1. Archive

A journalist's love affair gone wrong

Now we know. Primary Colors was not a social satire. It was a story of unrequited love, the literary consequence of a romance turned sour between a journalist and a politician.

Bill Clinton understood the plot, joking darkly at the spring Gridiron dinner that his advice for the next president would be to get Joe Klein to hate him in the beginning, so that maybe he'd love him in the end.

Klein, who has belatedly confessed to being "Anonymous," fell hard for the Arkansas governor and helped put him on the national map in '91. Still at New York Magazine then, he admired Clinton as a post-Great Society, post-Mondale, post-Dukakis Democrat, and felt the governor could contribute to the advance of the liberalism they admired.

Still infatuated after moving to Newsweek, he lauded Clinton in July '92 for "a clean, well-lighted mind, a virtuosity that seems almost bionic: There is no policy question he can't answer seamlessly."

As president, Clinton proved Klein right. There was no policy question he couldn't answer seamlessly. But Klein had been counting on the seams _ something more genuine.

Also, the Clintons did not turn out to be Kennedyesque about the media. Klein was not wined and dined at the White House.

The Clintonites showed so little respect that they leaked a memo to Esquire from the '92 campaign that described how easy it would be for the candidate to seduce the journalist. All Clinton needed to do was talk about Klein's favorite issues, like welfare, because as the memo patronizingly noted, Klein already thought Clinton was the last, best hope of mankind.

In May 1994, the love affair ended abruptly when Klein wrote a story called The Politics of Promiscuity. He now found Clinton not bionic, but boorish. He had come to see the Clintons as the Tom and Daisy Buchanan of politics, a careless couple who expected others to clean up their messes. He said the president's "wanton affability leads, inevitably, to misunderstandings. It forces him to finagle, which he does brilliantly. It leads to a rhetorical promiscu-ity, the reckless belief that he can talk anyone into anything (or, more to the point, that he can talk his way out of anything), that he can seduce and abandon, at will and without consequence."

Meanwhile, Klein had decided to turn the clef into a roman. In the light of what he now thought about Clinton, he redrew, in the guise of fiction, his flattering portrait from '92. If Bill Clinton was clean and well-lighted, then Jack Stanton was a liar and a phony.

Says George Stephanopoulos, the Clinton aide who is the model for the narrator in Primary Colors: "He was projecting his dishonesty onto the Clintons. When he talks about their problems with credibility, trust and veracity, he's accusing them of something he did." (Stephanopoulos' revenge for Klein's revenge.)

It is true that Primary Colors is fiction, but still it is mean fiction. For the writing of his novel, Klein turned to the Arkansas rumor mill _ not a pretty thing. The fictional governor thinks he has gotten a black teenager pregnant and tries to intimidate her family into exonerating him. The Hillary character has affairs with men and women.

It was a measure of the twisted, symbiotic relationship between the journalist and the Clintonites that, before Anonymous was unmasked, they helped Klein hawk a book with a highly unflattering portrait of the Clintons by going on Larry King and proclaiming it eerily accurate.

This Washington love story has a happy ending suited to an age beyond parody. Klein should be happy because he made $6-million, and he has a boss who lied for him, and he made fools out of his trusting colleagues, and he proved himself a true writer. Clinton should be happy because he has taken so many hits, from Klein to Gary Aldrich, that he has managed to rope-a-dope his way back into Americans' good graces. James Carville and Dee Dee Myers, who were once paid by the Clintons to lie, should be happy because, thanks to Klein, they now get to denounce journalists as liars. And journalists should be happy because, in this era when they are seen as scum, they have finally, thanks to Joe Klein, found someone to look down on.

All the scoundrels get what they want. Oh, yes, the scoundrels in Hollywood, too.

New York Times News Service