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D.C.'s Hottest Dish

Books: A novel that mirrors Bill Clinton's presidential campaign has the Beltway abuzz over its mysterious, insider author.

February 11, 1996|GREGG ZAROYA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — The Singapore ambassador got a little request from home recently. Friends half a world away wanted copies of "Primary Colors," the tawdry tell-all-and-then-some rendering of Bill Clinton's 1992 race for the presidency, thinly veiled as a novel by an author identified only as Anonymous.

As Ambassador S.R. Nathan aptly explains, "The fame of the book has reached far and wide."

Famous or infamous, the novel has critics drooling, bestseller lists retabulating and the Washington-New York political axis spinning itself into a tizzy trying to figure out who Anonymous is.

"I'd like to know and go strangle them," senior White House advisor and former campaign advisor George Stephanopoulos, transparently the inspiration for the novel's narrator/protagonist, says with a laugh.

More inspiring, say literary and political observers alike, is Random House's marketing. At rival Harper Collins, publicist Jane Beirn calls it brilliant: "They're very savvy about publishing right at the beginning of the [election] season."

It's not a complicated formula: Take a potboiler account of a charismatic Southern governor dodging bimbo eruptions in the New Hampshire primary, stir in just enough Clintonian authenticity to titillate Beltway media and flavor it with a real whodunit about the author. All that's left is watching the Washington government/media beast slowly rouse itself:

*

* Three days running, the White House makes an issue of the writer's identity. "I must say, I admire the publisher and their author. It's the only secret I've seen kept in Washington in three years," Clinton tells reporters, adding that he intends to read the book during the upcoming campaign.

* Some of the nation's top political writers--those who covered the '92 campaign--fill dozens of column inches eloquently denying authorship, but humbly flattered that anyone thinks so. "Words cannot describe how much I wish I had written it," writes Time magazine's Walter Shapiro.

* And the Washington Post puts a team of reporters on the author mystery, among them former Deep Throat chronicler Bob Woodward.

Writes Post columnist Richard Cohen: " 'Primary Colors' has become required reading in this town just so you can hold your own at a dinner party."

*

The result is a ninth printing in three weeks, with the number of hardback copies printed at 317,000 and counting. Says fired-up Random House spokesman Ivan Held: "It's off the scale."

But is it off the scale because it's so on the mark?

The author slaps on a disclaimer that "none of these events ever happened," but, of course, everyone knows better. The book chronicles the mercurial fortunes of a campaign scrambling to salvage the image of its candidate--in the book, a Gov. Jack Stanton--amid attacks over his antiwar record and alleged infidelities. In this it tracks seductively close to reality, with stand-ins for the Paul Tsongases and Mario Cuomos, and even a Gennifer Flowers (Cashmere McLeod), all of whom momentarily frustrated Clinton's ambitions.

Peel away broad liberties taken by the novelist and Clinton insiders say it's a dead-on image of the Arkansan. Passages such as this one in the book leave them cooing about Clinton:

"Money had no magic for him; the folks did. He was lovely with the people, dispensing his meaningful handshakes, listening to their stories; he had a knack--no, it was more than a knack; it was something deeper, more profound and respectful--for making it clear that he had listened to them and understood, and cared."

The book's last half diverges dramatically from history with intrigues and behind-the-scene manipulations that get, well, off the scale. At no time, for example, did a disillusioned Clinton operative commit suicide--at least, not during the campaign.

What perplexes Clinton insiders are the shadings and nuances of the candidate, his staff and their caterwauling that are rendered so accurately in "Primary Colors."

"It's right in the little things, not the big things," Stephanopoulos notes.

"The folks who have read the transcript . . . are shocked at the way the writer captured the mood and the temperament of the various people involved," says Richard Mintz, a former campaign aide. "Some people feel that their privacy was invaded. That there was a bug on the wall, if you will."

There was, for instance, a closely held story during the actual primary about an eccentric senior aide, a male, who in some prior campaign had made a pass at a fellow staffer, a woman, by either threatening to reveal, or actually revealing, his penis. The event is in the book verbatim, even with the woman's quick and coolheaded response: "I've never seen one that . . . old before."

Many complain that the intimate characterizations and secret assessments of one player by another were all part of campaign insider discourse, certainly not for public consumption.

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