Will "Primary Colors" author score another win?

Joe Klein's new roman ` clef will be a tough sell.

Published January 24, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

With the Jan. 20 announcement of his forthcoming novel, "The Running Mate," veteran political journalist Joe Klein ("Primary Colors") once again has everyone guessing. But this time America won't be wondering who wrote his book. Instead, the question is: When "The Running Mate" appears on April 18, will the author formerly known as Anonymous pull off a sophomore success?

Since Klein's 1996 bestseller was a roman ` clef -- one that purportedly offered an intimate insider's take on Gov. Bill Clinton's presidential campaign -- one would expect him to deliver yet another thinly veiled tale of true-life political shenanigans. After all, Klein vowed in 1996 that he would give the Republicans an equally hard time on the next go 'round. Dial Press, Klein's publisher, sent out a press release to announce "The Running Mate," but its description of the book didn't offer much:

This time, the novel is about Senator Charlie Martin, a Vietnam War hero and hot political property. Facing an election year in this era of spin, marketing and vicious personal assaults, Martin is forced to confront the two biggest challenges of his life: a charismatic political opponent who has no scruples, and a dazzling, difficult woman who loves him, but is appalled by his life's work.

Already the speculation has begun about the real identity of Klein's fictional senator. No one's saying which party Charlie Martin hails from, but we can make a few nonpartisan guesses about the character's real-world counterpart: John McCain of Arizona, recently retired Bob Kerrey of Nebraska or John Kerry of Massachusetts -- decorated Vietnam veterans all. Though several columnists have guessed that it was McCain who inspired Klein's opus (Klein is covering the McCain campaign for the New Yorker), insiders familiar with the book say that's news to them.

A more crucial question for Klein's publisher is this: Can any of these men -- including McCain -- when converted into a fictional character, pique the interest of as many book buyers as Jack Stanton, Klein's cipher for President Bill Clinton, did? After all, the 1991 vintage of Bill Clinton, even when savored in 1996, was far more complex than McCain, Kerry or Kerrey -- and none of them seem likely to win the highest office in the land this fall.

When Random House signed up Klein's "Primary Colors" before Clinton's 1996 reelection, they were taking a decided risk. If the Comeback Kid had lost his second bid for the office of president, the book most likely would have tanked.

But today, Dial Press might well look back on Random House's gamble as child's play. In the flush of the success of "Primary Colors" the publisher forked over more than a million dollars for Klein's next two books. It doesn't require a pollster to foresee that it will take a book with buckets worth of insider intrigue to pay off such a generous advance. In fact, Random House decided to pass on the deal, considering it overpriced.

If Klein's Sen. Martin indeed turns out to be an amalgam of several different politicians, then his creator has his work cut out for him. However crafty and compelling Klein's book, if it can't promise readers a barely disguised feast of insider dish on the nation's chief executive, how will it distinguish itself from the work of esteemed but decidedly nonblockbuster Washington novelists like Ward Just? We won't know for a few months, but so far only the advance looks different.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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