Primary Colors the the book of the 1996 US election campaign. It’s really about Bill and Hillary, Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign, not to mention Bill’s pecadillos and the quiet lunacy of American presidential politics.
When I first read it, back in ’96, I didn’t know any of that.
I lived in Europe, and like many left wing Europeans who grew up in the cold war, my views of the US were based on Hollywood movies, some quality US TV shows, and a whole pile of novels, but with no real understanding of its history, or how it got to be like it is.
University courses on American history were seen as tautology, something to be sneered at.
America seemed like this corrupt, decadent, evil empire, seeking to control everything to its own ends. As a contrast we’d kind of thought of the Soviet Union as a kind of Muri-Buriland gone bad, a sort of Orwellian welfare state where they fixed your teeth if they were bad, and fixed your mind if you were bad.
By 1996 of course, the Soviet Union was just a bad dream, and America still looked kind of menacing, especially as we were competing economically. The EU was going to be number two, and the Chinese economy hadn’t really achieved the dominance it has today. The logic seemed to say that the US would remain whatever the US was and Europe would be somewhere different.
The other thing is that if you’ve only ever been to a couple of places on the East Coast you don’t, as a visitor, appreciate the cultural diversity of the US and the North vs South, East vs West thing, or indeed just how significant the US civil war was, and to a large extent still is – I was once in a hotel room in Washington eating take out pizza when I saw this amazing PBS history show about Washington in the civil war, including places literally just a couple of blocks from where I was on P street.
But when I read Primary Colors on the early morning York to London train on the way to some meeting, and at a time in the morning when I would rather be eating toast and listening to one of Major’s minions defending the indefensible on the radio, it was just another American political novel.
Time moves on. We had Bill and Monica, endless impeachment attempts and the rest. And then we had GeorgeW.
And I moved to Australia, and started travelling to America on business, not just as a tourist, and I started paying attention to these late night documentaries about the Clinton presidency, about US elections and the rest, and coming to realise that American history was no more a tautology than Australian history – both tell you a lot about how places came to be like they are.
I’d long since chucked my original copy of Primary Colors, but sometime round about when Obama was re-elected I bought a second hand copy on line, and there it sat in my to read pile for a couple of years.
Then, one sultry, thundery summer January afternoon I started rereading it. And it is actually very good. No wonder those in the know got excited about it, the womanising Bill, the go-getting assertive Hillary, and the way policy is made and spun, and how it’s not about truth but about believeability.
I’d make a bet that if we have another Clinton making a run for the White House in 2016 it’ll be required background reading …