Primary Colors was originally published anonymously in December, 1996, and caused immediate controversy. The novel follows a Southern governor’s campaign for the Democratic Party Nomination for President; but each character is a near exact replica of a member of Bill Clinton’s staff. Jack Stanton (the Clinton figure) runs into trouble on the campaign trail when news breaks of his affair with his wife’s hair dresser. He fiercely denies these claims and his aide Henry (the narrator and protagonist) struggles to cover up his messes. He soon enlists the aid of the loud-mouthed ex-mental patient and former Stanton political adviser Libby to help him “dust-bust.” The novel reveals the inner machinations of political campaign, the conflicts between Stanton’s staff and his ambitious wife’s staff, the temptation of negative advertising, the pitfalls of staff romances, but above all, the idealistic and genuine principles on which Stanton and his wife build their campaign. These principles are tested and tried throughout the novel, and in the end, Henry and Libby administer the ultimate test of Stanton’s true character.
Joe Klein, a journalist, was not involved in any Clinton campaigns. Yet his observations and imaginations of how the larger-than-life personalities might interact proved accurate. Immediately upon the book’s anonymous release, White House staff members began to accuse one another of having written it and of revealing too many personal details. The novel is an engaging–and apparently perceptive–glimpse into our nation’s political system.
The 1998 Mike Nichol’s film starring Adrian Lester, John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Kathy Bates, is an excellent adaptation. Klein actually confesses that when writing the character of Libby, he pictured Kathy Bates.