'I did some really stupid things'

He caused a scandal as the anonymous author of Primary Colors. But Joe Klein says he has learned from his mistakes. Now he's publishing in his own name, and keeping the fiction inside the covers of his new novel
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The Independent Online

The photographer is clicking away like a maniac. Joe Klein, journalist, author, pundit and sometime scandal, is musing on what it is like to sit on this side of the table for a change, the interviewed rather than the interviewer. "It's really hard to think clearly when those cameras are pointed at you," he says, staring out across a crepuscular Times Square as he is posed and prodded into place.

Klein is selling his latest book, Running Mates, a novel of American political mores at the turn of the millennium. It is his second novel, but there was no selling of the first one. The book flew off the shelves in any case, but the author's name on it, to begin with, was "Anonymous". Primary Colors, a roman-à-clef about a randy Southern governor called Jack Stanton, had the media salivating as much over the identity of the author as over the rise, fall and rise of a man who bore a strong similarity to Bill Clinton.

But when Klein, then a journalist with Newsweek, was finally unmasked, the press ate him up and spat him out again. He had, after all, denied being the author. Serious bile was committed to paper and the rancour over his Clinton-style lie did not die away. "When showbiz values triumph over journalism, everything is incredible, and how is the non-journalist to separate fact from fiction?" opined New York Times columnist Frank Rich in a scathing comment in 1998, long after the book and the film which followed.

"I did some really stupid things," Klein admits now. But he learned from them. "It helped inform what I write about. It's an experience I would recommend to every journalist," he says. "When you have the cameras pointed at you that way, in anger, it is difficult to think clearly."

Politics and the human soul form the landscape upon which the new novel is drawn. It tells the story of Charlie Martin, a Vietnam veteran and US senator, as he faces a series of ethical dilemmas: a friend who is a candidate for high office but whom he discovers has feet of clay; a campaign for re-election which pits him against a crazed car-parts salesman and broadcaster, and which threatens to turn dirty; and his love for Nell, a woman in New York who knows nothing of politics and cares less. But the question of whether it is possible to be a politician and still be a good person is these days something which also preoccupies Klein's journalism, now conducted from the lofty perch of The New Yorker magazine. And in today's America, where politics is pervaded by cynicism, shaped by the calculus of consultants and often motivated by personal animus, it is a question with few simple answers.

Klein was drawn to the subject after a conversation four years ago with John McCain, the Vietnam veteran, US senator and former Republican candidate for president whose campaign arced brightly across the screens of America last year before stuttering and failing. McCain, generally regarded as one of the most honest and direct of US politicians, had himself been involved in the Keating Five affair, a nasty scandal involving a corrupt banker. He was largely absolved, but found the incident more than bruising. "It was more difficult even than being a prisoner of war in Vietnam, because his honour was called into question," says Klein.

Klein's good fortune with the book - or perhaps his good judgement - is that McCain, one of the models for Charlie Martin, attracted such international attention this year. But even McCain, whom Klein clearly admires, has admitted that being straightforward is not always the way to win. The senator said last week that he had supported flying the Confederate flag in South Carolina - a symbol of racism and oppression for many - because it was electorally opportune in a politically vital state. McCain apologised - but not until after the election. Klein says that one of McCain's top advisers told him in a note it was the one thing in the campaign that he regretted. He will not, characteristically, say which adviser.

Joe Klein is in a tradition of political commentators that is easily recognisable to the British reader: informed, analytical and literate. He refers glancingly to Trollope in Running Mates, and there is something of the 19th century novel of manners about it. He cites as two of his greatest influences George Orwell, with his taut, humane prose, but also Jimmy Breslin, a two-fisted New York columnist of the old school. "The only reason this country is different from any place else," wrote Breslin, "is that once in a great while, this huge, snobbish, generally untalented news reporting business stops covering stories of interest only to itself and actually serves the public," and Klein would sign up for that. With a background in city journalism and social issues, he is firmly embedded in an American tradition of commentary which is engaged and passionate.

Passionate, but not poisonous. The most popular stance for a political commentator now is as the outsider, delivering scathing diatribes against the governing class and government in general. Klein is a classic insider, someone who is on first-name terms with the most influential people in American politics and admires many of them. In the acknowledgments, he cites the six US senators who fought in Vietnam, but also Elaine Kamarck and Mandy Grunwald, former advisers to Al Gore and Bill Clinton. In Primary Colors, Klein refers to Jerry Rosen, the "important" political writer for Manhattan magazine.

It is not fashionable, in an age when political journalism so often savages everyone and everything in an indiscriminate frenzy, to admit to admiring politicians; but then Klein is adamant that the prevalent cynicism about politics - in Britain as much as in America - is corrosive and damaging. "If you write favourably about a politician, you're accused of being in the tank," he says. "Cynicism is the easiest sell to an editor." He admires politicians who are honourable, and "honour has no ideology," he says.

American politics has become a bitter and bruising battle, often carried out by consultants doing "opposition research" and media directors putting together the nastiest ads they can manage without actually using a four-letter word.

In the novel, Klein describes "a political environment that was being pulled in opposite directions, becoming more noxious and also more sterile as the century dragged home". But Klein is in most respects an unrepentant optimist, frequently bursting out in eloquent tributes to American politics.

"I am in many ways the opposite of a cynic," he says, and Primary Colors was driven by the belief that Clinton/Stanton could be better than he was, just as a faith in the ability of politicians to make the right decisions - or at least admit when they have made mistakes - pervades Running Mates.

He has described himself in the past as a "recovering Democrat", but now says that was when he was particularly cross with President Clinton. He is a man of the Third Way, passionately committed to rebuilding liberalism, and is - with reservations - a fan of the president. Primary Colors was often read as an attack on a philanderer, but the core of the story is anger at Stanton's willingness to traduce principle, not his trouser problem. Indeed, "I'm in favour of politicians who have interesting sex lives," he says.

He is not, however, in favour of Washington, a city where no one ever does anything just for fun. "It's not for nothing that I live in New York," he says, with grim determination. Some of the most eloquent parts of the book describe the city and what passes for its social life. One (fictional) journalist, Nick Davis, is described thus: "his face sagged under the weight of years of feigned comprehension." Anyone who has ever pushed overcooked chicken around their plate in Georgetown waiting for the wine to come around again will have several candidates to fill the role of Mr Davis; too many, in fact.

Waiting for the glass to fill may take some time, though. Klein takes another pop at Washington's social wasteland when Nell asks for Bourbon at a dinner party (you might as well ask for a syringe and directions to the toilet). "It's getting back at all those goddamn parties where they don't have hard liquor," he says.

'Running Mates' is published by Chatto and Windus (£16.99)