A 'Primary Colors' Of Years Past

It seems to have been largely forgotten, but a book entitled "Washington Merry-Go-Round" stirred up controversy back in 1931 in much the same way "Primary Colors" has become the recent talk of this city and the country.

Now, after months of firm denial, Newsweek's Joe Klein admitted to being the "Anonymous" author of "Primary Colors." He pleaded guilty to lying but insisted he owed no apology for this because he was carrying out a commitment to his publisher not to reveal his name. After several days he belatedly said he was sorry.

When read today, "Washington Merry-Go-Round" looks pretty tame. But for the first time the behind-the-scenes life and activities of Washington's movers and shakers was being disclosed. Nothing like this had seen the light of day in print before.

Many editors at that time were pronouncing the book as at best shoddy and at worst irresponsible journalism. But who had written it? Like "Primary Colors," the writer or writers hid behind anonymity.

Then the rumors began. Several names were mentioned. One was Robert S. Allen, a member of the Washington news bureau of The Christian Science Monitor. My knowledge of what happened next came from Erwin D. Canham, a colleague of Mr. Allen's in the Monitor's Washington bureau and later the long-time editor of the Monitor. Both men are no longer living.

Editor Canham told me the following, first back in the late '40s as we shared a ride in from Waban, Mass., to our Boston Monitor newsroom, and a second time while we were sitting together at a press conference at a political convention in Chicago in 1960:

When members of the Monitor editorial board, which ran the paper at that time, asked Allen about his possible authorship, he heatedly denied it. Then, not too long after, when the fact surfaced that Allen and Drew Pearson had, indeed, written the book, Allen was fired.

Canham said the Monitor's decision to dismiss Allen was based on his deception, although the editors also strongly disapproved of the book. Canham, in his book on the Monitor, "Commitment to Freedom," published in 1958, doesn't mention the lying aspect of the firing episode, but instead emphasizes the muckraking flavor of the book, which was, he wrote, "in violent conflict with the Monitor's editorial conviction, style, and attitude to public problems."

It's obvious to me now that, in our conversations about Allen years ago, Canham had been letting me in on a little Monitor behind-the-scenes story that certainly can be told today.

Allen's career wasn't damaged. Only a few Monitor people even knew he had been discharged by his newspaper. Instead, he let it be known that he had decided to move on to other and certainly more profitable enterprises. The book was a bestseller. Soon a nationally syndicated column, with the same title and written by the same two men, became a spinoff of the book that was immensely successful.

Klein's book, meanwhile, has been going great guns. It has been perceived by most readers - and reviewers - as a thinly veiled and highly critical portrait of the Clintons and the press during the 1992 primary campaign.

Yes, Allen went on to make a lot of money. And Klein will make at least $6 million and probably much more from the book. Since hardly anyone knew the circumstances surrounding Allen's leaving the Monitor, his conduct never became a matter of public scrutiny. But could it be that Klein's admitted lying will cost him his good name and impair his career? Already, CBS has accepted his resignation as a commentator, and Newsweek has put him on the sidelines for a few weeks.

I agree with the verdict of The New York Times, which editorialized: "...people interested in preserving the core value of serious journalism have to view his [Klein's] actions and words as corrupt and - if they become an example to others - corrupting." I'd like to see these words posted on bulletin boards of newspapers and journalism schools from coast to coast.

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