The most famous and talked about novel about the American
White House in the 1990s is not Erik Tarloff's Face-Time:
it is Joe Klein's Primary Colors. Klein's novel is about
a presidential campaign--read 1992. It is about a young, naive,
but competent and high-ranking aide--read George Stephanopolous.
It is about the candidate's wife--read Hillary Rodham Clinton.
And it is about a charismaic and intelligent presidential candidate
with a past full of sexual and moral lapses--read Bill Clinton.
Truth be told, Primary Colors is not a very good novel.
It is heavy on episodes: lots of things happen and the pot keeps
boiling, but not in a way that makes a unified plot. Characters
are boldly drawn, but as caricatures rather than people. People
who shouldn't have sex, but the scene is not particularly hot.
Primary Colors is a pot-boiler, not a novel. Klein recognizes
that telling the story of the Clintons required a novelist of
greater gifts--someone like Robert Penn Warren, perhaps, and
Klein drops allusions to All the King's Men, Warren's
story of Huey Long, throughout Primary Colors. But Klein
can't quite pull it off.
Yet when it was published Primary Colors triggered
enthusiastic reviews, an enormous media buzz, and became the
talk of Washington D.C. for half a year. It did so because when
first published the book was by Anonymous. And the book's
publisher and flacks dropped hints that Anonymous was
in fact somebody whose position and career would have been jeapordized
if it became known that he had written this book. The author--so
the sly innuendoes implies--was someone very close to the President:
someone who had lots of face-time with Bill Clinton, and who
was telling us via the novel what he had learned from his special
The interest in the book grew the longer that its author--Joe
Klein, just another Washington reporter with no special passes
to the White House's West Wing, East Wing, or Family Quarters--could
keep up the pretense that the author was someone special who
who had to stay "anonymous." Klein went as far
as telling questioners that he was not the author--in fact pledging
his journalistic integrity to questioners that he was not the
author. The result? Big sales, big movie.
The answer is that the American presidency has acquired
magical, mystical, royal powers: that contact with the president
confers magic; that those who have face-time with the
president are somehow ennobled.
This is a strange and remarkable phenomenon. And this is what
Erik Tarloff's book Face-Time is about: not about his
President Sheffield, but about Sheffield's speechwriter Ben Kraus
and what being at the Court of the President does to him--especially
when President Sheffield decides to sleep with Kraus's girlfriend
Gretchen. It's about life inside a peculiar bubble where your
status, your power, your sense of your own self-worth all a function
of your face time, and what this does to you.
Tarloff's book struck me as very true--in the elation of the
campaign and a new administration, in the confident belief of
those in the White House that they can change the world, in the
worship of the president, and in the associated sycophancy. Yet
precisely because Tarloff said that he wrote it, rather than
claiming face-time he did not really have--Tarloff's novel
has had a smaller cultural and political footprint than Joe Klein's.
So kudos to Erik Tarloff, for writing what may be the
most psychologically true pictures of life around the White House
I have ever seen--and here's hoping that none of us will ever
find ourselves in the positions of Tarloff's characters Ben and
The novel has a number of moments and descriptions that have
stayed with me, for example...
...Tarloff's capsule summary of just why the presidency becomes
the center of attention:
p. 21: When an entire enterprise is built around one
person, your sense of importance is determined by your access
to him. By face-time. The campaign becomes a traveling court,
with the candidate as sovereign, the rest of us courtiers vying
for his attention and favor. It's almost independent of his personal
qualities. I mean, to get that far, he's probably got something,
but whatever he might personally lack his position supplies.
...Tarloff's claim that working in the West Wing is not that
different from joining the Moonies:
p. 48: When I was in high school, my older brother,
Dave, who was in his sophomore year in college at the time, suddenly
dropped out of school and joined a cult. He had always been so
sensible, it took all of us by surprise and made my parents frantic....
[S]eeing my brother in the company of the leader... and his inner
circle was especially distressing. The man had a certain presence,
unquestionably, but the extraordinary deference shown him by
everyone in the room... was profoundly disconcerting.... [I]n
that context, in that setting, you began to wonder whether you
were possibly missing something essential. Everyone else in the
room seemed to see it... as if every word and gesture of the
man bespoke something manifestly majestic and holy. Dave left
the cult on his own after about ten months.... But it's something
I sometimes recall when I'm in Charles Sheffield's company. The
president is an interesting and able man, undoubtedly, but does
he really merit the deferential kowtowing that is shown him as
a matter of course? If he didn't have the mantle of the presidency
about him, would any of us think of him as anything terribly
special? I doubt it, frankly, but the fact that I can't be sure--that
the man and the office are inextricable, even to me, even now--as
almost as distressing as was the adulation everyone showed...
[in] the cult's compound. I sometimes get the feeling Dave isn't
the only Krause brother who joined a cult.
...on the eagerness of nearly everyone to tell the president
what he wants to hear so that he will find talking to you pleasant:
p. 134: "Yeah, right. Ingratiating yourself, sucking
up... no ulterior motives there, uh-uh, no sir."
"Well now, Randy," I said, getting a little pissed
myself now, "I suppose everyone tries to ingratiate himself
around the president. Seems to come with the territory. It's
just, some of us are better at it than others. Or maybe it's
even simpler than that, maybe some of us are just more naturally
By now he was washing his hands, and I was at a urinal. He
looked over at me. "In any case, you're exactly where you
want to be, right?"
"If only you knew, I said."
...on how close contact with the presidency feels... special:
p. 138: "But I think this is worse. Ultimately,
it's worse. It's so... forgive the cliche, but it's so unmanning.
I mean, if it were anybody else, I could at least compete. But
if you're looking for a boyfriend they play 'Hail to the Chief'
to when he enters the room, then only one guy fills the bill.
And I'm pretty much out of contention."
"But doesn't that make it less terrible? I mean,
he's not really my boyfriend. Nobody's my boyfriend but
you. I'm not interested in anybody else. And it's not a judgment
about you. Comparisons aren't relevant. He's, he's... he's this
figure on a stage. It isn't personal. It doesn't even feel
personal. Not even when he talks personally. And it isn't
like, I don't know, like his conversation is more interesting--it
mostly isn't very interesting at all--or that he treats me better,
or he's more attractive, or he's a better lover. It's just, the
position he occupies makes the whole thing unique. Irresistible.
Irresistible as a bizarre once-in-a-lifetime opportunity..."
...and on the deep fundamentals of primate behavior in the
presence of the alpha-male:
p. 100: Jesus, I hated this. The worst part was, even
while seething inwardly, I found myself smiling at him, lowering
my head slightly, not meeting his eyes, docilely permitting myself
to be steered toward one of the two matching sofas. My reactions
were out of control somehow. Jane Goodall, in her book In
the Shadow of Man, describes a chimpanzee named William:
"If another adult male showed signs of aggression toward
him, William was quick to approach with gestures of appeasement
and submission, reaching out to lay his hands on the other, crouching
with soft panting grunts in front of the higher-ranking individuals.
During such an encounter, he would often pull back the corners
of his lips and expose his teeth in a nervous grin. The most
I can say for myself is that I somehow managed to omit the panting
grunts. That one trivial bit of primate behavior to the side,
I felt quite a kinship with William as I took my seat. During
his encounters with dominant males, I wonder if his heart raced
as fast as mine was doing now...