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'Primary Colors' Author Joe Klein Talks About Political Truth and Fiction

Aired May 2, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: He used to be "Anonymous," but now he's front and center and in the CROSSFIRE. Tonight, "Primary Colors" author Joe Klein on the Bush-Gore race, the Giuliani-Clinton race, and his new book.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Joe Klein, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and author of "The Running Mate."

PRESS: Good evening, welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Well, if you can't ride the bus, hang out with the candidates, or press the flesh yourself, don't worry, Joe Klein will take you there in his new book, "The Running Mate," a novel based loosely on the political adventures of Vietnam vet John McCain. Or is it Bob Kerrey? Or is it John Kerry? Or is it none of the above? Only Joe Klein knows for sure. And this time, Klein even admits authorship, no longer hiding under the pseudonym "Anonymous" as he tried to do with his first novel, "Primary Colors."

But even Klein has to admit political life is stranger than political fiction. Consider this: Al Gore says he'll think about a Republican running mate. George Pataki says he might run for Senate if Rudy Giuliani drops out of the race. And Bill Clinton raises money for a member of Congress who voted to impeach him. Not even Joe Klein could make that kind of stuff up.

So tonight, political truth and fiction, surveying this year's political landscape with "The New Yorker"'s Joe Klein -- Mary.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Joe, congratulations on another best seller here.


MATALIN: Let's start with you a little bit. You're a best- seller, you're a journalist renowned. But a very smart person told you during your dark days of your crisis with "Anonymous," or your attempt to maintain your anonymity, that you are a celebrity and you -- all the bad stuff that goes along with being a celebrity.

And you suggest in this book that because of those experiences, a lot of them negative, that you now have not only a better understanding but a deeper sympathy for the kinds of decisions that politicians confront under pressure, and that's largely a lot of what the story of "The Running Mate" is.

KLEIN: God, it was so painful looking at that film clip of me in the press conference. I had no idea what I was doing. After that was over, Tony Blankley, who was then Newt Gingrich's press secretary, called me up and said, that was sure your first press conference, you had no idea what you were...


KLEIN: And I was -- I mean, it was so hard to think clearly. I mean, you know, and that was one of the events that led to my writing "The Running Mate." Another one is a conversation I had with John McCain. I'm sure that you guys have had this conversation with politicians off the record before you go on the air all the time, and they always talk about how terrible public life is. You got to beg for money all the time. My kids are going to learn about things I did 20 years ago. My wife hates it.

And I was having a conversation like that with John McCain four years ago at the Republican convention and he told me that being fingered as part of the Keating Five was more difficult for him emotionally in some ways than being a prisoner of war because his honor had been called into question. And my first thought was, oh, my God. I mean, this is one of the most honorable people I know. And my second thought was, well, that might be a novel.

And so, what I do in "The Running Mate" is take a fictional character who is all three of them actually, John Kerry, who I've known -- I covered his first state Senate campaign in Massachusetts -- Bob Kerrey and John McCain, and combined them into a guy named Charlie Martin and throw the stupid sex scandal at him, and the unscrupulous opponent who is more of an entertainer than a politician, and also a girlfriend who absolutely despises politics.

MATALIN: And as Bill said, if you can't get there yourself, you can get there through the books. But the books raise as does much of your writing a concern which you've had for many decades, we've worked on -- we've been around lots of campaigns together -- an increasing cynicism. You seem to attribute the greater cause of the cynicism to these negative consultants, or the rising cult of consultants who force negativism on their candidate. Don't you think the candidate is responsible for his own actions in the end?

KLEIN: Absolutely. And it's not just the consultants and it's not just the candidates, it's us in the press. I mean, you know, cynicism is the easiest sell that you have to any editor. I have been accused of being in the tank during the past year to George W. Bush, to Bill Bradley.

MATALIN: Not by the Bushies, you weren't.

KLEIN: This is in print. To George W. Bush, to Bill Bradley and to John McCain. Give me enough time, I'll be accused of being in the tank to Al Gore, too, because I feel that it's our responsibility. We don't have any credibility when we beat them up and Lord knows I beat them up. But we don't have any credibility unless we talk about the positive things that they do, the often courageous things that they do.

PRESS: Joe, good read by the way, almost as good as being there yourself. But one of the themes of the book is this intersection between public and private life which dogs politicians and dogs reporters. So, I mean, we've been through a lot of this lately, I don't have to repeat all the gory details. What have we learned? Is the private life of a politician fair game for reporters?

KLEIN: We don't have much choice in the matter. It's going to come out. The question is how much perspective we put on it, how much we blow it out of proportion. And the question on their side is, do we really want to have to drag our families through this? I mean, there are an awful lot of good people -- you know, for the last 12 years that I've been a columnist I have had a steady campaign in which I have always sided with the quarry as opposed to the pack, regardless of ideology.

I wrote columns in favor of John Tower, Clarence Thomas, Bill Clinton, Barney Frank, you name them. If they were being assaulted for peccadillo, I sided with them, because I think that the phenomenon of the scandals is far more damaging to our democracy than any of the individual charges. I've done it on this show against Pat Buchanan at one point during the Barney Frank affair. I just really think that we're driving all the people you'd want to have to dinner out of the business.

PRESS: So, as long as the private life is -- it's not criminal or is not interfering with their public performance, then why is it any of our business? Why does a reporter have a right to pry?

KLEIN: Well, I'd actually go way over to the other side and say that I kind of prefer politicians who have kind of gamy private lives and interesting hobbies and weird pets and things like that. I mean, they are much more likely to understand to our humanity if they're human themselves. You know, larger than life is always better than smaller than life in politicians. And, you know, God save us from mediocrities.

PRESS: Just quickly, aren't reporters putting politicians to a test that they could never pass themselves?

KLEIN: Of course, of course. And at one point in "The Running Mate," Charlie turns it around on his press corps, they're asking him about abortion and he turns it around on them. I mean, you know, I think that we have to be very, very careful in the press. We have to give these people their humanity, and we're not very good at that.

MATALIN: Well, do you expect -- what's going to change that?

KLEIN: Nothing.

(LAUGHTER) KLEIN: I'm sorry, Mary. I mean...

MATALIN: OK, all right, well, then let me contribute to the cynicism by asking those kind of conventional wisdom questions. This is -- what is this? Your eighth presidential...

KLEIN: Seventh, seventh.

MATALIN: Seventh. All right, let's go to a guy I wish...

KLEIN: I've been described as a grizzled political veteran.

MATALIN: We're all so grizzled. How could...

PRESS: Speak for yourself.


MATALIN: Well, have you been out on the road lately? OK, let's talk about Bill's candidate, Al Gore, OK. Forget about the polls that currently show him -- our new poll has Bush up still 49-44.

But in a Ron Fornier (ph) A.P. piece today he notes that in at least five states carried by Democrats in the last three elections -- that would be Iowa, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin, for you political junkies -- Gore is behind, and this is giving Democrats -- not me, this is Democrats' jitters. A Democratic consultant Dane Strother says: "This is obviously troubling for Gore. These are states he should have in his pocket right now."

What has happened to this guy? He had an easy primary, relatively speaking, he's in essence the incumbent, he's back -- this is his third run, national run, he has the full weight of a popular president, he's running against a governor he disdains as reckless and irresponsible from a state he describes as backward. So why can't he catch up?

KLEIN: Well, first, a caveat. The campaign hasn't even begun yet. Most Americans aren't even aware that there -- so these numbers mean less than nothing. But, Gore won his race in a way that reinforces the things that are worst about him. He won his race by taking apart Bill Bradley's health care plan and taking apart Bill Bradley.

And now he believes, I think, and his staff believes, that he's going to be able to do the same thing to George W. Bush, but that reinforces a sense that folks have about him; that he is opportunistic, cold, inhumane, probably pretty smart but not someone -- I mean, the interesting thing about politics now in this era is that these people live in our kitchens, and the question usually is in a presidential campaign, who do you want to have in your kitchen for the next four years?

And there's a basic law, Klein's second, or third, or fourth law of politics in the TV age, which is warm always beats cold, with the exception of Richard Nixon. The nicer guy usually wins. MATALIN: But he's also -- is -- doesn't it evidence an inconsistency? Here he is out there without a jacket, dressed in earth tones, the color of the Democratic Party now, and doing what you just suggested.

This is another liberal Democrat, Jacob Weisberg, who writes this. I love that outfit, Bill.

PRESS: Earth tones.

MATALIN: You're Mr. Earth tone. He says: "If you know Gore, you know he'll do essentially the same thing to Bush as he did to Bradley: rip into his flesh like a crazed weasel, while grinning and promising never to make a negative personal attack against an opponent."

KLEIN: I think there's real danger there for Al Gore. You know, It's curious, I mean, during the primary campaign Al Gore came out with what was a pretty courageous health care plan, certainly bolder than anything we've seen in five years. Did he talk about that in his debates with Bradley? No, he didn't talk about what he proposed at all. He talked about what Bradley had proposed, and he ripped it apart and he distorted it. And I think we're going to see that on a variety of issues this fall.

MATALIN: All right, when we come back, we'll ask a New Yorker who writes for "The New Yorker" about Klein's loss for the New York Senate race, Rudy versus Hillary, we think still.

Stay with us for this quick break.


MATALIN: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

In the high-stakes, high-pressure world of politics, is it tougher to be the guy lobbying the grenades, or the guy catching them? Our best-selling guest has done and is still doing both, formerly anonymous, now world renowned journalist Joe Klein -- Bill.

PRESS: In the stranger than fiction category, Joe -- you and I are both accused of being in the tank for John McCain, by the way. Since the primary, I wonder, like, what's happened? I mean, he went down to South Carolina after the primary and says take down the flag. He goes to Vietnam, he insults his host. Now he says he's going to meet with George Bush and endorse George Bush, even though George Bush is nowhere near John McCain on campaign reform, doesn't support what he's for. Are the wheels coming off the wagon suddenly, or -- I mean, I want to use Maureen Dowd's. Do you think it is a case of what she called "sudden attention withdrawal syndrome?"

KLEIN: I think it's decompression, the perils of decompression. Do you realize how weird -- you know, the McCain campaign, more than almost any other than I've ever recovered, was a case study in sleep deprivation. I mean, the guy was going 24 hours a day. All of his aides were on top of him all the time. They had become very cult- like, and I think that's when they really began to lose it, and I think that he's been flailing around, trying to find the right place for him in politics. And I'm pretty sure it's beginning to seem a little bit awkward to the public.

PRESS: Why would it take George Bush two months to somehow find time on the schedule to meet with John McCain?

KLEIN: I think he wanted him to cool off a little bit, maybe. But no, I mean, this is an awkward situation, and it's going to be resolved the way it was always going to be resolved -- McCain is going to endorse him. You know, the open question is whether he's going to do anything more than endorse him.

PRESS: Now speaking of sudden attention withdrawal syndrome, in "Primary Colors," you talked about the election of Jack Staton, AKA Bill Clinton. Seven months left in office, and even the president admits things are not quite the same as they used to be. At the White House correspondent's dinner, the president sort of jokingly indicated what days are like at the White House. Joe, take a look quickly.





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you still here?

CLINTON: Hello, White House, hold, please. Hello, White House, please hold.



PRESS: Lonely days at the 1600 Pennsylvania, Joe.

KLEIN: I'm going to miss him. He's been so good for business, and he is the most talented politician that I have ever covered. The guy is remarkable. I was at the new-economy conference he had a few weeks ago, and there were all these smart guys like Bill Gates and all these economists on the panels, he's the smartest guy on every panel, which of course, is enormously frustrating and angering because just think of what he could have been.

PRESS: Isn't it unfair to suggest that Bill Clinton will be remembered only for Monica?

KLEIN: I think Monica is going to be a footnote. I think the atmosphere will be something that people remember. This will be remembered as an era -- will be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of his crimes, but I think we're going through this enormous economic change, this historic change and how Clinton handled that, and the jury is way out on that, is going to be how he's remembered, I think.

MATALIN: Well, maybe this legacy lives on through another Clinton. Let's switch to your home base, New York, and Mrs. Clinton, who saying today in a newly published interview with "Ladies Home Journal" what she would do if she loses a Senate bid, which is not something I think a candidate typically does.

KLEIN: Never does, right? Never.

MATALIN: But why do you think she got in in the first place. Because today she at the second conference at the White House that affected kids. Today's was on teenagers. A couple of weeks ago, on kids being overdrugged. Both of those events I loved. That's what I wanted her to see as a first lady. Why didn't she do more of that when she had the position and the power to do it, and why is she running -- doing the Senate race? To validate herself?

KLEIN: Well, in defense of Mrs. Clinton, she did lots and lots and lots of that, and it wasn't covered. She really has done some very, very important things in those area, not always liberal things either. She broke real ground in terms of talking about the responsibility of women on welfare.

Why is she running? Boy, good question. I have said, and been hammered by the White House for saying, that maybe it's post-traumatic stress disorder? I think that she's certainly qualified to run for the Senate. We have wrestlers, and talk show hosts and other people running. She is intelligent enough. She may or may not be a good enough politician to do it. But it would have not been saner for her to wait for a couple of years, to decompress after the White House.

MATALIN: Or it would been less self-indulgent. Let me ask you -- no, look at the position she had, the power she had.

KLEIN: I have never ever encountered a self-indulgent politician before Mrs. Clinton.

MATALIN: Well, women politician are a little bit different.

KLEIN: Let's hold them to a higher standard, Mary.

MATALIN: That's right. That what we should do, because we do perform at a higher level.

Can I quickly ask you about Rudy before we move on? An indelicate question, but we always have to ask the political about whatever it is. Your take on the political ramifications of his announcement about cancer in which I thought he performed in a Mensch (ph)-like way.

KLEIN: He did. You know, we've never so stupid. We journalists are never so idiotic as when we analyze things that we shouldn't be analyzing. This guy has cancer, and I'm sure that at this point he doesn't know what he's going to be doing or what the ramifications are. The only appropriate thing for any of us to do or think or say at this point is hope for him, pray for him. MATALIN: Of course, he's the only one that said that. All of us have weighed in.

PRESS: Speaking of politician's wives, there is a play off- Broadway in New York called -- a sexually suggestive play with the title "The Vagina Monologues." Mrs. Giuliani, Donna Hanover has agreed to be one of the stars in the show. It has a rotating cast of female actresses. She's put that on hold for a while after her husband's announcement, but she's agreed to appear in this play, "The Vagina Monologues." She's got to know, Joe Klein, that, that is political poison for her husband. Why would she agree to do that?

KLEIN: Beats me.

PRESS: Humiliate him?

KLEIN: I don't know. I mean, you know, you write novels about things like this, because you don't know what's actually happening. I mean, you know, when you are writing fiction, what you're doing is trying -- I mean, you know, we live in this era of sequential soap operas, you know, each -- you know, we had an Elian Gonzalez for a couple of weeks, and then we had Monica Lewinsky, and now we have Rudy's cancer, and we know everything about everything except for what these people are thinking and feeling.

And what a novelist tries to do -- the reason why I write novels in addition to my journalism is to give some of the emotional context and try and speculate on how people feel when they go through these impossible situations. Now, "The Vagina Monologues," I might add, is a real work of art. I mean, it is -- you know, this is a free society and New York is a pretty "liberal" -- and I use that word with quotes -- place when it comes to the First Amendment.

PRESS: But for the mayor's conservative political fund-raising base around the country?

KLEIN: The mayor's -- well, around the country, maybe so. But this is a mayor -- this is a Republican who is in favor of rent control, which I believe is the next thing to communism. I mean, you know, how conservative is he?

MATALIN: Well, we are out of time. We love the books, get them both, "Primary Colors," "The Running Mate." We get a kickback for this. No, we don't. We're just kidding. Joe Klein, you are wonderful. They are great reads, both of them.

KLEIN: Thank you.

PRESS: Thanks, Joe.

MATALIN: And Bill and I will be back with our own novelist ambitions and our closing comments. Stay with us.


MATALIN: "Anonymous" no more. Joe Klein takes your questions online right after the show at I might go down and join him.

You know what I like about him? And we need more of this, and I think we try to do it -- no, we never do it -- is bring humanity...

PRESS: Where are you going?

MATALIN: ... to these people who want to perform public service. Of course, you have to have a little bit of ambition, you have to have a lot of ambition, but there is a lot of idealism that never gets reported and Klein does in these books.

PRESS: Well, he does, and it also -- it's full of ambition, it's full of politics and it's full of sex, and you throw those three together, you know, and what more do you need in life?

MATALIN: You're really enjoying this show, aren't you?

PRESS: No, I just have to tell you something, Mary.

MATALIN: You got to say sex, you got to say a lot of things you tonight that you've been dying to say on the air.

PRESS: You know what? Let me tell you, my time in politics, we go back into San Francisco board of supervisors, the California legislature, here in Washington with members of Congress, and especially here on CROSSFIRE, if I wrote a novel about those characters that I have met in politics, you know what? People would never believe it, never believe it.

MATALIN: Excluding your fidelitist self, I presume?

PRESS: Well, of course. I'm the only sane one of the bunch.

MATALIN: And me?

PRESS: And you.

MATALIN: OK, well...

PRESS: From the left -- the two of us.

From the left, I'm Bill Press, good night for CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: And from the right, I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again tomorrow night for more CROSSFIRE.



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