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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 himself.

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 politician.

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