Let's dispose of the obvious first. Joe Klein's second novel, "The Running Mate," is no "Primary Colors." Even if it hadn't come wrapped in a cheap marketing gimmick--the author's anonymity--Klein's literary debut would have been a notable event. Written by a top political journalist who closely covered the rise of Bill Clinton, "Primary Colors" was a spectacularly funny send-up of politics. Rife with memorable scenes and writing, it cribbed its plot from reality, or, more specifically, from the 1992 presidential campaign. This time, Klein has taken on a more difficult task: to conceive a novel from scratch.

At least, closer to scratch. "The Running Mate" is the tale of a Midwestern senator who looks and acts a lot like Nebraska's Bob Kerrey. Like Kerrey, Charlie Martin is a Vietnam veteran with a droll wit--an ironist. After running a risibly inept presidential campaign, where he faced charges of sexual harassment, Martin discovers an illegitimate son and falls in love with a brassy swimsuit designer. And in the midst of a hard-fought re-election campaign, he comes to a depressing realization about American politics: It corrupts all who touch it.

Even if the novel doesn't succeed wildly--it comes equipped with too many transparent plot devices--it's still an important book. From his perch at The New Yorker, Joe Klein's coverage shapes the debate. His dispatches from the campaign trail are among the best in the business, and he does far more than gauge the horse race. Before George W. Bush pronounced himself a compassionate conservative, Joe Klein touted faith-based institutions as an elixir for the woes of the poor. He has championed the importance of values in public policy.

It's interesting to consider, therefore, why he has such a dim view of the business. The answer lies in "Primary Colors." In that book, he seemed to believe that politics can be noble. The goodness of the profession could redeem even a flawed character like Bill Clinton (I mean, Jack Stanton). The politicos in "Primary Colors" may occasionally have done bad, but they meant good. In "The Running Mate," the scoundrels have elbowed out the well-intentioned guys. There is an army of heartless consultants, smarmy lobbyists, and self-righteous zealots. They don't blink as they destroy reputations and ruin lives. Has politics changed that much in the five years since "Primary Colors" was published? Probably not, but Joe Klein has. He has gone through a very public disillusionment with the Clinton administration, which seems to have turned him off politics.

But he may be too turned off. He has fallen for some clichés that don't befit a reporter of his sophistication. Take his depiction of Lee Butler, the fundamentalist muffler salesman who runs against Charlie Martin. He's everything that's pernicious in politics wrapped into one: the vulgarity of Rush Limbaugh meets the sanctimony of Pat Robertson meets the dishonesty of Richard Nixon. He tours the state on motorcycle, with each day of campaigning capped by a Bible-study session. Butler's svengali is a consultant named Ronny Bigler, nicknamed the "natural born-again" killer. Bearing a resemblance to Ralph Reed, Bigler claims that he models his campaigns on the crusades. Some of this is funny. Most of it is over-the-top. Washington is simply not this amoral. Our scoundrels don't have the wax on the mustaches that Klein places there. (The staunchest evangelicals, for instance, tend to be some of the least flamboyant politicians in town. Think Steve Largent or Bob Inglis.)

Klein seems to mock Butler for believing that the 1960s were the decade when America went to hell-in-a-handbasket. This is a mockable position. But he then goes on to posit his own declinist theory. Charlie Martin wonders on behalf of Klein, "Hadn't there been a time when the stakes were only victory or defeat? Now the losers ended up in jail or mental hospitals, exposed or humiliated." In part, Klein seems to be buying the Whitewater-Vince-Foster conspiratorial view of the Clintons. And in large part, Klein buys a mawkish nostalgia for an age that didn't exist. (They just don't make honest politicians like Richard Nixon anymore.)

Of course, Klein's optimistic desire to have politics populated by heroes is an honorable one. It enlivens his journalism, as it did in his delightfully fawning coverage of John McCain. Klein has high aspirations for American politics. And he will undoubtedly produce another great novel about our public life. "The Running Mate," though, is definitely not it.

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