THE KLEIN AFFAIR -- the savaging of Joe Klein for having lied about his authorship of Primary Colors and the charge that he thus betrayed the standards of his journalistic profession -- is indeed kleine nachtmusik. But when the self-importance meets the self-righteousness of the American press, small takes on a very large aspect.

The issue, we hear, is not that the book's anonymous authorship and brilliantly managed public relations campaign helped make Klein rich, read, and now famous, to boot. It is that he lied publicly. He is so furiously condemned for the fact, not the fruits, of his deception.

Really? What if we were talking not about an anonymous book but an anonymous charitable donation? What if Klein had given $ 6 million to his alma mater, an alma mater small enough that the list of possible donors would be as narrow as the list of those who could have written Primary Colors? And what if all the suspects had been induced by an eager-beaver press -- as in the case of Primary Colors -- to make categorical denials? Do you think the press would be demanding Klein's head for having lied about that?

Klein has a lot to answer for to his friends to whom he lied about his authorship. But to journalism? American journalism countenances a staggering amount of lying about authorship. Indeed, claims of phony authorship are routine. How many published opinion pieces, let alone autobiographical tomes, by politicians and celebrities are really written by them? How many have even read the stuff they allegedly wrote? Indeed, the whole art of speechwriting, so honored in the world of Washington journalism, is a ventriloquist's exercise in dissimulation and legalized plagiarism.

Authorial deception is commonplace even in the pristine halls of science. The head of a laboratory gets his name on every piece of research that comes out of his shop, however tangentially or even non-involved he might have been in the actual research.

It is a far more serious offense to claim you wrote a book that you didn't write than to deny you wrote a book that you did. Klein denied his authorship of Primary Colors no more vigorously than John Kennedy asserted his of Profiles in Courage, which won him a Pulitzer Prize and general acclaim, and which he did not write. And how much of It Takes a Village did Hillary Clinton really write? She didn't even deign to name any of her coauthors in the acknowledgments, let alone on the title page.

Have someone write your Spanish exam for you, and they kick you out of Harvard. (Ah, those Kennedy boys.) Yet in journalism there is an entire sub- industry of ghostwriting books for others. That means putting someone else's name on something you wrote. If that's not lying about authorship, what is? So why has the ethics posse, so hot for Klein, not denounced ghostwriters for false attribution and a betrayal of journalism's code of truth-telling?

Yes, Joe Klein lied about his authorship of Primary Colors. But once you accept the fact that it is legitimate to publish a book anonymously, and that some such books will have so limited a pool of possible authors that g anonymity can only be preserved by lying, what else could he have done?

For months Washington lightheartedly accepted this fact. It was giddy with delight at the audacity of the book and the obvious petty treachery that was keeping it anonymous. Divining the author turned into a dinner-party parlor game, a Where's Waldo for intellectuals. Yet after months of such fun, Waldo appears and the town wants to lynch him.

Why the radical turn of mood? My theory is that there developed a general assumption that the book had been written by some close political associate of the Clintons. That would have been okay. Betrayal is not only accepted in Washington, it is celebrated. John Dean made his career by turning on Nixon. Jim Fallows launched his journalistic career by publishing a devastating tell- all dissection of Jimmy Carter who had brought Fallows to prominence as his speechwriter.

Betraying a friend and patron: irony. Lying to your fellow journalists: infamy!

Klein lied. But he lied about one thing, and one thing only, and it was a thing that by general and tacit agreement in Washington had to be lied about to preserve the town's most delicious and celebrated secret.

At one point, Klein claimed that he was only protecting the identity of his source (himself). Well, says the pack, you must not lie to protect a source. That's true. You must not. You must instead deflect the question or say "no comment."

But obviously Klein could not have done that without thereby admitting authorship. Klein's dilemma was journalistically unique. He could either lie or blow his source, but nothing in between. And he had no good answer.

Klein has since written an apologia about his inability to handle that dilemma and for having handled much of it badly. I would never have started down the road he did. But I can understand why, having started, he did what he did.

True, he should not have lied. But the reaction to his offense is as disproportionate as it is hypocritical. If lying about authorship is now a hanging offense, there are not enough lampposts in Washington to handle the volume.

by Charles Krauthammer

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