Bill Clinton book with James Patterson, a political thriller, is a fabulous revision of his own life and scandal: review

There are many similarities between former US President Bill Clinton and the main character in The President is Missing, but ultimately the novel skimps on the promised insider details and lacks excitement

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 8:30pm

The President Is Missing

by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Little, Brown and Knopf

2.5 stars

Former US president Bill Clinton and thriller writer James Patterson have teamed up to write a novel together, which for pure marketing genius would be like a Supreme Court judge and Katy Perry releasing a duet.

This isn’t the first work of fiction by a US president: Jimmy Carter published an earnest novel about the American Revolutionary War titled The Hornet’s Nest in 2003, and Donald Trump is a master of autoerotic fantasy. But The President Is Missing is, nonetheless, an extraordinary event. As the publishers gush, it’s the first novel “informed by insider details that only a president can know”.

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The CIA can relax. Surely, no black felt-tip pens went dry redacting classified material from this manuscript. The President Is Missing reveals as many secrets about the US government as The Pink Panther reveals about the French government. And yet it provides plenty of insight on the former president’s ego.

The novel opens with the commander in chief, President Duncan, preparing for a House Select Committee. His staff has strongly advised him against testifying. “My opponents really hate my guts,” Duncan thinks, but “here I am … just one honest man … with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour”.

Facing a panel of snivelling political opportunists intent on impeaching him, Duncan knows he sounds “like a lawyer” caught in “a semantic legal debate”, but darn it, he’s trying to save the United States. Although Congress insists he explain exactly what he’s been up to, he can’t reveal the details of his secret negotiations with a terrorist set on destroying the country.

As a fabulous revision of Clinton’s own life and impeachment scandal, this is dazzling. The transfiguration of William Jefferson Clinton into Jonathan Lincoln Duncan should be studied in psych departments for years. Both men lost their fathers early and rose from hardscrabble circumstances to become governors. Both men met their brilliant wives in law school, and both couples have one daughter.

But then we come to the curious differences. Rather than shrewdly avoiding military service, President Duncan is a celebrated war hero. Rather than being pleasured in the Oval Office by an intern, Duncan was tortured in Iraq by the Republican Guard. And rather than being the subject of innumerable rumours about extramarital affairs, Duncan was wholly devoted to his late wife and now lives in apparent celibacy.

Even incidental details provide weird echoes of the Clinton era: Duncan’s closest adviser, for example, is a woman publicly branded by a crude reference to oral sex.

This is, at least partially, a James Patterson book, and soon we’re crashing through his famous two-page chapters (Showtime, the US television network, has acquired the rights for a TV adaptation). The whole 500-page novel takes place in just a few days as a terrorist named Suliman Cindoruk plots to activate a computer virus devised by a beautiful Abkhazian separatist with a hard, agile body and a “voracious appetite for exploration, in the world of cyberwarfare and in the bedroom”. Her virus has infected every server, computer and electronic device in America.

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In a matter of hours, the country’s financial, legal and medical records will be erased, and the transport and electrical grids will crash. Hungry and Twitterless, without access to porn, fake news or Joyce Carol Oates’ cat photos, America will be plunged into the dark ages.

Only one handsome man can stop this, but it’s not easy for the president of the United States to slip out of the White House and foil international terrorists, particularly with those congressmen hot on his tail, intent on impeachment. Fortunately, Duncan gets some make-up help from an actress who is “one of the twenty most beautiful women on the planet”. A little beard stubble, some quick work with an eyebrow pencil and the leader of the free world is ready to go underground and defend Western civilisation.

For much of The President Is Missing, Patterson seems to have deferred to the First Writer. That’s a problem. When we pick up a thriller this silly, we want underwear models shooting Hellfire missiles from hang gliders; Clinton gives us cabinet members questioning each other over Skype. President Duncan spends an awful lot of time consulting with world leaders, reminding us that “a safe and stable United States means a safe and stable Israel”.

He lectures at us about the proper function of government and the responsibilities of Nato. Several segments read like little admonitions for Trump: “Surrounding yourself with sycophants and bootlickers is the shortest route to failure,” Duncan says. But unless someone reads those passages on Fox News, the current president is unlikely to encounter that wise advice, and the rest of us already know it.

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Rather than those insider details we were promised “that only a president can know”, the novel is full of tepid moralising. “What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting?” Duncan asks in a critique of click-driven journalism. “There is no trust any more,” Clinton’s avatar laments, breaking the irony metre.

The larger problem, though, is how cramped the novel’s scope remains. There’s no thrum of national panic, no sense of the wide world outside this very literal narrative. So much of the plot is stuck in a room with nerds trying to crack a computer code. That struggle feels about as exciting as watching your parents trying to remember their Facebook password.