John Major's Final Cut / Non-disclosure

Behind a convenient curtain, an anonymous writer throws poisoned darts at the President, and the cognoscenti applaud.

By Andrew Ross
Published February 11, 1996 7:40PM (UTC)
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Aficionados of "House of Cards," the wicked British television series, might be forgiven for thinking they are seeing the reincarnation of Francis Urquart, the show's ruthless prime minister, in the heretofore drab and inoffensive John Major.

How else to explain the prime minister's tactics in the Irish peace process -- waving various red rags until the mad bulls could stand it no longer and went on a rampage?


Just as historic all-party talks, involving Protestants, Sinn Fein, and the British and Irish governments looked like a real possibility, Major insisted that the Irish Republican Army disarm first. Then, when Sen. George Mitchell, the U.S. envoy to the peace process, proposed the eminently sensible alternative of talking and disarming concurrently, the gray man poured more "petrol on the flames" (in the words of Irish prime minister John Bruton), demanding interim elections in the Protestant-dominated North ahead of any talks with Catholic nationalists.

The upshot has been entirely predictable. The stone killers of the IRA found the excuse to get back to the business they know best -- killing and maiming. Gerry Adams, as usual, acted like the perfect IRA marionette, "regretting," but refusing to condemn, its bombing of London's Canary Wharf. Unlike Irish-Americans, the British don't favor throwing ticker-tape parades for this terrorist mouthpiece. His mealy-mouthed response to the deaths and injuries of innocent civilians serve only to confirm their worst suspicions about the man.

Meanwhile, John Major strikes a proud and determined pose in the House of Commons. His short-term poll ratings -- and the lowly Conservatives will take anything at this point -- are likely to rise. An added political bonus: with the peace process halted, Major ensures the continuing support of the Ulster Unionists to prop up his vanishing majority in the House of Commons.


The truly conspiratorially-minded might even wonder at the timing. The bombing, at least temporarily, overshadows the just-released Scott Report, which details the extent of British government involvement in arms sales to Saddam Hussein -- a report that otherwise would be resulting in a fresh wave of ministerial resignations in the already tottering Conservative government. "F.U." must be applauding in his grave.

All right, so perhaps Major is neither clever nor Urquartian to pull off such a cynical ruse. More likely, it was wretched miscalculation. that handed a fuse to those for whom peace holds little attraction.

Ironic, for Major started the peace process -- the one rare achievement in his sad premiership. To save it, he would surely have to back off from the demands that placed such formidable obstacles in its way. It's hard to see how he can do that in the wake of the IRA bombing. The only chance for peace is for this gray man to leave office, along with his fellow Conservatives. For the sake of the war-weary denizens of the United Kingdom, the sooner the better.


--Andrew Ross


Behind a convenient curtain, an anonymous writer throws poisoned darts at the President, and the cognoscenti applaud.

It's hotter than O.J., or Colin Powell's ghosted memoirs, and bigger than the East Coast blizzard. A "team" of Washington Post reporters is on Anonymous' trail. Larry King is talking about nothing but. The Insiders -- those in the know -- are raving. "Far and away the best thing I have read about the 1992 campaign" (Michael Lewis, New York Times); "An eerily accurate roman a clef about the 1992 Clinton campaign" (Todd Purdum, New York Times); "A thinly veiled and eerily precise account of the players and goings-on behind the 1992 Clinton campaign." (Mary B.W. Tabor, New York Times).


That last accolade is a little peculiar, because Ms. Tabor covers the publishing&nbspindustry for the Times, not politics. One wonders how she is in a position to know what is "thinly veiled" or "eerily precise" about the book in question, "Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics" by Anonymous (Random House). Lewis, who did spend some time covering the Clintons in 1992, states flatly, "Almost every character, incident and setting has been drawn from life. . . The author's portrait of Mr. Clinton is astonishingly powerful." Similar testimonies to the book's authenticity have come from such elite Beltway reporters as Walter Shapiro of Time, and Christopher Buckley of The New Yorker ("Who could have written this? Certainly someone with a front-row seat at the Clinton campaign.")

Really? In that case, we are surprised to discover that George Stephanopoulos, who Washington cognoscenti agree is the model for the story's narrator, Henry Burton, is in fact half black -- and that he not only enjoyed a hot and heavy affair with media maven Mandy Grunwald ("Daisy") but also had a somewhat unsatisfying quickie with Hillary Clinton ("Susan Stanton"). Paul Tsongas ("Leonard Harris"), on the other hand, was stricken with a heart attack and became a vegetable during the primaries.

Where was C-Span when all this was going on? And where were the American Spectator and those tattle-tale state troopers when Bill Clinton ("Jack Stanton") was having carnal relations with the semi-retarded (but "luscious") black adolescent daughter of a barbecue joint owner? Diverted from the truth, no doubt, by Clinton's "bimbo eruptions" spin doctor, Betsy Wright ("Libby Holden"), apparently a lesbian of almost Samoan proportions.


And if you find yourself wondering, after reading this book, why the Clinton presidential campaign described in it bears absolutely no resemblance to any in the history of Western democracy, that means that you, like most of the rest of us, have been reading the wrong newspapers and books all these years.

O.K., so maybe it's really all a joke. Jolly good fun, and all that. Except that those in the know -- like the aforementioned Michael Lewis -- insist that this is the real McCoy. Walter Shapiro envies the author ("Words cannot describe how much I wish I had written it.") To Lewis, "The author's portrait of Mr. Clinton is astonishingly powerful. I doubt that anyone who reads the book will ever again think of the President in quite the same way."

And therein lies a bit of a problem. If we are to take the portrait etched by Anonymous seriously, we have not just a cheerfully philandering head of state, but one who ruthlessly conned a helpless young black girl -- whose child he likely sired -- into undergoing a painful and unnecessary amniocentesis, while knowingly participating in a fraudulent blood test. Are Lewis and others saying such an incident, or one very like it, occurred? Given the ongoing hammering about Clinton's "character" -- which is bound to get louder as the campaign year rolls on -- such questions of literary license and thinly-veiled "truths" assume some real-world import.


Not that Anonymous, Random House, nor a slobbering press corps seem to give two hoots for such concerns. When you're anonymous, you can write whatever you like. Lots of nudge, nudge, wink, wink, none of which you will be called on. What are the Clintons going to do -- sue?

The use of pseudonyms and anonymous bylines are invitations to pure charlatanism, not to mention the continuing erosion of publishing and journalistic standards. In the case of "Primary Colors," the amusement factor may outweigh deeper concerns. But still, one can't help but wonder at the implicit cowardice of it all.

--Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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