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Literature / Primary Colors

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Primary Colors is a Roman à Clef novel published in 1996 and attributed to an Anonymous Author (later revealed as journalist Joe Klein), as well as its 1998 film adaptation. The film was directed by Mike Nichols, with a screenplay by Elaine May. The main stars were John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, and Adrian Lester.

Both works are inspired by the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton. Henry Burton (Lester) is the campaign manager for Jack Stanton (Travolta), a charismatic but flawed governor whose philandering ways begin to affect his presidential campaign. Stanton's wife Susan (Thompson) is in some ways the driving force of the campaign and the mediator between the figures involved. Richard Jemmons (Thornton) is the campaign's lead strategist of this campaign, while Libby Holden (Bates), the media consultant, an outspoken lesbian who has been tasked with nullifying the potent threat of negative media reporting. She is the source of much of the verbal humor of the film.

The characters are, at least in part, based on real figures. Stanton stands for Clinton himself. Susan stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Burton is based on George Stephanopoulos, though the real figure shared duties with James Carville and David Wilhelm. Jemmons stands for Carville himself. Holden is thought to be a Composite Character which combines Betsey Wright and Vince Foster. Wright is credited with establishing the rapid response system that was responsible for defending Clinton's record in Arkansas and promptly answering all personal attacks on the candidate, while Foster was a highly-regarded lawyer and a close confidant of Hillary best known for his highly-publicized 1993 suicide.

The novel and the film feature the following tropes:

  • Alcohol-Induced Bisexuality: Picker had sex with his cocaine dealer Lorenzo Delgado a few times, but Picker himself describes it as "a cocaine thing" mostly done because he felt he could do anything while high.
  • Brutal Honesty:
    • Stanton gives a speech to a steel mill that is surprising as he refuses to promise that in the end of the 20th Century with globalization that factory work will come back. He instead promises to invest in permanent education to give blue-collar workers the opportunity to be prepared to seek new opportunities in a shifting economy. It gets major applause.
    • Picker's entire appeal is being an honest politician that loathes the current political process and prefers to talk about the issues.
    • The Stantons cuttingly say that Picker's baggage will make him too vulnerable in the media and the Republicans in the General Election, predicting that his election will lead to a disastrous defeat.
  • The Film of the Book: An epilogue of sorts is added to the movie where we see Jack Stanton won both the primary and the presidential election that was not in the book.
  • Friends with Benefits: Daisy and Henry have a casual sexual relationship. Daisy at one point makes an Interrupted Declaration of Love that maybe they could see if they can actually make it work outside of the job before Richard comes in to lie on their bed.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Jack Stanton reveals Beneath the Mask that he would have revealed all of the dirt he got on Stanton and felt guilty about it but it would have been necessary to win the election and to do the good work he needs to do.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: The novel is about the presidential campaign of governor Jack Stanton, who is rather obviously modeled after Bill Clinton. Many other characters in the novel also have real life counterparts.
  • Roman Clef: The novel belongs to this genre.
  • Not So Stoic: Susan Stanton breaks down in tears to Henry when she discovers the blood test to determine the paternity of their former babysitter's child.
  • Secret Test of Character: Libby finds dirt on Fred Picker and uses it to see if the Stantons would be willing to use it on Picker. They would.
  • Shout-Out: Doubles as Genius Bonus, but there are numerous references to Democratic politicians.
    • There is an oblique reference to Gary Hart, whose promising presidential campaign was torpedoed when allegations of extramarital affairs became public.
    • There are references to 1972 Democratic Candidate George McGovern, a noted liberal candidate adored by the young voters, whose campaign against Richard Nixon was an utter disaster, as Nixon won 49 out of 50 states in the electoral college.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Henry Burton may be the protagonist, but Jack Stanton is the center of attention.
  • 20 Minutes into the Past: Set in 1992, released in 1998.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: When the Stantons decide to leak Fred Picker's drug use and affair with Lorenzo Delgado to the media, Libby has an emotional meltdown, culminating in her committing suicide.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • Susan Stanton is willing to turn off her soul and become pure Pragmatic Villainy and focus on just what scandalous actions of Jack will mean for his political ambitions. Lampshaded with disgust by Libby that Jack somehow seems less of a monster by making Susan become such.
    • Henry Burton gets more disgusted and disenchanted by the political campaign and wants to leave at the end. Jack begs him to stay. In the end, Burton congratulates him as President-Elect.