Primary Colors

Loosely based on Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential bid, Joe Klein’s controversial novel Primary Colors was published anonymously in 1996. A film based on the novel was released in 1998. The controversy stemmed from the resemblance of many characters to real-life counterparts, leading many to believe that the novel must have been written by a political insider.

The novel follows the presidential campaign of Governor Jack Stanton, an overweight womanizer with a gift for politics, and is narrated by Henry Burton, an idealistic young black man who quickly rises within the ranks of Stanton’s staff. Themes of the book include adultery, sexual promiscuity, idealism, politics, and the role of the media in the political process and celebrity, culminating with Burton having to choose between idealism and realism.

The book spent nine weeks as number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Much debate ensued as to the identity of the author, with several possible authors being put forward, including George Stephanopoulos, Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and political journalist Joe Klein. Much of the speculation centered around the belief that a political insider had to have written the book because of several extraordinary coincidences between real and fictional characters and situations. Klein denied it vehemently, even attacking those who identified him, until finally he admitted to being the author in 1996.

Once revealed, Klein received backlash, including a lawsuit by Daria Carter-Clark, who claimed she was unfairly represented in the book. The lawsuit was dismissed, and Klein has continued to claim that the novel is fiction and, therefore, that the characters are fictional. But the controversy created by Klein’s attempt at an “anonymous” moniker, and the nature of the subject matter, have added to the popularity of the book and created confusion as to which parts of the book are based on true events and which are not.

The movie based on the book was directed by Mike Nichols and starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and many other well-known actors. Bates was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and the screenplay was also nominated for an Oscar. Bates won an American Comedy Award, and Thompson received a nomination. The film was nominated for several other awards, including a BAFTA award and a Golden Globe, and Bates won a Screen Actors Guild Award. In an interview in Interview Magazine, Nichols said that the film critiques the lack of honor in journalists.

Klein went on to write a sequel of sorts titled The Running Mate (2000), which was published under his own name. He also wrote The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton (2002) in an attempt to present a more balanced view of Clinton’s two terms as president. The Natural attempts to define Clinton’s presidency by comparing his accomplishments and failures.

For additional information:
Anonymous. Primary Colors. Foreword by Joe Klein. New York: Random House, 2006.

Lemon, Brendan. “Nichols &… timing.” Interview, April 1998, pp. 102–105.

Milliot, Jim. “Court Dismisses Libel Suit Against Klein.” Publishers Weekly, October 13, 2003, p. 7.

Primary Colors.” Internet Movie Database. (accessed August 26, 2023).

C. L. Bledsoe
Ghoti magazine


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