The mystery surrounding the anonymous author of Primary Colors, who could be narrowed down to fewer than 50 political insiders, triggered an explosion of media response in the months immediately following publication. The merits of the text itself were drowned in the mass hysteria created by the eerie accuracy of the book's intimate campaign details. Described by Sandra Lee, of the Daily Telegraph, as "one of the greatest stunts in recent American publishing history" (10), she sums up the novel's appeal by continuing, "the stunt was anonymity and with it came gossip and the race inside the worlds of politics and publishing to be cleverer than Anonymous by unmasking him/her to discover just how close he/she was to the heart of the Clinton campaign" (10)"
Even the novel's reviewers were obsessed with the author's identity. Paul Quinn-Judge, of the Boston Globe, points out that as few as two weeks after its release, Primary Colors was already the subject of more than 200 articles. Reviewers worldwide devoted much of their articles to speculation about the possible author.
"So who did it?" wrote Michael Lewis in his article published January 19, 1996 New York Times Book Review. He further guesses, "White, male, young, extremely observant, gifted with the language, a bit tortured and conflicted but not so much that he is unable to pursue his ambition. Above all he was very close to the campaign. Possibly a journalist, but if so one with unusual access to insiders. More likely an insider himself."
The guessing game continued through July 1996, fueled by daily media coverage. After the beginning of February, the book itself was no longer the subject of attention, rather, the elusive identity of the author. Articles between February and July 1996 offer speculation about possible candidates using gambling odds, writing analysis, and many other technical and non-technical means of narrowing the field.
Reviewers of the novel connect Anonymous's Jack Stanton, the fictitious southern governor on the presidential campaign train in 1992, and Bill Clinton. They point out that readers derive pleasure from associating the characters with their real life counterparts. Many critics acknowledge the untraditional reversal of fiction achieved by clearly connecting his story with the 1992 presidential campaign and basing it on Robert Penn Warren's classic political novel, All the Kings Men, while leaving his identity unknown.
"The result is a clever, fizzy book that engages our attention the same way a Warhol painting of Marilyn Monroe or Elizabeth Taylor does: it masquerades as a copy of real life while colorizing reality and winking at its impersonation" (C), said Michiko Kakutani in his January 19, 1996 New York Times article.
The sparse commentary on the text itself, much more plentiful in the early days of publication, generally praise the text. Most reviewers say that the novel is well written, entertaining, and astute. Kakutani said in the same article, "to be sure, Primary Colors gives the reader an entertaining, inside and often very funny look at the daily workings of a political campaign" (C). Critics often pointed out how the novel provides a brilliantly fresh look at Clinton, the 1992 campaign, and U.S. politics in general. "There is a wonderful honesty about it," Lewis said, "a refusal to give in to the conventional interpretation of people and events that cripples so much that is written about politics."
There were three main tidal waves of press attention surrounding the novel: the release, the May 19, 1996 article in New York Magazine written by Anonymous about his choice to remain anonymous, and the Washington Post's disclosure of the author, Joe Klein, on July 17, 1996. As mentioned, the release saw positive feedback and insatiable curiosity. The anonymous magazine article fueled further speculation. The discovery of the author's identity led to harsh criticism of Klein's blatant fraudulence and a questioning of his journalistic ethics.
"Is Mr. Klein somehow morally or ethically at fault for not only denying authorship but also going out of his way to deny it? And what is the ethical position of Newsweek, whose editor, Maynard Parker, was in on the secret from the start and not only kept it out of his magazine, but also kept one of his own reporters in the dark when that reporter wrote one of Newsweek's few brief pieces on the year's most delicious literary mystery" (D)? Iver Peterson, of The New York Times, answered, "How much the answers to these questions matter seems to depend in part on how close to the journalism profession the speaker stands."
Many editorials and articles following Klein's admission of guilt note that while many lay readers and politicians were merely amused, most journalists felt the sharpest negative reaction. "Journalists think of themselves as a fraternity," said Suzanne Braun Levine, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, in Peterson's article. "And that journalists are straight with each other even if nobody is straight with them. They are extremely sensitive to being criticized or being duped. And what could be worse than being duped by one of your own" (D)?
But many of the characters Klein satires lashed out against the deceitful journalist. Paul Begala, Clinton's 1992 campaign consultant, said "This was a breathtaking act of mendacity" (A) in David Streitfeld's July 18, 1996 Washington Post article. In the same article, Begala's partner, James Carville said, "Am I surprised that Joe Klein lied about writing this book? No, because in my opinion, reporters lie all the time. This is not a good moment for journalism" (A). Former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers told Streitfeld for the same article, "He looked his friends in the eye and he lied -- for money" (A).
Despite the controversy surrounding the anonymous author and subsequent unveiling, Bill Nichols, of USA Today, sums up the general feeling towards this novel from the majority of media coverage I read: "Readers should ignore that mystery and just enjoy this novel for what it is: a deftly drawn, wonderfully knowing portrait of our national bloodsport -- politics" (5D).