LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Washington is on the hunt for the senior official in the Trump administration who anonymously wrote a scathing critique of the president's leadership in The New York Times. Almost 23 years ago in 1996, there was a similar frenzy for the anonymous author of "Primary Colors," a roman a clef about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign. Joe Klein, then a Newsweek columnist, eventually revealed himself to be the author of "Primary Colors" after The Washington Post published evidence linking him to the manuscript. He joins me now to talk about what it's like to make waves in Washington without anyone knowing your name. Welcome, Mr. Klein.
JOE KLEIN: Good to be here, Lulu.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So you're one of the only people - I know, at least - who's been the target of this kind of feeding frenzy. What's it like?
KLEIN: Well, it's very different from the current feeding frenzy. When I was anonymous, it was all good news. First of all, I had just written an entertainment. You know, I wanted to make people laugh. It was a satire. It was a novel. In this case, I imagine this person is really terrified because his or her whole future is at stake and so, in a way, is the future of the country.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I'd like to talk a little bit about anonymity, actually. I mean, when you wrote your book, why did you decide to publish it anonymously?
KLEIN: Well, it was a combination of cowardice and whimsy. Cowardice - every journalist thinks that he or she has a great novel lurking somewhere inside them. Most of them - 99.9% of them are wrong. Whimsy because my wife and I are big fans of 19th century English serial novels, and nobody put their names on those. And I thought it would be some fun.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it hard to sit back and watch people analyze your work and not be able to claim it or defend yourself?
KLEIN: Well, in that case, all the reviews were brilliant and good. I mean, I was just completely shocked. The pain came later and was also kind of shocking when I was exposed as the author, and everybody got all head-up and excited and angry about it. It was a reaction I still don't understand. And by everybody, I just mean the Washington insider and journalist community. I think that the millions of people who read the book - their reaction was just sheer enjoyment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You frequently denied writing it at the time.
KLEIN: It was an anonymous novel. That's what you do.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. Were you worried that they were going to find out who you were?
KLEIN: At a certain point it became a worry because there was this frenzy to find out who it was. There were reporters lurking around the house. And we had young children at the time who walked to elementary school every day. You never know what would happen in a situation like that. So we got kind of freaked out toward the end of it.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As we mentioned, you were eventually revealed to be the author of your book. Do you think it's better for the writer to come clean before journalists or President Trump's aides, sort of, out the person as the writer of this op-ed?
KLEIN: Well, you're assuming that the person is going to be outed. I don't know that he will. In my case, I was kind of happy to be outed. It had gone on for six months and enough was enough. And also, the future of the country wasn't at stake. I just written a comic novel for God's sakes. One of the worst aspects of what's going on now is that so much attention is being placed on the search for the author that we're in danger of losing the real issue here, which is are we being led by an unstable personality? The frenzy that takes place when anything like this happens, whether it's a scandal or an anonymous article or whatever, the frenzy really is a disease. We, as journalists, have to be able to step back a bit and try and see things in perspective.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Joe Klein, political writer and novelist. Thank you so very much.
KLEIN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.