Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Bill Clinton and Al Gore at a 1996 campaign fund-raiser.

The most talked-about political mystery of 1996 involving Bill Clinton wasn’t Whitewater

Bill Clinton and Al Gore at a 1996 campaign fund-raiser.
Photo: Diana Walker (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Twenty years ago today, the film Primary Colors was released in theaters, disappointing audiences who expected something more than John Travolta and Emma Thompson doing their best Halloween-costume versions of Bill and Hillary Clinton. But it’s hard to imagine anyone queueing up for the movie could have been anywhere near as excited by the story as they were two years prior. For the better part of a year in 1996, the juiciest political story in Washington—one that caught fire and roared through front pages of national papers, endless reams of gossip-column ink, and talk shows from The Tonight Show to Face The Nation—wasn’t any of the scandals of the Clinton administration. It wasn’t the unending media circus that would eventually envelop Clinton’s second term, when the Monica Lewinsky affair was revealed. It wasn’t Whitewater, or welfare reform, or Vince Foster, or any of the other dozens of tempests that were always roiling around the beleaguered but wildly popular Democratic president. It was a novel that purported to be a thinly disguised portrayal of the 1992 Clinton campaign—and its author was Anonymous.

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Before the book was even released, the hype was gaining momentum. Primary Colors was rumored to be an uncannily accurate roman à clef of the behind-the-scenes goings-on during the difficult campaign of then-Governor Clinton and his loyal staff. Narrated in the first person by a sharp aide who bore quite the resemblance to real-world staffer George Stephanopoulos, it depicted in impressive detail any number of events and people with clear true-life counterparts, from the Clintons themselves to political consultants like Paul Begala to a deliciously vicious send-up of then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo. The story followed the idealistic young staffer as he helps a Southern governor, Jack Stanton, navigate a brutal primary campaign and weather ongoing scandals based in part around the politician’s appetite for younger women. As he begins to realize the depth of the candidate’s amoral drive to win at all costs, he undergoes perhaps the world’s most awkward case of buyer’s remorse, as he watches his complicity help elect a man who looks more and more willing to sell out his principles for the highest bidders—or a few more votes.

The idea that it was written by someone with high-level access to the campaign proved irresistible, for the simple reason that it was the ultimate navel-gazing parlor game for the very groups that could most ensure it became water-cooler conversation: journalists and politicians. The book was a perfect mix of political-insider exposé and media-baiting “guess who?” wedded to a story of corruption every bit as compelling a page-turner as a John Grisham novel. But unlike Grisham’s work, this one promised to pull back the curtain on the most famous couple in the country and reveal their true behavior for all the world to see, a nigh-impossible tease for just about anyone interested in the Clinton White House, whether seeking confirmation of the ongoing tabloid fodder provided by the president’s accusers Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones, or cynical pols looking to have suspicions regarding Clinton’s sliding-scale principles confirmed.

It succeeded on such a massive scale, and became a pop-culture phenomenon, because it seemed to hit its target with unerring accuracy. Sure, there were obvious exaggerations to turn it into a soapy narrative—it’s classified as fiction, after all, and nobody really thought Hillary Clinton had a one-night stand with Stephanopoulos (to cite one of many too-twisty examples)—but the character sketches and personalities involved came across as uncomfortably real. Writing a month after its publication, The New York Times noted the book’s central place in the zeitgeist (“the ultimate pop-culture depiction of a politician who has long since been Arsenioed, Oprahed and Donahued to death”) is due in large part to how fully the Clinton team and associated players acknowledged it seemed to get it all right:

Such quotes only confirmed the theory that it was someone who knew all the players intimately, and thus drove the media into doing what it always does, only more so: try to get to the bottom of the mystery. Who was Anonymous? Cover stories in Newsweek, Time, and other periodicals fanned the flames of the investigation into mainstream coverage that pushed it out of political circles and into everyday debate. The Washington Post notes Larry King dedicated an entire show to the search, taking call-in tips from locales as far-flung as South Africa. Suspects, from Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau to political novelist Christopher Buckley to Stephanopoulos himself, were accused, only to be met with rueful denials. (“I think the best line is Sally Quinn’s: I was hoping it would turn out to be me,” said Buckley.)

The hunt was ubiquitous; as someone in his teens in the Midwest at the time, I can confirm that people and places you normally never saw engaging with either politics or literature considered it as common a topic as the previous night’s Seinfeld episode. Everyone wants to feel like they’ve scored access to an inner circle, privy to the secrets and prevarications of people in power. Especially for a president as polarizing as Bill Clinton, the desire to look behind the cool and charismatic media figure everyone had seen countless times, and find out whether it was an act, is a strong incentive. (That the book was genuinely an addictive beach read, accessible to anyone, made the conversation even easier to join.) That masterful inflammation of the popular imagination by the book’s publicity campaign, along with its anonymous-author hook, created a blockbuster.

Newsweek tallied it up: After 19 printings totaling 1.2 million copies and 20 weeks on the Times’ bestseller list (nine of them at No. 1), the paperback rights were sold to Warner Books for $1.5 million. Warner’s initial printing ran to 1.5 million copies. Rights were sold to 21 foreign publishers. Mike Nichols claimed film adaptation rights for more than $1.5 million. All told, the mysterious author stood to profit roughly $6 million from the first-year earnings alone.

But the savvy and secretive author wasn’t unknown for long. The eventual reveal of Anonymous’ identity, when it came, was a letdown, the way that any whodunit inevitably ends with an answer far less entertaining than the question. “My name is Joe Klein, and I wrote Primary Colors,” began a mea culpa by Newsweek journalist Klein, like he was presaging the final scene of Iron Man. After nearly six months of speculation, during which Klein loudly and repeatedly denied he was the author, he was forced to come clean after a handwriting sample was discovered on an early manuscript of the book, and the sample was matched to Klein’s own.

The response on behalf of most political-media figures was one of outrage and shock—shock, I say!—that one of their own could have so explicitly lied and expected his integrity as a journalist to remain unblemished. Klein had on more than one occasion flatly insisted he was not the author, even staking his “reputation as a journalist” at one point on denying responsibility for the book. The bitter recriminations of colleagues and associates was swift. As Tod Lindberg noted in The Weekly Standard, many felt similarly to Ken Auletta, media critic for The New Yorker: “Joe fibbed, and that’s not acceptable. He not only hurts himself, he hurts the business of journalism.”

The hand-wringing is a bit much in retrospect, in part because it doesn’t seem particularly egregious to keep something secret that is nobody’s business, no matter your day job. And while it does feel like Klein should have fessed up once he was getting direct demands in the press, Lindberg reminds his colleagues that the media’s denunciations would comes across better if accompanied by admissions of “how often its members have to practice one form of deception or another to do their job—from keeping their sources secret to feigning ignorance to drawing people out with false displays of sympathy.”

Still, the phenomenon of Primary Colors feels like a significant chapter in the history of political reporting, part of a transition away from the days when inside-baseball reporting was the purview of outside-the-Beltway writers like Hunter S. Thompson, an element of gonzo journalism unworthy of the noble attention of career Washington reporters standing as gatekeepers between the important business of policy and government, and the small-minded details of gossip columns and salacious rumor-mongering. During the recent return of a Clinton to the stage of a national presidential election, Esquire’s Alex Scordelis posited that it “serves as a bridge between the stogy political reporting of Theodore White’s Making Of The President series and page turners like John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s Game Change about the 2008 election. Primary Colors conditioned us to want the salacious behind-the-scenes details. What had to be fictionalized in 1996 today is laid bare in all-access documentaries like Weiner.” In other words, it’s another step in the road to life-as-reality-TV, where nothing is sacred and everything is fair game in giving the public entertaining stories. The president and the Kardashian—the only difference for the public lies in one’s ability to affect the laws more than the other. (Our current president, however, suggests that even that difference might be increasingly blurry.)

But it’s also just a damn-good story. As much a superlative con job à la Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds or P.T. Barnum sideshow as it is media-criticism footnote, the tale of an embedded senior aide in a momentous and attention-getting presidential campaign unveiling the lurid secrets of a smooth politician and his marketing machine is a compelling narrative. It was a right-place, right-time marvel, and doesn’t have to portend some darker future of both politics and media. We got to that place just fine without Joe Klein.