• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Pulp Politics

But first to Primary Colors, which takes the opposite route of escape, and attempts to redo the immediate past. I’ve done my best to identify the author, whose name is being closely held by Random House. The narrator, at any rate, is a young black male (actually the child of a black father and a white mother) who is urged by the candidate and his wife to forsake his current day job and join the crusade of a Democratic, technocratic, Southern, horny, greedy, draftdodging governor who wants the top job. I think that this rules out Christopher Buckley. (Though one should perhaps not forget that Harold Evans’s most recent stealth candidate for the highest office was a black man successful principally with whites.) It’s too well-phrased to be by James Carville, whose last book, “written” with Mary Matalin, gratified all those who believe that the two main party establishments are literally in bed with each other. It could conceivably be by Eric Tarloff, the screen-writing free spirit who is married to Laura D’Andrea Tyson, chair of Clinton’s National Economic Council. And there is always Malcolm Gladwell, the witty Washington Post New York correspondent, who is (as we used to say) of mixed blood and who can make with the words. But the search for an “insider” may be pointless, because the book describes the Clinton campaign in very much the terms that most people remember it, from the vicissitudes of early New Hampshire to the gradual “front-running” status that succeeded the New York and Florida primaries.

Yet though it would not be necessary to have worked “on campaign,” or to have “covered” same, it would certainly be a help. “Mammoth Falls” is obviously Little Rock, and Bill and Hillary are drawn from the evident life, but it still takes a little acquaintance to summarize the fledgling and initiating hotel-suite launch of a presidential bid in this knowing vernacular:

It was generic; it existed outside time. I was, at once, vaguely depressed and entirely comfortable. There was a handful of pols in shirtsleeves, working the phones, hammering laptops, nibbling off platters of fruit and cheese, chugging Diet Cokes. No smoke, no booze anymore. But a haze of ill health just the same; sycophancy frays the nerves, clogs the arteries. I didn’t know most of them. There were a couple of bodyguard, trooper types. There were a couple of Handi Wipes with wispy mustaches—state-house sorts about to be paved over.

There is a gift of slang and lingo in this novel—“Handi Wipes” for disposable appointees; “muffins” for young and impressionable volunteers; “scorps” for reporters—that in its automatic callousness bespeaks the real thing. As usual, though, the apparently hard-nosed carapace conceals an almost puerile sentimentality. Or do I mean nostalgia? In any case, it concerns guess who. This is the hardboiled narrator speaking:

The thing is, I’d kind of like to know what it feels like when you’re fighting over…y’know—historic stuff. I’m not like you, I didn’t have Kennedy. I got him from books, from TV. But I can’t get enough of him, y’know? Can’t stop looking at pictures of him, listening to him speak, I’ve never heard a president use words like ‘destiny’ or ‘sacrifice’ and it wasn’t bullshit. So: I want to be part of something, a moment, like that. When it’s real, when it’s history. I…” I had let things slip a little bit. That wasn’t good. I was interviewing for a job where my primary responsibility would be to not let things slip.

Oh, dry up. This is exactly the combination of the “tough” and the “tender” that plays to perfection. Anybody who remembers the last Democratic Convention remembers the moment when the now-exiled Harry and Susan Bloodworth-Thomason produced the weathered film clip of the boy William Jefferson Clinton shaking hands with John Fitzgerald Kennedy. It was the only thing about which all delegates agreed, even those who were unsure about both actual persons. Always the same yearning, it seems; the kind that is evoked by reading the Bruno-Greenfield memoir. A yearning, however ill-spent on an undeserving recipient, for authenticity. The narrator (who shifts from gruff to moist with such unsettling speed partly because he is addressing a future First Lady with whom at one point he shares an illicit bed) hits the same key when he says:

Well, y’know, I wonder: It couldn’t always have been the way it is now; the feeling of—of blah. Swamp gas. Stagnation. There had to be times when it was better. The other guys had it with Reagan, I guess.

Indeed they did. But Mr. Reagan was never happier than when citing Mr. Kennedy; proof enough that myths are rightly so-called. Still, we should note that even among the hard-boiled there persists a half-formed wish that the whole business be “about” something more than itself.

This is, like Henry Adams’s Democracy, another book that was first published by “Anonymous,” a novel about “process.” Governor Stanton loves “process,” as does his real-world model. In 1972, Bill Clinton and Taylor Branch were sent down to Texas by the George McGovern campaign. Unpromising territory for anti-war and civil rights activists at the best of times, Texas that year was the scene of the same envenomed Democratic factionalism that Jerry Bruno remembers from a decade earlier. Taylor Branch, since celebrated for his marvelous biography of Dr. King, recalls that “politics” down there consisted of no issues or principles, but rather of an endless series of log-rollings, accommodations, back-scratchings, and ego-stroking deals. He was dispirited beyond words. But he suddenly noticed something. “Bill really loved that stuff.” And he was good at it, too.

I consider this the encapsulating anecdote about Clinton, and one merit of Primary Colors is its unsparing focus on the small change of politics: the backroom and back-slap aspect. Here is the Guv as he mounts a charm offensive on a necessary bigwig in New Hampshire (a state, by the way, that is tellingly and aptly described as having a meteorology “both suffocating and freezing”):

And I know,” Stanton continued, “that your endorsement means a lot—it’s your word of honor, it’s your bond—and that it would mean the world to me here in New Hampshire. You have it in your power to make the next president of the United States, and I know you don’t take it lightly. Everyone knows the respect that people have for you here. But listen, Barry: We are going to do great things. We are going to make history. You want to be part of that. You want to be part of it now—and next year in Washington, after we win. We’ll make a place for you, an important place. I’m not the sort who forgets who brung him to the dance. We take care of our friends, Barry. You know what that means, right?”

This book might be filmed as All the Governor’s Men. Governor Huey Long is supposed once to have summoned a meeting of the Louisiana “business community” to discuss his reelection prospects. “Those of you who come in with me now,” he said softly, “will get big pieces of pie. Those who come in with me later will get smaller pieces of pie. Those who don’t come in at all will get—Good Government.”

Mastery of axioms like these is not as easily acquired as it is easily described. But Stanton has it. Unfortunately, his initial takeoff is impeded by a series of Grand Clongs and rushes of excrement to the heart. The depiction of these does not put “Anonymous” to the trouble of very much fictional artifice. Ward Just entitled one of his Washington novels Honor, Power, Riches, Fame and the Love of Women, and it has often been remarked that the most ambitious politician will jeopardize all of the first four ingredients for a relatively meager cinq à sept‘s worth of the latter. The Gennifer Flowers flap is retold in very much the terms we remember from “real time,” with the Governor being saved by two strong women. The first, his wife, agrees to deny that he has been having an affair on condition that he breaks off the having of affairs. The second, a titanic Sapphist damage-controller from back home who speaks almost entirely in capital letters, is one of the character triumphs of the book, and may indeed be one of the reasons for the author’s anonymity.

The draft-dodging Clong also resounds, as does a paternity suit from a black family close to the Governor, and as do various descriptions of Neronian temper and Falstaffian gluttony. The warts are all on show. Yet it gradually emerges that the whole intention of the story is a lenient and exculpatory one. In mid-narrative, nonfiction is dropped and fiction, so to speak, kicks in. A scandal about down-home Tobacco Road real-estate corruption, which is given the generic name of “Tidewater,” is attached to a rival candidate. The Governor, who is given the goods on his opponent, declines to make use of the “opposition research” on general grounds of decency and public civility. Other moments of wishful thinking make their appearance. Of the rival we are told:

Picker wasn’t acting like the sort of politician we were used to. He hadn’t brought on any consultants; in fact, he’d let Paul Shaplen go. He had announced, on Larry King, that he wouldn’t do any thirty-second spots. Or polling. Or focus groups. “I’m not going to hire a bunch of folks to tell me what you’re thinking and how to get at you,” he’d said.

This is like giving the Lord of Misrule a free hand. Yet it is well-balanced with some acute observation of what the “campaign trail” is really like:

I walked across the plaza, past scraggly, newly planted linden striplings, toward a vacant store-front where two mayoral security guards framed the door. The area was empty in the distinctive, depressing manner of overly optimistic urban renewal cityscapes; it had recently been spiffed up—brick walkways, an Africa Pride mural—and teetered at a sterile apogee of nondecline.

If “Anonymous” is really a black or half-black man (and he might be well advised to be, since he throws the word “nigger” about fairly freely, and affects some knowledge about the special quality of the African-American experience) then it is odd that he avoids completely the subject of Rickey Ray Rector. Here was an actual moment of definition in the Clinton campaign, when it was necessary for the Governor to decide whether or not to grant clemency. Rector, an admitted cop-killer, had lobotomized himself in an attempt at suicide and was so far unable to understand his own plight that he saved his pecan pie dessert (“for later”) on the very day of his execution by lethal injection. That execution went forward, at Clinton’s direct insistence, in the middle of the New Hampshire primary campaign.2 It was made as clear as could be that Clinton would not allow himself to be “Willie Hortoned,” or otherwise depicted as “soft” on the race/crime phenomenon.

  1. 2

    See Marshall Frady, The New Yorker, February 22, 1993. Also Christopher Hitchens, “Minority Report,” The Nation, March 2, 1992.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print