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Klein, Joseph 1946- (Joe Klein)

Klein, Joseph 1946- (Joe Klein)


Born September 7, 1946, in New York; son of Malcolm (a printer) and Miriam Klein; married Janet Eklund, February 8, 1967 (divorced, 1975); children: Christopher, Terry. Education: University of Pennsylvania, A.B., 1968.


Agent—Kathy Robbins, The Robbins Office, 405 Park Ave., New York, NY 10022.


Writer and journalist. Beverly/Peabody Times, Beverly, MA, reporter, 1969-72; WGBH-TV, Boston, MA, reporter, 1972; Real Paper, Boston, news editor, 1972-74; Rolling Stone, New York City, associate editor, 1974-78, Washington bureau chief, 1974-76; Newsweek, Washington, DC, bureau, senior editor, until 1996, contributing editor, 1996; New Yorker, Washington correspondent, beginning 1996; Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS-TV), Washington, DC, consultant and commentator, 1992-96; Cable News Network (CNN), political commentator and contributor, Paula Zahn Now, 2003—; Time, New York City, columnist. Notable assignments include coverage of the 1976 presidential campaign, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, 1978, the Jimmy Carter administration, busing in Boston, coverage of the 1980, 1984, 1988, and 1992 presidential elections.


Robert Kennedy Journalism Award, 1973; finalist for National Magazine Award from Columbia University School of Journalism, 1977, for "The Plastic Coffin of Charlie Arthur"; Deems Taylor Award from American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers, 1978, for "Notes on a Native Son."


Woody Guthrie: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.

Payback: Five Marines after Vietnam, Knopf (New York, NY), 1984.

(Editor) Dwight Twilley, Questions from Dad: A Very Cool Way to Communicate with Kids, introduction by Susan Forward, C.E. Tuttle (Boston, MA), 1994.

(Published anonymously) Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, Random House (New York, NY), 1996.

(As Joe Klein) The Running Mate, Dial (New York, NY), 2000.

The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2002.

Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, Doubleday (New York, NY), 2006.

Contributor to periodicals, including Mother Jones. Author of column, "Letter from Washington," New Yorker, 1996—.


Primary Colors was filmed and released by Universal in 1998.


Until the middle of July, 1996, Joseph Klein was not known to many outside of the newspaper community or the political in-crowd of Washington, DC. As a senior editor for Newsweek and an on-air consultant for CBS News, Klein had defined himself as a stylish political journalist with an insightful talent for covering elections. It was his interest in presidential campaigns, particularly former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton's successful bid in 1992, that inspired Klein to write, anonymously, a fictional account of a southern governor's quest for the U.S. presidency. The resulting book, Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, became a bestseller, sparked considerable controversy, and drastically altered Klein's public persona.

Primary Colors tells the story of one Jack Stanton, a southern governor with dreams of a Kennedyesque presidency. With the aid of several key advisers, including his savvy wife, Susan, Stanton is able to attain his goal through skillful manipulation of the media and slick politicking. Once in office, however, Stanton is plagued by indecision and a compulsion to please every side at once, a trait that often leads him to subjugate his better judgment in favor of winning popular support.

By most accounts, Primary Colors relates a humorous though unremarkable political tale. To political aficionados, however, the similarities between Stanton's rise and that of Bill Clinton were too numerous and too precise to be written off as mere coincidence. Many identified the novel as a roman a clef (a fictional account in which real people and/or events are presented under transparent disguise) of the Clinton administration. Curiosity was further aroused by the fact that, at the time of its publication, Primary Colors had no authorial face with which to identify, no personified expertise upon which its information was based. The fact that the novel was attributed to "Anonymous" led many to speculate that the author was someone privy to inside information on Clinton, perhaps even someone who had worked closely with the president. Political players such as Clinton aide Paul Begala, Clinton cabinet member George Stephanopoulos, author Christopher Buckley, and Luciano Siracusano, a former speech-writer for New York governor Mario Cuomo, were variously suggested as the book's true author.

The mystery surrounding Primary Colors only served to promote the book's sales; gossip-hungry readers were anxious to gobble up what they perceived to be a bona fide insider's account of popular politics. For the Washington press corps and political hangers-on, the book went beyond juicy dish, and discovering the author's identity became more than idle curiosity; it became a mission. As initial detective work failed to narrow the field to one suspect, however, more scientific techniques were employed. A week before the New Hampshire primaries in 1996, New York magazine hired a professor from Vassar University to utilize a computer program that compared the writing styles of the most likely suspects with the writing style found in Primary Colors; the program found a match in Joe Klein. Klein had previously been suggested as the suspected author but had strenuously and repeatedly denied such allegations. In July of 1996, however, the Washington Post published the results of a handwriting analysis they had conducted using samples of Klein's handwriting and a corrected manuscript of Primary Colors that they had obtained. These results solidified the assertion made by New York's computer analysis: Joe Klein was Anonymous.

On July 17th, Klein called a press conference and admitted that he was indeed the author of Primary Colors. He explained that he wished the novel to be judged as fiction and not the work of a political journalist and therefore published the book anonymously. The revelation—more of a foregone conclusion at that point—touched off a firestorm of debate regarding Klein's journalistic ethics and credibility. In an article for the New York Times, Kevin Smith, a reporter and chair of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, opined that Klein was wrong to assume that he could shed his journalistic identity for a work of fiction. Quoted in the article, Smith stated that as a journalist, "you should never give up your obligation to deal truthfully with people, whether you are working on a story or in your personal life. So I think Mr. Klein has lost credibility here, and that hurts all of us." Klein countered in the same article: "I think I have an obligation to be truthful in all matters that relate to my role as a columnist for Newsweek or as a commentator for CBS and I think that I have been…. I also had an obligation to [Primary Colors publisher] Random House and to myself and to the integrity of this project."

Other criticism focused on Newsweek editor Maynard Parker, who was one of the few people Klein confided in regarding his Anonymous writing activity. Critics charged Parker and Klein with perpetrating journalistic fraud—particularly in light of the fact that Parker ran an article in Newsweek offering possible Anonymous identities yet failing to include Klein's name among the suspects—a move seen by some critics as a deliberate attempt to remove Klein from scrutiny. Confronted with the question of journalistic impropriety, Parker explained that he viewed Klein's book as an entertainment that exists solely apart from the world of journalism. As he stated in the New York Times: "I don't think it's a conflict. This is not a matter of national security. This is more a matter of who shot J.R."

Other critics were more conciliatory to Klein and his book. While author Jim Sleeper felt that Klein was misguided in his intentions with the book, he still felt that the author could make valuable contributions to political thought. As Sleeper related, Klein's work as a journalist did much to delineate Clinton's actions as a president so eager for approval that he failed to establish any clear policy. Sleeper felt Klein's misstep came in trying to reinforce his journalistic image of Clinton with a fictional character that people could easily identify as the president and then withholding his name in the hopes that the book would be seen as a second party corroborating Klein's assertions. As Sleeper wrote in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Klein decided to sharpen the public portrait he'd painted of Mr. Clinton by brushing into it a few vivid untruths of the sort that are vital to a novelist but off limits to a journalist…. That was dishonest. It is unethical for a journalist to litter the campaign trail, anonymously or not, with both serious reportage and fabrications."

Not surprisingly, the hype and scandal that surrounded Primary Colors acted as the driving force behind the book's enormous popularity; news features on the book focused more on attendant hoopla than literary merit. Klein's unmasking roughly two months before the bow of the book's paperback edition gave little hope that new readers would approach the book solely as entertainment, but it did present new problems for the publisher. As the New York Times's Mark Landler surmised: "For publishing executives, the question of how to promote the book is far more complex and intriguing than whether Mr. Klein, the Newsweek columnist, should have lied so vigorously about whether he wrote it." Indeed, the lure of a book offering information so secret that the author has to conceal his identity held great appeal to the publishers.

Because of the novel's popularity, and its criticism of the Clinton White House, Klein's stature as a reporter had been irreversibly altered. Despite his skills and experience, he had been cast as a celebrity of sorts, a correspondent whose reportage would always be intruded upon by his own newsmaking event. Repercussions soon followed the revelation that Klein was Anonymous. Amid speculations of network pressure, Klein resigned his post as a commentator/consultant to CBS News, and although he continued to write for Newsweek, his status on the magazine's masthead changed from senior editor to contributing editor, an action that some perceived as an attempt on the periodical's behalf to put some distance between itself and its infamous columnist. Not long after, Klein left Newsweek and joined the New Yorker as a writer. In late July of 1996, surveying the wreckage following his identification, Klein wrote in Newsweek: "The last few months have been pretty awful, but given the book's success, it would be fatuous to complain" (by late 1996, the author was expected to net at least six million dollars from the book and the subsequent sales of movie rights). Despite the trials and travails of his anonymous adventure, Klein's comments in Newsweek indicated that he had gained valuable knowledge from the experience, learning what life under public scrutiny is truly like. As he wrote: "It's impossible to think straight. It is very easy to screw up, and it is unrelenting." Klein concluded: "Now that I've lived it, I hope I'll show a little more mercy on this page for the brave, frail fools and heroes who live our public lives. I hope you will, too."

Klein's second fictional outing, The Running Mate, is a sequel of sorts to Primary Colors, and a novel in which characters stand in for their real-life counterparts. Protagonist Charlie Martin—who bears considerable resemblance to Senator Bob Kerrey—is a centrist politician from the Midwest and a decorated Vietnam War veteran popular among his constituents. Other prominent Clinton-era Washington names appear in the guise of other characters in the book. They include U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as diplomat Linc Rathburne; national security advisor Tony Lake appears as Gideon Reese; Dick Morris shows up in his fictional counterpart Morey Richardson; and Stephanopoulos himself is portrayed by presidential aide Henry Burton. In the aftermath of the events in Primary Colors, Martin has lost the presidential election to Jack Stanton, and a small-scale scandal in the form of a previously unknown illegitimate son has rocked his professional world. Martin considers his options as re-election looms. At heart, politics has become boring to him, and disheartening in its lack of principles and frequent virulence. Politics has also started to lose its luster in the shadow of his romance with Manhattan swimsuit designer Arabella "Nell" Palmerston. Challenging Martin for his senate position is Lee Butler, a formidable opponent who enjoys a strong base of conservative support. As the novel progresses, Butler is revealed as a hypocrite willing to use religious elements and fake sincerity to create support. Martin knows that winning against Butler will be difficult, and doing so may finally be enough to drive him out of politics for good.

Klein "sustains the mastery of storytelling mechanics that he demonstrated in Colors," remarked Time reviewer Andrew Ferguson. "The plot accelerates to a fitting climax, goosed along by enough offhand apercus and knowing set pieces to satisfy any reader interested in The Way We Politick Now." Klein's performance with The Running Mate proves that he is "still a connoisseur of political craft work," George Stephanopoulos remarked in a Newsweek review. "He delights in detailing how to survive a hostile press conference, stage a campaign debate, or navigate a state fair." Library Journal reviewer Joseph L. Carlson called the book "a sizzlingly good look at politics as only an insider can provide." With some authorial distance from the "all the gimmickry and controversy [surrounding Primary Colors]," commented Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly, "Klein reveals himself to be a brilliant political portraitist, one who can paint not only in primary colors but also in more complicated shades." The "sour moral of Klein's tale is that the best can no longer beat the system, so good men shouldn't bother," Stephanopoulos concluded. "But he's too much of a romantic to believe it."

Stepping away from fiction and into the world of real-life politics, Klein provides a detailed assessment of the U.S. presidential tenure of Bill Clinton in The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton. He "offers a superbly written, smart, and concise meditation on the Clinton era. For those who lived through those years, Klein's book is a welcome first volley in the battle to explain the Clinton legacy," commented Kenneth S. Baer in Washington Monthly. The book, observed a reviewer in Business Week, is an "attempt by a sometime admirer to delve beneath the squalid headlines and tabloid fodder and discuss the Administration's policy successes and failures. His effort is a qualified success: It will make you reconsider Clinton's eight years, even if you don't altogether agree with the assessment."

Klein's association with Clinton extends back to his years as a journalist, covering the former president's 1992 campaign, writing about him as a columnist for Newsweek, and interviewing him numerous times over the course of the controversial presidency. "The slim volume is an effort, Klein says, to go beyond scandals, to critically and soberly assess Clinton's accomplishments and failings, most notably welfare and health care reform. It is also Klein's wistful remembrance of a man who defined an era of plenty and frivolity that disappeared all too quickly," commented Adam Langer in Book. Klein looks carefully at the successes of the Clinton years, but does not avoid addressing Clinton's failures and shortcomings, personal flaws, political defeats, and era-defining scandals. "Klein doesn't shy away from documenting Clinton's ‘angry, adolescent side,’ but he gives him credit for ‘a coherent, sophisticated political vision’ that resulted in improved lives for millions of Americans." commented Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly. World and I reviewer John Attarian noted that "Klein sees Clinton as a deeply divided man, of ‘gaudy personal failings’ yet running ‘a serious, disciplined, responsible presidency’ that promoted prosperity and world peace." The author explores the noxious political atmosphere that pervaded the Clinton presidential years; his "extensive treatment of this is his greatest strength, invaluable in putting the Clinton years in perspective," Attarian observed.

"Klein is in equal parts appreciative of Clinton's skills and horrified by his excesses," commented Ilene Cooper in Booklist. Klein "is an intelligent and reflective writer, and his mature perspective makes The Natural must reading for sorting out the messy Clinton presidency," Attarian concluded. A Kirkus Reviews critic called Klein's work "a supremely fascinating look at a ‘serious, substantive presidency.’ No journalist is better matched to this subject than Klein, and his analysis deserves the wide attention it's bound to get." "You might not agree with Klein's point of view, but you have to give him credit. He makes us think. And to judge Bill Clinton fairly, Americans will have to get past their gut reactions and ponder the complexities of a supremely talented politician and deeply flawed human being," commented the Business Week reviewer. A Publishers Weekly reviewer concluded: "There will be numerous books written about Clinton and his presidency, but they will be hard pressed to capture the public and private Clinton as well as this one."

In Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, Klein laments the takeover of the American political process by consultants, organizers, speechwriters, image specialists, and others who have turned politics into a rigid, precisely timed performance devoid of spontaneity, sincerity, and the humanizing touch of genuine emotion and concern. Washington Monthly reviewer Chuck Todd commented that "if you're a political junkie who's obsessed with how presidential campaigns are won and lost, then Politics Lost, the latest book from Time columnist Joe Klein, is a must-read. Klein gives us behind-the-scenes glimpses of every consequential presidential campaign since 1968, and no self-respecting expert will want to miss it. It's also a lot of fun." Klein "inspires jealousy among his fellow scribes—he writes better, thinks better, than most," commented Eric Pooley in Fortune.

Klein's ultimate search in Politics Lost is for what he calls the "Turnip Day" moment. The phrase originates in a 1948 speech by President Harry S Truman, who promised to call legislators back to Washington by Turnip Day, the agricultural deadline for planting turnips in Missouri. To Klein, this unrehearsed and homespun reference epitomizes the rare moments in politics when politicians drop their pretenses and allow their humanity to be glimpsed, if only for a moment. Klein describes a defining Turnip Day moment as Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 speech in Indianapolis, IN, where he broke the news of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death to a crowd that had not yet heard about his assassination. In a humble moment, Kennedy reminded the crowd that a member of his own family had been killed by an assassin's bullet, and he called on the city to remain calm, reflect, and pray. Tellingly, while violence and unrest broke out in most other major American cities, Indianapolis remained quiet. Klein describes how these profound moments of connection between politicians and their constituents have been sapped by the influence of pollsters, consultants, strategists, analysts, and others who have tried to automate and sterilize the mechanisms of politics. Such influences "have been intent on purging Turnip Day spontaneity in favor of poll-based, risk-averse blandness that bodes ill for American democracy," observed Booklist reviewer Vanessa Bush. Ultimately, "Klein is not optimistic about the future of politics. But he places his faith in people's preference for candidates who say what they mean—even if it's not popular," remarked Ruth Conniff in the Progressive.



American Libraries, December, 2003, "Judge: Primary Colors Didn't Libel Librarian," p. 23.

Biography, summer, 2006, "Politicians," review of Politics Lost: How American Democracy Was Trivialized by People Who Think You're Stupid, p. 556.

Book, April, 2002, Adam Langer, "Joe Klein's Primary Concern: Bill Clinton's Biographer Wants Us to Remember the Former President for His Successes, Not His Scandals," review of The Natural: The Misunderstood Presidency of Bill Clinton, p. 23.

Booklist, September 15, 2000, Whitney Scott, review of The Running Mate, p. 259; January 1, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of The Natural, p. 774; March 15, 2006, Vanessa Bush, review of Politics Lost, p. 4.

Business Week, March 25, 2002, "A Squandered Presidency?," review of The Natural, p. 15.

Commentary, June, 2006, Dan Seligman, "Substance Abuse," review of Politics Lost, p. 71.

Economist, March 2, 2002, "For the Defense: Bill Clinton's Presidency," review of The Natural.

Entertainment Weekly, April 28, 2000, Bruce Fretts, "The Insider: Proving Primary Colors Was no Fluke, Joe Klein Hits below the Beltway with Another Knockout DC Novel," review of The Running Mate, p. 98; March 8, 2002, Bruce Fretts, "Power Books," review of The Natural, p. 66.

Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2006, Richard Holbrooke, "Authentically Liberal," review of Politics Lost, p. 170.

Fortune, May 15, 2006, Eric Pooley, "First, We Kill all the Consultants," review of Politics Lost, p. 166.

Harper's, October, 2006, Kevin Baker, "Trivial Pursuit: The Fake Quest for an ‘Authentic Democrat,’" review of Politics Lost, p. 81.

Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2001, review of The Natural, p. 1740; March 1, 2006, review of Politics Lost, p. 221.

Library Journal, March 1, 2000, review of The Running Mate, p. S5; October 1, 2000, Joseph L. Carlson, review of The Running Mate, p. 167; February 1, 2002, Karl Helicher, review of The Natural, p. 117; April 15, 2006, Thomas J. Baldino, "Across the Great Divide: The State of American Politics," review of Politics Lost, p. 95.

National Review, May 6, 2002, Dick Morris, "Unrequited Love," review of The Natural, p. 48.

Newsweek, July 29, 1996, Larry Reibstein, "End of the Game," p. 74; May 1, 2000, George R. Stephanopoulos, "A New Palette: Joe Klein's Sequel to Primary Colors Captures a Corrosive Capital," review of The Running Mate, p. 73.

New York Observer, May 1, 2006, Thomas Frank, "Joe Klein's Turnip Day," profile of Joe Klein, p. 15.

New York Times, July 18, 1996, Doreen Carvajal, "Columnist's Mea Culpa: I'm Anonymous"; July 18, 1996, Iver Peterson, "Telling the Truth"; July 22, 1996, Mark Landler, "Media: Publishing; The Unmasking of the Author of Primary Colors Creates a Marketing Quandary"; July 26, 1996, Lawrie Mifflin, "Primary Colors Author Resigns as Commentator at CBS News".

People, May 8, 2000, Ralph Novak, "Pages," review of The Running Mate, p. 51; March 11, 2002, Todd Seavey, "Pages," review of The Natural, p. 49.

Presidential Studies Quarterly, March, 2003, Donald Raber II, review of The Natural, p. 250.

Progressive, August, 2006, Ruth Conniff, "The Great Liberal Debate," review of Politics Lost, p. 42.

Publishers Weekly, February 11, 2002, review of The Natural, p. 174; February 11, 2002, Michael Bronski, "PW Talks with Joe Klein," interview with Joe Klein, p. 175; March 6, 2006, review of Politics Lost, p. 65.

Time, May 1, 2000, Andrew Ferguson, "Searching for That Sting: Anonymous, a.k.a. Journalist Joe Klein, Returns for a Second Campaign with a New Political Novel," review of The Running Mate, p. 76; March 11, 2002, Margaret Carlson, "Honey, I Shrunk My Presidency: The Bubba of Primary Colors Gets a Measure of Respect in the Nonfiction Version," review of The Natural, p. 68.

Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1996, Jim Sleeper, "The Press Corps Extracts Its Revenge," p. A18.

Washington Monthly, April, 2002, Kenenth S. Baer, review of The Natural, p. 55; May, 2006, Chuck Todd, "Death by Consulting: Joe Klein's Jeremiad against the Hired Hands of American Politics," review of Politics Lost, p. 33.

World and I, September, 2002, John Attarian, "Sorting Out Bill Clinton—This Reflective Attempt to Assess the Clinton Presidency Offers Provocative Messages about Clinton—and America," review of The Natural, p. 237.

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