The cover of the political novel in 1996 was quite simple and spare. Red on the top. White on the bottom. A drawing of a frightened donkey, its eyeballs turned upward at the title: “PRIMARY COLORS.” But the book’s plot — about a Southern Democratic governor vying for the presidency, obviously based on Bill Clinton — lit up the Washington and Manhattan publishing scene for the two other words emblazoned on the book jacket: “by ANONYMOUS.”
It is perhaps Washington’s most reliable turn-on: Anonymous. An anonymous leaker. An anonymous whistleblower. An anonymous novelist.
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On Tuesday, This Town — scratch that, Crazytown — was treated to another iteration within the anonymous genre: the anonymous viral op-ed writer. On Wednesday, the New York Times published online an opinion piece written by a “senior official in the Trump administration” who wrote that he or she is among a group of many “senior officials” who are “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations.” The headline: “I am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” Once the article was published, the Internet practically melted, as everyone on Twitter began speculating about the writer’s identity. The search was on.
As was the case in 1996. People — and by people, we mean journalists and politicos — were hungry to learn the identity of the author of “Primary Colors,” a first-person novel from the point of view of Henry Burton, a George Stephanopoulos-like character who joins the campaign of Jack Stanton, a Southern governor who’s barreling through the gantlet of the 1992 Democratic primaries.
The novel’s plot and characters seemed so pointedly aligned to the realities of the Clinton campaign that readers were desperate to know whether the author was a campaign insider or a close Clinton friend committing friendship treason. Stanton, for instance, had a penchant for other women, a powerful wife and an affair with a woman named Cashmere McLeod — obviously, a stand-in for Gennifer Flowers — that comes to light in the midst of his White House bid.
The organization leading the pursuit? This one. The Washington Post. “WANTED” read a gargantuan, all-caps headline on the cover of the Style section in February 1996, a month after the book’s publication. Below featured the mug shots of 10 suspects, including Stephanopoulos, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Christopher Hitchens and Chris Buckley.
The potential culprits all had given cheeky or solemn denials, and alibis too.
“I write 30-second ads, not 300-page books,” said Mandy Grunwald, a Clinton campaign consultant.
“I wouldn’t be competent to write a book this good,” said James Carville.
But one suspect was always sticking out.
“I am Spartacus,” said prominent political journalist and then-Newsweek columnist Joe Klein. “All of us who are accused of this should stand up and say, ‘I am Spartacus.’ And share the royalties.”
The Post’s odds that he was the one? Fifty to one.
Over and over, Klein denied he was the author. To his friends. To his colleagues.
Only a few people knew, including his agent Kathy Robbins and his Newsweek editor, Maynard Parker.
But one day, in the summer of 1996, after months atop the New York Times bestseller list and having enjoyed all the pleasures of a buzzy, moneymaking venture without book tours and signings, Klein saw his anonymity come crashing down. On July 17, 1996, The Post published on its front page an exclusive investigation. The lead: “Handwritten changes to the manuscript of the novel ‘Primary Colors,’ the wildly successful satire of the 1992 Clinton campaign by an author known only as ‘Anonymous,’ appear to match the handwriting of Newsweek columnist and CBS commentator Joe Klein.”
In his article, then-Post reporter David Streitfeld called Klein on his vacation. He confronted him with the newspaper’s analysis, comparing notes on the novel’s manuscript to several pages of Klein’s own handwriting. It was identical, he told Klein. How did Klein respond? He wanted “five minutes’ grace” before calling back. Then, he said, “I have no comment” and, after being pressed, said, “I’ve said everything I have to say.”
The Post’s investigation is its own incredible tale, too. According to Streitfeld’s scoop, he obtained a bound manuscript of the novel from a secondhand bookseller — dated April 1995 — just after Random House bought it. It was marked, “CONFIDENTIAL! For your eyes only! Do not distribute to booksellers!!” Then, Streitfeld got samples of the suspects’ handwriting, he said, including Klein’s. In an email exchange with the Post, Streitfeld said he still will not reveal the source of where he got Klein’s handwriting.
Finally, the newspaper tapped Maureen Casey Owens, the former chief document examiner for the Chicago Police Crime Laboratory to analyze the documents. (Oh yes, this was a high crime in Washington.) Her verdict: “There is nothing I see that is divergent. Everything is in agreement.”
“As I felt on every story before and since, it made me nervous,” wrote Streitfeld, now a reporter for The New York Times. “What if I were wrong? Disaster and humiliation would follow. Anyway, I was glad I was right, but it was a different era. There was no social media where I could endlessly bathe in my achievement.”
The next day, The Post had another front-pager — a story in which Klein gave a statement admitting he was the author after all.
“My name is Joe Klein, and I wrote ‘Primary Colors,'” he said.
With everyone in Manhattan and Washington exhaling, the pundit class then switched gears to play its other favorite game: Media Furor. Newsweek’s president expressed concern about Klein’s denials and said the magazine shouldn’t have published items trying to guess the author’s identity when its own editor knew exactly who it was. Then, Newsweek announced Klein wouldn’t write for the magazine for several weeks. Klein even issued an apology to the staff, “with tears in his eyes and his voice cracking,” The Post reported. “It was extremely emotional and pretty wrenching to sit through. He was genuinely tortured,” said a top editor at the magazine who — surprise, surprise — requested anonymity.
But, in the end, it wasn’t too awful for Klein. Hollywood, after all, turned the book into a movie, “Primary Colors,” starring John Travolta, Emma Thompson and Billy Bob Thornton.
On Thursday, The Post called Klein, asking him to reflect on the current anonymous scandal and his own from 22 years ago. When he learned of the New York Times’ op-ed, he said, “My first thought was how different the circumstances were. This is a serious business. I wrote entertainment.”
Klein praised the anonymous Trump official’s bravery for coming forward, whereas “Primary Colors” carried little to no stakes. “I wanted to make people laugh and think about politics. I was taking no risk at all. This person [the Trump official] is risking an awful lot. This is an act of patriotism. There were zero revelations in ‘Primary Colors.’ I made it all up.”
But Klein said he can relate to what the nameless writer must be experiencing.
“The fury of my colleagues and the ferocious feeding frenzy was kind of shocking to go through,” Klein said.
To this day, he still harbors some anger over how The Post obtained a version of his handwriting. Did someone sneak into his office and take a notebook?
“The pursuit was crazy,” he said, adding that when Streitfeld called him, “I was certainly nervous and a little freaked out.”
When he wrote “Primary Colors,” Klein said he maintained his anonymity out of fealty to the book’s original aims and intents. He didn’t know how long he’d stay anonymous, but he said he was relieved after it all came out.
“I was happy at that point to get it over with,” he said. “The most painful part was not telling my friends.”
As it happens, Klein said he was finishing up another book. A novel. It’s about music and politics in the late 19th century. Working title: “Vaudeville.” No anonymous byline this time.
“You only get to do that once,” Klein said.
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