Primary Colors


Young Henry Burton, a former congressional aide of mixed race and the grandson of a legendary civil rights leader, is going through a precocious midlife crisis. Tired of the back-scratching and back-stabbing and back-watching of legislative politics, he's wondering what to do next with his Beltway experience and abilities when Jack Stanton, the governor of a small southern state who has set his sights on the presidency, half flatters, half shanghais him into a campaign-staff job. What follows for Henry - and the ...
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Young Henry Burton, a former congressional aide of mixed race and the grandson of a legendary civil rights leader, is going through a precocious midlife crisis. Tired of the back-scratching and back-stabbing and back-watching of legislative politics, he's wondering what to do next with his Beltway experience and abilities when Jack Stanton, the governor of a small southern state who has set his sights on the presidency, half flatters, half shanghais him into a campaign-staff job. What follows for Henry - and the reader - is an education in modern American electoral politics that in dramatic power, humor, psychological acuity, and insider knowledge beggars a hundred textbooks and a thousand lectures. Henry hopes against hope that he has at last found a leader he can believe in. He then watches in admiration and dismay as, in his quest for votes, Governor Stanton combines calculation and sincerity, dodges a draft-controversy bullet, gorges on barbecue and poaches food off others' plates, seduces the occasional bystander, and confronts the resulting sex scandals. Henry's attempts to manage this impulsive pol - a prodigy of altruism and appetite - force him to confront his own ambivalence about political ethics, racial identity, and love. Primary Colors has its rich rewards as a savvy insider's look at life on the stump. But it travels far beyond mere gossip and expose and discovers a convincing world of its own, peopled by smart cookies, nutcases, and wheeler-dealers, whose public and private lives illuminate each other - sometimes by casting dark shadows. This story spans the novelistic spectrum from bedroom farce to high moral drama, and it paints a picture of the political state of the nation so vivid and authentic that one finds in it the deepest kind of truth - the kind of truth that only fiction can tell.

A brilliant and penetrating look behind the scenes of modern American politics, Primary Colors is a funny, wise, and dramatic story with characters and events that resemble some familiar, real-life figures. When a former congressional aide becomes part of the staff of the governor of a small Southern state, he watches in horror, admiration, and amazement, as the governor mixes calculation and sincerity in his not-so-above-board campaign for the presidency.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The circumstances behind this crackling, highly perceptive study of a presidential campaign that remarkably resembles Bill Clinton's are bizarre. We are assured that not even its publisher, Harold Evans, who signed the book, or its editor knows the identity of the author. A third party, independent of both the publisher and the author's agent, verified his (or her) credentials and oversaw the contract signing. All this has naturally led to the assumption that the author may be someone highly placed in Washington, possibly even within the Clinton Administration; the intimate knowledge of Washington folkways the narrative exhibits seems to bear that out.

On the other hand, the literary sophistication on display -- the shaping of the story, the characterizations, the atmosphere, the dialogue -- is so considerable it seems a professional writer must be at work. But while the mystery may help galvanize sales, it does not affect the quality of the book, which stands as a definitive political novel for these uneasy times -- a novel that's knowing about the easy abuse of sincerity, the overblown role of the media (all reporters are "scorps,'' short for scorpions), the readiness to confuse means with ends.

Henry Burton, the narrator, is a bright, youngish black man who rises quickly to a key position on the presidential primary campaign staff of Jack Stanton, governor of a small Southern state. Stanton is a brilliant portrait of a born politician, a man at once deeply calculating and genuinely spontaneous in his human reactions; his wife, Susan, a smart lawyer, despises his louche sexual adventuring but is driven by her own demons. Around them revolves a superbly observed staff, a mixture of deep cynicism, muddled idealism and, in the person of Libby, a ghost from Stanton's past who is at once explosively funny and tragic, a compulsive seeker of the truth. Stanton's fortunes fluctuate wildly in the campaign as he slogs through New Hampshire, endures a drubbing in New York (where a governor not unlike Mario Cuomo decided not to run) and seems to cause a heart attack in a buttoned-down rival in Florida. This inspires the entry of a mystery candidate with a magic touch, who turns out, in one of the novel's few overplotted passages, to have his own complex problems; the resolution, however, strikes just the right uneasily ambiguous note.

Throughout the book, the attention to physical and emotional detail in the draining political process, the sparkling intelligence and -- through the use of Henry as hero -- the unusual empathy with which a range of African Americans are portrayed suggest a very considerable new novelist.

School Library Journal
The widely ballyhooed and thinly disguised story of Bill Clinton's 1992 primary campaign, this book has received much media attention, mainly due to the "Anonymous" author. The story is supposed to be so authentic that it could only have been written by an inside staffer. It has become a major Washington pastime to guess the writer's identity. Unfortunately, that's the only suspense in the novel because the ending is history. Nearly half of the book focuses on the New Hampshire Primary. The second half wanders into the arbitrary romances and foibles of the characters. The real strength here is in the characterizations. Jack Stanton, the governor of a small Southern state, is seeking the Democratic nomination. He "has his flaws, but his stamina, optimism and appetite for life are spectacular." Susan Stanton as Hillary is every bit as brilliant, perceptive, and determined as one might imagine. It is fun to guess the identity of the other characters. Is that Mario Cuomo? Jessie Jackson? James Carville? This novel is more informative about politics than any government textbook. It will appeal to student-council presidents and young Bill Clintons, but can be a tedious read, particularly for those outside the Beltway.

--Suzanne Abrams, Robert E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA

Michael Lewis
....Primary Colors is an odd book. But maybe the oddest thing about it is how good it is....The author's portrait of Mr. Clinton is astonishingly powerful. -- The New York Times Books of the Century, January 28, 1996
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679449188
  • Publisher: Random House Audio Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/16/1996
  • Format: Cassette
  • Edition description: Abridged, 2 Cassettes
  • Product dimensions: 4.41 (w) x 7.02 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Reader:

Blair Underwood has received critical acclaim for his roles in such films as Just Cause and Set it Off.  He directed, executive produced, co-wrote, and starred in the 30-minute dramatic film, The Second Coming.  On television he is well known for his portrayal of Jonathan Rollins in L.A. Law.

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Read an Excerpt

I kind of lost it then. I tried to gulp down the sob, but Dewayne had caught me somewhere deeper, and earlier, than politics. Damn. I shuddered, tears leaked out the side of my eye. And: Do you know how it happens at a moment like that, when you are embarrassed like that, you will look directly--reflexively--at the very person you don't want to see you? I looked over at Jack Stanton. His face was beet-red, his blue eyes glistening and tears were rolling down his cheeks.

The first thought was--relief: relief and amazement, and a sudden, sharp, quite surprising affinity. This was followed, quickly, by a caveat: Weakness? Ed Muskie in the snow in New Hampshire? But that evaporated, because Stanton had launched himself into motion, rubbing his cheeks off with the back of his hands--everyone knew now that he had lost it--standing up, standing over the table, hands on the shoulders of two of the students, leaning over the table toward Dewayne and saying, "I am so very, very deeply grateful that you'd share that with us, Dewayne." It wasn't nearly so bad as the words sound now. He had the courage of his emotions. "And I think it is time we made it impossible--I mean impossible--for anyone to get lost in the system like you did. We have to learn to cherish our young people. But most of all, I want to thank you for believing, for having faith--faith that you can overcome the odds and learn and succeed." It was getting a little thick, and he seemed to sense it. He got off the soapbox, kicked back, circled the table over to where Dewayne was; I had him in profile now. "Takes some courage, too. How many y'all tell your friends and family where you're going when you come here?"There were smiles.

"Let me tell you a story," he said. "It's about my uncle Charlie. This happened just after I was born, so I only got it from my momma--but I know it's true. Charlie came home from the war a hero. He had been on Iwo Jima--you know, where they raised the flag? And he had taken out several machine-gun nests of Japs . . . Japanese soldiers, who had a squad of his buddies pinned down. First one with a grenade. Second one by himself, with his rifle and bayonet and bare hands. They found him with a knife in his gut and his hands around an enemy soldier's throat. He had two bullets in him, too."

Dewayne said, "Shit."

"Yeah, that's right," Stanton said, moving clockwise around the table now, like a big cat. "They gave him the Medal of Honor. President Truman did. And then he came home to our little town, Grace Junction. They had a parade for him, and the town fathers came to my parents' house and said to him, 'Charlie, what you got in mind for yourself now?' Charlie said he didn't know. Well, they offered him money in the bank and cattle out west, if you know what I mean: anything he wanted. The mayor said Charlie could have a full scholarship to the state university. The banker said he could understand if Charlie didn't want to go back to school after all he'd been through, so he was offering him a management job, big future, at the bank. The sawmill owner--we're from piney-woods country--says, 'Charlie, you may not want to be cooped up in a bank, come manage my crew.' And you know what? Damned if Charlie didn't turn them all down."

Stanton stopped. He waited. One of the women said, "So what he do?"

"Nothin'. He just lay down on the couch, smoked his Luckies, let himself go. . . . No one could get him off that couch."

"Oh, I got it," said a wiry Hispanic with a pencil-thin mustache. "He got his head fu-- ah, mess up. He got one of them post-dramatic things, right?"

"Nope," Stanton said, very calmly. "It was just that, well . . . He couldn't read."

Heads snapped, someone said What?, someone whistled, someone said, "No shit."

"He couldn't read, and he was embarrassed, and he didn't want to tell anyone," Stanton said. "He had the courage to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, but he didn't have the strength to do what each of you has done, what--each--of--you--is doing--right--here. He didn't have the courage to admit he needed help, and to find it. So I want you to know that I understand, I appreciate what you are doing here, I honor your commitment. And when people ask me, 'Jack Stanton, why are you always spending so much money and so much time and so much effort on adult literacy programs?' I tell them: Because it gives me a chance to see real courage. It inspires me to be stronger. I am so grateful you've let me visit with you today."

I have seen better speakers and heard better speeches, but I don't think I'd ever heard--at least, not till that moment--a speaker who measured his audience so well and connected so precisely. It was an impressive bit of politics. And they were all over him then, clapping his back, shaking his hand, hugging him. He didn't back off, keep his space, the way most pols would; he leaned into them, and seemed to get as much satisfaction from touching them, draping his big arm over their shoulders, as they got from him. He had this beatific, slightly goofy look on. And then Dewayne said, "Wait a minute." The room fell silent. "What about Charlie?"

"Well, it took a while," Stanton said, more conversationally. They were all friends now. "He started hanging 'round the high school when I got up there. He, uh--" Stanton was embarrassed. He was making a decision. He went ahead with it--"Well, I was the manager of the varsity baseball team and Charlie liked to sit with me on the bench, helping out--and that grew into helping out around the gymnasium, and finally they offered him a job when Mr. Krause died."

"Who Mr. Krause? What job he got?"

"Oh, he was the school janitor."

"No shit."

He stayed with them for a time, answering questions, signing autographs. The library lady pitched Stanton about the need for more money--there was a long waiting list of people who wanted to get into that program but had to be turned away. Then they all followed him back downstairs, and out to the car. Howard Ferguson and I trailed the crowd. Howard squeezed my arm gently, just above the elbow, kind of chuckled--a strangled guffaw--and shrugged, as if to say: What can I say?

"How do you know him?" I asked, having to ask something.

"Oh, a long time," he said.

The governor was down on the sidewalk now, chugging through another round of meaningful handshakes. Ferguson and I stood over by the car. "So what do you think?" Howard asked.

I said something enthusiastic, but I really was wondering: Is he expecting me to say something like "Where do I sign up?" Didn't they want to sit down and say, Here's what we're doing and here's what we'd like you to do and what do you think about this issue, or that person, and how do you think someone should run for president of the United States these days?

Stanton came over. Looked at me. So? "Well, that was something," I said.

"I can't believe we can't rustle up enough dough to make this available to anyone who wants it," he said. (What was this going to be--a policy discussion?) "Why didn't you guys fund it better?"

Because my former boss was a weenie. But do you just say that straight off? If you badmouth the old boss, what does that tell the prospective new boss about your loyalty? "Well, it was late, we got trapped in a formula fight," I said and gobbledygooked on about rules and amendments and assorted horseshit, but he didn't listen very long. In fact, he turned away halfway through a sentence--no pretense about just shutting me down--and asked Ferguson, "Where?"

"Times editorial board," Howard said laconically. "You're only about a half hour late right now."

Stanton suddenly was red in the face--and I mean the mood had changed with blinding speed: from sunshine to tornado in a blink. "You call them?" he demanded, eyes squinting down. If the answer was no, I was afraid Stanton would deck him.

"Of course," Howard said. "Told them traffic."

Stanton lightened as suddenly as he'd darkened. Clouds scudding on a windy day. "I love New York," he said, back to aw-shucks-I'm-just-a-poor-country-governor. "Easiest place in the world to be late."

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