Stalking the D.C. novel

Every so often, a journalist or a critic or even a novelist will lament the fact that we don’t have a truly great Washington novel. Instead, we settle for variety: the historical prototype (Henry Adams’ “Democracy”), the chronicle of the “other” Washington (George Pelecanos’ D.C. Quartet), the partial qualifier (Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom”) and the low-brow media sensation (Joe Klein’s “Primary Colors”).

The biggest reason Klein’s novel became a sensation, of course, was that he published it anonymously. Tuesday will see the release of a new anonymous Washington novel, “O: A Presidential Novel,” and, like “Primary Colors,” which centered on a lightly fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s universe, “O” is inspired by true events — this time, Barack Obama’s. But the media have already spent most of a month obsessing over the identity of the author of “O,” with just about every D.C. journalist having denied that he or she wrote it. It’s a good example of the insularity and superficiality that define the Washington media. It’s also an opportunity to reflect on why anyone would bother writing or reading the novel in the first place.

To be fair, the same metamedia slobbering that’s greeting “O” also welcomed “Primary Colors” when it appeared 15 years ago. In fact, it’d be difficult to overstate how much hype there was in early 1996, or how ugly and self-important it eventually became.

After Klein submitted his novel as “Untitled Novel by Anonymous Author,” his publisher decided to keep things secret because it might stir up some attention. It was a smart strategy. (And an old one: Adams published his Washington novel anonymously, assuring its publisher that “the riddle is more amusing … than the solution would be.”) People began buzzing about “Primary Colors” and its mystery author — Don Imus on the radio, Larry King on TV, all the major newspapers and magazines. Clinton quipped that the novel’s authorship was “the only secret I’ve seen kept in Washington.” New York magazine hired a Shakespeare scholar to perform a computer analysis comparing the book’s style with the prose of 35 leading suspects.


The strategy worked better than anyone could have hoped. Klein had received a decent advance, and “Primary Colors” had an initial print run of 60,000. By the end of February, it was on its 17th printing and more than 1 million copies were in circulation. The novel spent 25 weeks on the New York Times’ bestseller list, and journalists kept after its author’s identity the whole time. Finally, in July, the Washington Post found an early typed manuscript that included 10 words of the author’s handwritten notes. The newspaper allegedly stole one of Klein’s notebooks and hired a handwriting expert to compare the samples, then ran a front-page story outing him as the novel’s author.

That afternoon, Klein confessed at a packed news conference. This launched the next chapter in the “Primary Colors” affair, an impromptu seminar in media ethics, where everyone tried to out-censure each other. Kurt Andersen, who as editor of New York Magazine had scored a publicity coup with his Shakespeare stunt, worried that “Primary Colors” would make “people think they can’t trust journalists.” Klein had to hire off-duty police to protect his wife and kids from reporters. The media were outdone only by the politicians. Dee Dee Myers, Clinton’s former press secretary, complained, apparently with a straight face, that Klein “looked his friends in the eye and he lied — for money.”

Clearly, the history of “Primary Colors” doesn’t come with many heroes. But the media did do one thing right. They opened a window, however briefly, in which the novel and its ideas got some airtime.

Because “Primary Colors” was (and is) a genuinely good novel. First, it got the details and absurdities of political life right — so right, in fact, that Clinton aides accused one another of having written it. But it also provided a more complex portrait of politics than any piece of campaign journalism could. Like any good novel, “Primary Colors” includes its characters’ emotions, rationalizations, doubts, perceived triumphs — all the stuff you can’t get past a fact-checker. Reviewers kept promising that the novel would change your view of Clinton.

And there’s a good chance that it, along with the movie version, which came out during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, did. “Primary Colors” offered a new, or at least an enhanced, perspective on Clinton — the president as a classically tragic figure whose charms lined up with his flaws. It also showed why such a figure fits so well within the modern political process.

All this is to say that for the first few weeks at least, the quality of “Primary Colors” proved as crucial to its success as the question of whodunit. Nobody would have cared who “Anonymous” was if “Anonymous” hadn’t written a decent book.

If this seems like a stupidly obvious point, though, let’s return to the uproar over “O.” During most of its monthlong buildup, people had no idea whether this new novel was any good. And the early reviews suggest it wasn’t worth the fuss.

Now that there’s a precedent, though, the quality of “O” seems beside the point. And so does its novel-ness. Washington knows only one way to react to books, whether fiction or nonfiction, Bob Woodward’s or George W. Bush’s, and that’s in the rummaging for details, the breaking of embargoes, the questing for something, anything, new. It works well when you’re lining up a novel’s possible authors but not when you’re trying to draw a lesson — much less pleasure — from it.


As it happens, “Primary Colors” makes some incisive points about media narcissism. Indeed, the only real names that appear in Klein’s novel are those of journalists, who make up Washington’s most durable brands. On this count, though, the best moral of “Primary Colors” came from its reception — from how quickly everyone moved from talking about a book to talking about its buzz.

Maybe one reason Washington’s never had a great novel is that it wouldn’t know what to do with one.

Craig Fehrman is at work on a book about presidents and their books.