I've seen the other side: and it stinks

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The Independent Online
The publication of 'Primary Colours', a thinly concealed novel about the Clintons and their presidential election campaign, caused a publishing sensation in the United States. It has sold well here, too, mainly because it is wittily and elegantly written, but partly because it was anonymous: everyone wanted to know who wrote it.

Joe Klein, a 'Newsweek' columnist, was fingered several times as the author, but his denials were believed. Finally, last week, he was trapped by a 'Washington Post' handwriting expert, and admitted he was the author.

In today's 'Newsweek' he writes ruefully for the first time about how and why he found himself in a hole, and kept digging. And explains how his own eyes have been opened by the experience ...

Here's what I thought was going to happen last January: Primary Colours, my anonymous novel, would be a modest success, a titillation for Beltway sorts and a few stray political junkies, but no big deal out in the rest of the country, where real people lead actual lives.

I figured I would be a likely suspect, and would have to deny authorship. I figured no one would believe me. Friends, colleagues and pals would say, "Awww, c'mon Joe, it's you. No question. Don't hang noodles on our ears." And with that it would be over: mystery solved. The First Family probably wouldn't be happy about the book, but they're not often thrilled by what I write - and the portrait of Jack and Susan Stanton [Klein's fictional Clintons] seemed balanced to me.

But something different happened. My friends believed my initial fibs. I found this fairly unsettling, and a little frightening: what was I in for now? And then a lot of things began to happen very quickly. The book began to fly out of the stores. It became a Very Big Deal. And attention shifted to many other suspects. Henry Kissinger was mentioned. The book was No 1, and there was a movie deal ... and none of it was quite real, because I wasn't really experiencing it. I was out covering the Republican campaign, telling my little white lies all along, speculating with friends about who might have done it, feeling uneasy.

A week before the New Hampshire primary, the roof caved in. New York Magazine hired a professor from Vassar College, New York, with a computer program to analyse the styles of the various suspects. It was a pretty good program. But neither the professor nor the magazine called to ask my reaction until they'd already issued a press release. The things said about me in the release, and the accompanying article, were insulting, inaccurate and ridiculous. I was pretty angry about it, but ready to fold. Then I began to receive strong signals that Random House thought the author should remain anonymous. I had made a deal on that basis.

I also, by this time, truly wanted to remain anonymous. If I came forward now, my whole life would be different - the celebrity, the impact on my family, the fact that I'd not just be a Newsweek columnist any more, I'd be that "Anonymous" guy. As James Carville has said, "When you become famous, being famous becomes your profession." I didn't want that.

Oh, by the way, all this was taking place in the course of two hours. I felt trapped, stunned. I must have changed my mind a dozen times. But I eventually came out in favour of keeping my commitment to the publisher and my book.

The worst consequences stem from my adamant denials of authorship (I thought nothing less than adamant was going to suffice). Two were especially hard: on camera to my other employer, CBS (and worse, privately, to my friend Dan Rather) - and to David Von Drahle of the Washington Post, who asked if I'd stake my journalistic credibility on it. I should never have said yes. I didn't think my journalistic credibility was at stake; my commitment as a novelist was. I should have said something clever - diverting.

The last few months have been pretty awful, but, given the book's success, it would be fatuous to complain. Still, I was almost relieved when the Washington Post found an early manuscript with my handwriting on it.

The relief was fleeting. The ensuing maelstrom was unbelievable. Not only the zoological press conference - that was to be expected. But also the endless chattering and bantering and pontificating on the air about what I did.

I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I kept drinking water, but felt dehydrated. It was, I realised, a pretty typical campaign day for Bill Clinton or Bob Dole.

Could I have handled this mind-boggling situation better? Sure. I've said some things I'll probably always regret.

I've also learnt this: what it's like to live as a politician. I did it for a few hours after the New York Magazine story appeared. I did it for a few days last week. And it is impossible. It is impossible to think straight. It is very easy to screw up, and it is unrelenting. But they do it every day, and that is no way for a civilised nation to choose its leaders. Of course, this was one of the themes of Primary Colours - but I was just imagining what it was like on the other side of the press conference. Now that I've lived it, I hope I'll show a little more mercy for the brave, frail fools and heroes who live our public lives. I hope you will, too.