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The Running Mate
by Joe Klein
ISBN 0385335601 / 9780385335607 / 0-385-33560-1
Publisher Dial Press
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Senator Charlie Martin, the slightly John McCain-like war hero of Joe Klein's The Running Mate, thought getting blown up in Vietnam was tough, but presidential politics proves the uglier jungle battlefield. Charlie blows his challenge to the incumbent, Jack Stanton (the delightfully slimy protagonist of Klein's roman à clef about Clinton's 1992 campaign), by refusing to smear Stanton for his affair with his wife's stylist, "the Happy Hairdresser." Then he brushes a campaign worker's breast--by accident--and gets punched on TV by her irate dad. Charlie does, however, revive his career by springing a veteran named Mustafa from a Vietnamese prison, and soon he's on Stanton's shortlist for veep and politicking to get an old war buddy named defense secretary. In this political novel par excellence, skeletons dance out of practically everybody's closet. Charlie's vivid trip back to Vietnam turns up a son he sired in a one-night stand; his wickedly droll, still healthy Southern press secretary is HIV positive; Mustafa has society reentry problems; major politicians turn out to be closet pill heads, boozehounds, or rapists of staffers ("Apparently, she suffered an involuntary loss of her virginity in the Cannon Building"). Even Republicans hoard deadly secrets. And politics isn't about policies, it's about artful Machiavellian maneuvers, backstabbing, and feeding scandals to ignorant, arrogant press know-it-alls. (You can't say Klein lacks chutzpah!) Ornery but honest Charlie finds politics "becoming more noxious and also more sterile as the century staggered home." One politico says, "It's a big game hunt, and we're the game.... The jungle'll be left to pygmies and hyenas."
Klein hails and nails Stanton/Clinton for skillful cynicism: "He was all yak-butter and horseshit," says Charlie. Fans of Primary Colors will love this book's raffish authenticity. But the canvas is vaster--the Vietnam chapter is as evocative as the American ones--the story sprawls Tom Wolfe-ishly, and Klein is not just scoring points, he's a moralist hunting big game. --Tim Appelo [via]