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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Joe Klein, veteran journalist and formerly anonymous author of the bestselling roman à clef Primary Colors, is back. His new novel, The Running Mate, arrives just in time to coincide with the sound and fury of an election year. Like its predecessor, The Running Mate is, among other things, an authoritative account of a hotly contested political campaign. And like that earlier novel, it offers an insider's view of the harsh realities that have distorted the electoral process in recent years.
The hero of The Running Mate is Charlie Martin, a minor player from Primary Colors who is patterned — up to a point — after Bob Kerrey, Democratic senator from Nebraska. Charlie, like Kerrey, is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who makes a premature run at the presidency and is soundly defeated in the Democratic primaries of 1992. As the novel opens, the Martin campaign is limping toward a ludicrous conclusion in which Charlie, having been falsely accused of sexual harassment by a hysterical campaign volunteer, is assaulted — on national television — by the "victim's" father. The bulk of the narrative takes place in the aftermath of that incident and recounts Charlie's ongoing struggle to create a "habitable" life for himself within the strictures of the public world.
The Running Mate is set between 1992, when Jack Stanton ( i.e., Bill Clinton) ascends to the presidency, and 1994, when the scandal-ridden Democrats lose their congressional majority. During those two years, Charlie Martin, still smarting from hispublichumiliation, attempts to get on with his increasingly complicated life. He travels to Vietnam on a diplomatic errand and discovers the existence of an illegitimate son he has never met. Returning to America, he finds himself forced to play a painful role in the confirmation hearings of a longtime political ally. He also meets — and falls in love with — Nell Palmerston, who is romantically involved with another of his oldest friends. As complexities accumulate, Charlie grows increasingly detached from the practical political realities that have dominated his professional life.
The dramatic centerpiece of the novel concerns Charlie's 1994 Senate reelection campaign. Faced with a wholly new breed of opponent — a Bible-thumping populist yahoo known as The Muffler Man — Charlie hires a "media consultant" to orchestrate his reelection, with disastrous results. As the campaign proceeds, Charlie finds himself caught up in a "slime-off" in which spin control, marketing research, and character assassination predominate. As the dirt spills over into every corner of his life, affecting his father, his newly discovered son, and — most centrally — his relationship with Nell Palmerston, Charlie watches the habitable world he longs for recede into the distance, overwhelmed by the "intrusiveness, mistrust, and ugliness" that are the hallmarks of real-world politics in the 1990s.
The Running Mate reinforces the notion that a gifted new political novelist has arrived on the scene. Joe Klein is a genuinely good writer: smart, stylish, funny, and always brightly observant. (Witness, for example, his description of a "post-maturely blonde" political pundit whose face "up close…sagged under the weight of years of feigned comprehension.") Details like this — and there are many of them — augment and enhance Klein's central portrait of a decent man caught in the coils of an increasingly decadent political system. The result is a novel that is both convincing and entertaining, that successfully illuminates the darker corners of the democratic process.
— Bill Sheehan