Primary Colors (novel)

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Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics
later revealed as Joe Klein
CountryUnited States
GenrePolitical novel
PublisherRandom House
Publication date
January 16, 1996
Media typeHardcover and Paperback
Pages366 (hc)
ISBN0-679-44859-4 (hc)
813/.54 20
LC ClassPS3550.A1 P75 1996
Followed byThe Running Mate 

Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics is a 1996 book by columnist Joe Klein, published anonymously, about the presidential campaign of a southern governor. It is a roman à clef (a work of fiction based on real people and events) about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign in 1992. It was adapted as a film of the same name in 1998.

The book has been compared to two other novels about American politics: Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men (1946)[1] and O: A Presidential Novel (2011).[2]

Klein was identified as the author several months after its publication. He wrote a sequel, The Running Mate in 2000, focusing on Primary Colors character Charlie Martin.[3]

Plot summary[edit]

The book begins as an idealistic former congressional worker, Henry Burton, joins the presidential campaign of Southern governor Jack Stanton, a thinly disguised stand-in for Bill Clinton. The plot then follows the primary election calendar beginning in New Hampshire where Stanton's affair with Cashmere, his wife's hairdresser, and his participation in a Vietnam War era protest come to light and threaten to derail his presidential prospects. In Florida, Stanton revives his campaign by disingenuously portraying his Democratic opponent as insufficiently pro-Israel and as a weak supporter of Social Security. Burton becomes increasingly disillusioned with Stanton, who is a policy wonk who talks too long, eats too much and is overly flirtatious toward women. Stanton is also revealed to be insincere in his beliefs, saying whatever will help him to win. Matters finally come to a head, and Burton is forced to choose between idealism and realism.[4]

Identity of the author[edit]

An early reviewer opined that the author wished to remain unknown because "Anonymity makes truthfulness much easier".[4] Later commentators called the publishing of the book under an anonymous identity an effective marketing strategy that produced more publicity for the book, and thus more sales, without calling into question the author's actual inside knowledge.[2]

External video
video icon "Primary Colors Author Announcement" with Joe Klein and Random House publisher Harold Evans, July 17, 1996, C-SPAN

Several people, including former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet, believed the style of writing had similarities to that of Klein. This was also supported by a quantitative stylometric analysis of the book by Vassar professor Donald Foster.[5] Klein initially denied writing the book and publicly condemned Foster.[6][7] Klein denied authorship again in Newsweek, speculating that another writer wrote it. Washington Post Style editor David Von Drehle, in an interview, asked Klein if he was willing to stake his journalistic credibility on his denial, to which Klein agreed.[8]

In July 1996, after The Washington Post published the results of a handwriting analysis of notes made on an early manuscript of the book, Klein finally admitted that he was the author.[9]


The New York Daily News described the book as a farce and praised it as funny, truthful, and as containing "uncannily accurate" portraits of its thinly disguised characters.[4]

The book was #1 on The New York Times Best Seller list for fiction, for nine weeks in 1996.[10]

Fictional characters and believed real-life inspirations[edit]

Related film[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Walter Shapiro (January 29, 1996). "Author! Author!". CNN All Politics. Time/CNN. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  2. ^ a b Eliza Larson (January 11, 2011). "Who Wrote 'O'? New Anonymous Novel Pictures Barack Obama's 2012 Presidential Campaign". ABC News. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  3. ^ "'Primary Colors' Author Joe Klein Talks About Political Truth and Fiction". Crossfire. CNN transcripts. CNN. May 2, 2000. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c d Michael Aronson (January 22, 1996). "Politics Makes Funny Bedfellows". New York Daily News.
  5. ^ Author Unknown by Gavin McNett Salon November 2, 2000
  6. ^ Jamie Allen (December 6, 2000). "Don Foster enlightens readers with 'Author Unknown'". CNN. Archived from the original on June 9, 2009. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  7. ^ Mullan, John (January 12, 2008). "The great unknown". The Guardian. London. Archived from the original on January 13, 2008. Retrieved May 22, 2010.
  8. ^ Tod Lindberg (July 29, 1996). "The Media's True Colors". The Weekly Standard.
  9. ^ Doreen Carvajal (July 18, 1996). "Columnist's Mea Culpa: I'm Anonymous". The New York Times. Retrieved January 20, 2011.
  10. ^ The Editors (2009-09-25). "Up Front: Joe Klein". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-01-29. {{cite news}}: |author= has generic name (help)
  11. ^ a b Rupert Cornwell (February 16, 1996). "Here's to you Mr President". The Independent. London. Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  12. ^ Sherryl Connelly with Karen Ball (January 22, 1996). "Roman A Clinton Of 'Primary' Interest In D.C.; Who Knew The White House Well Enough To Paint Its 'Colors' Vividly In A Juicy New Novel?". New York Daily News. Retrieved January 20, 2011.[permanent dead link]
  13. ^ Philip Potempa (March 6, 2008). "Former Clinton female press rep. Dee Dee Myers in Chicago with new memoir". Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  14. ^ Michael Lewis (September 21, 1997). "Bill Clinton's Garbage Man". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  15. ^ Lizette Alvarex (January 4, 1998). "It's Andrew Cuomo's Turn at Bat". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  16. ^ Erik Tarloff (April 23, 2000). "Loyalty, Decency, Compassion, Love - There's none of that stuff in the Washington of Joe Klein's new novel". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  17. ^ Michiko Kakutani (January 19, 1996). "Books of the Times; A Roman a Clef to Recent Politics". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  18. ^ "Political intrigue served with literary success". Boston Globe. March 17, 1996.
  19. ^ Lisa Schwarzbaum (March 27, 1998). "Primary Colors Reviewed". Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  20. ^ Todd S. Burdum (February 1, 1996). "The Author Could Not Be Reached for Comment". The New York Times. Retrieved January 21, 2011.
  21. ^ Richard K. Thompson (April 1996). "Primary Colors: A Nover of Politics". Contemporary Review. Retrieved January 25, 2011.
  22. ^ "Gray gobbledygook". Arizona Daily Star. March 23, 1998.

External links[edit]