BOOKS: MACHIAVELLIANA

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BILL CLINTON has called it "the only secret I've seen kept in Washington for three years". The Washington Post has set up a hotline for tips. And the mystery? The identity of the anonymous author of Primary Colors (published here last week by Chatto at pounds 15.99), an account of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign that is, insiders say, almost incredibly accurate. The principals are womanising, burger-chomping Southern Governor Jack Stanton and his wife Susan, a brilliant lawyer with all the warmth and charm of an ice-pick - no Clinton aide, interestingly, has bothered to contradict these caricatures.

The hacks, hackettes and literate political insiders (apparently these are few) canvassed in the search for the person behind the copyright line "Machiavelliana, Inc" all vehemently deny authorship; only the mischievous Christopher Hitchens has gone so far as to hold a Washington book-signing session, flamboyantly inscribing "Anonymous" on flyleaves for eager punters. But the psychology of anonymity is hardly one that fits: heavyweight political journalist-novelists love a by-line.

And the book itself? One central conceit is that the narrator, a green young Stanton staffer named Henry Burton, is black: apart from that, he is supposed to be a ringer for real-life Clinton staffer George Stephanopoulos. If the Stantons are Bill and Hillary to a tee, we are invited (even by their supporters) to believe that the First Lady is likely to say of the President: "Jack Stanton could also be a great man ... if he weren't such a faithless, thoughtless, disorganised, undisciplined shit." Other fictive photofits include James Carville (real-life tag: "Ragin' Cajun") as Richard Jemmons, a "hyperactive redneck from outer space", and Betsy Wright, who crisis-managed the various "bimbo eruptions" vis-a-vis the "scorps" (scorpions = journalists), is portrayed as foul-mouthed Libby Holden, aka The Dustbuster.

This brief description should convey not only the prose style of the whole, but also the fact that you'll enjoy this book much more if you already know a lot about the subject. The shenanigans, the satyriasis, the bimbos-who-blab, the way political aides seem to spend their time fibbing, manipulating, yelling into phones at 3am and applying PR Clearasil to pimples on their employers' image - it's all depressingly familiar, but the players differ. This book is written by an insider, perhaps, but also for insiders? One thing seems obvious: the mysterious author must be a Republican.

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