Onyx reviews: The
Running Mate by Joe Klein
Joe Klein, anonymous no longer, revisits the fictionalized political arena
that drew enormous public attention to his first novel, Primary Colors. This time, rather than chronicling the campaign of presidential
candidate Jack Stanton, Klein has turned his eye to a different kind of man:
Charlie Martin, a scrupulous and mostly honest politician.
Martin, a popular Democratic senator from Iowa, is in the death throes of an
ill-advised bid for the presidency when a young female aide accuses him of
sexual misconduct. His embarrassment, the result of a clumsy misunderstanding,
becomes national news when the woman's father punches him on camera.
Martin retreats to Bangkok to escape the relentless pursuit of the media and
lick his wounds. While in the Far East, he is asked to use his political
influence to help extract an American national from a Vietnamese prison. The
Vietnamese are as eager as the Americans to make an unpleasant situation go away
since they are in the midst of normalization talks with the U.S. Martin, who
bears conspicuous signs of his Vietnam war experience, takes on this task
reluctantly. His success, however, goes a long way toward rehabilitating his
political status back home.
Still, politics is becoming even more abstract to Martin. His malaise is
reinforced when he falls in love with Nell Palmerston, who is dating a close
friend and political ally when he meets her. He does the honorable thing and
bides his time until she becomes available. Once they become an item, his
political problems worsen.
Klein does a very good job of conveying Martin's disinterest in his political
career. Martin is just putting in time in Washington and readers get very little
sense of what a senator actually does. His trips back to Iowa are regarded
disdainfully as a necessary evil of the job. He has lost his focus. His staff
and advisors are worried what will happen when he must run for reelection.
What happens is Lee Butler, a local muffler salesman and media personality, the
Iowan equivalent of "Mattress Mac." Butler has simultaneously found
religion and a political calling and begins a vigorous run against the incumbent
senator. Martin is determined to take the high road in the campaign even when
his opponent chooses to do otherwise. Martin's campaign strategists defy him and
run background checks on everyone on both sides of the campaign. The information
that they turn up threatens to destroy Martin's relationship with Nell, while at
the same time providing him with juicy ammunition that could knock the
holier-than-thou Butler from his lead. Charlie is forced to confront what is
important in his life and to weigh the costs of running a competitive and
potentially ugly campaign on his family, his girlfriend and, ultimately, on
The Running Mate is not as accessible as Primary Colors
because the characters are less recognizable. In his first novel, it was obvious
who the real-life analogs of Jack Stanton, his wife and the other personalities
in the Stanton organization were. Part of the attraction of that novel was the
vicarious thrill at getting an inside look at the Clinton campaign machine,
warts and all.
With The Running Mate, the characters do not necessarily correspond
to real-life people. Martin could be seen as a cross between Senators Kerry and
McCain, but only in general terms. Stanton/Clinton appears as a secondary
character, but mostly as a way of setting the context of Martin's story. Freed
from having to stick to reality, Klein has written a more intimate story. Martin
is a complex man, though perhaps impossibly idealistic for a successful
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