read. What the book says about politics and the presidency, it seems to me, is quite different from what the furor over its mystery author implied.

The plot of the book, of course, concerns a couple very much like Bill and Hillary Clinton, in a predicament like that of the real Clintons in the New Hampshire primary four years ago. The fictional campaign, like the real one, survives various scandals in New Hampshire but then runs into much more serious roadblocks than the real Clintons did. By the end of the book it is not at all clear that the made-up Clintons will ever get to the White House, nor that the narrator, an idealistic young aide, will stay with them if they do.

Yet, strangely, the novel is one long reminder of why the real Clinton did get elected and why Republican candidates seem fearful of facing him in debates this fall. The sins the book ascribes to its Bill-and-Hillary characters, from gluttony to lust to pride, are embellished versions of what many Americans, both pro- and anti- Clinton, already assume to be true. And in scene after scene the novel dramatizes the rare political talents of its Bill Clinton counterpart -- a man shown as being phenomenal at really hearing what citizens are saying; a very smart man who, unlike most of his Yale or Oxford counterparts, can talk to anyone without talking down.

Although Primary Colors is typically described as a shocking betrayal of the Clintons, it can just as well be read as a defense of Bill Clinton's gusto and even for the brand of compromise politics he has practiced throughout his career. Many political dramas, including recent movies like The American President and City Hall, present compromise and corruption as if they were the same thing. But Primary Colors ends with a speech by the Clinton character about the worth and honor of his "half a loaf" approach to political life.

Indeed the only group portrayed as basically lacking honor is one to which the author may well belong: the pack of reporters and pundits referred to in the book as "scorps," short for "scorpions." In Primary Colors the politicians often vacillate when deciding whether to do the right thing. The scorps never even pause while building candidates up and predictably tearing them back down. Some people have guessed that "Anonymous" concealed his or her name to avoid outrage from the Clinton administration. Perhaps there is a different group whose wrath the author fears even more.

Copyright & copy; 1996, by James Fallows. All Rights Reserved.
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