Review: The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Aldred A. Knopf, 2018)
Former US President Bill Clinton is a man of singular gifts – a highly intelligent policy wonk with an unmatched capacity to connect with voters through mastery of what we are obliged these days to call political narrative. In other words, he’s a great storyteller. And Clinton is a confirmed admirer of Lee Child’s “Jack Reacher” series, so he’s a good judge of pulp fiction too. Altogether, the reader has a right to expect good things from Clinton’s first political thriller, The President is Missing, written with collaborator James Patterson, no less than the world’s best-selling author. But the reader will be disappointed.
Granted, the plot, centred on cyber-terrorism, gallops along engagingly until it ends in an unintentionally hilarious electronic guessing game. The authors claim to have consulted world-leading cyber-security experts but the climactic scene reads like it could only have been dreamed up by two 70-ish men who type with their index fingers and CC themselves on emails because they don’t know about the ‘Sent Items’ folder.
The writing is never more than serviceable, the characters mostly two-dimensional or, if they are filled out, it is done in clichés. There’s a European villain who listens to classical music while she does her dirty work (the only surprise is that it is not Wagner). The title character, President Jonathan Duncan, is heroic, good looking, physically gifted, the smartest guy in any room, a devoted father to a daughter, and a military veteran who suffered torture as a POW in Iraq.
But Clinton and Patterson are not content with such clichéd perfection: their President Duncan pauses in the middle of a top-secret operation that could determine the fate of 300 million people to console a down-on-his-luck veteran and offer him a meal. We’re supposed to marvel at Duncan’s compassion but most readers will wonder why the president is so easily distracted from the biggest national-security crisis since Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.
Duncan is a superhero, and not just in his abilities. He reads like a boy’s fantasy of a perfect president, an impression reinforced in a brief scene between Duncan and a Hollywood actress who we’re told was once named one of the ten most beautiful women in the world. The scene itself is utterly chaste but we get just the slightest hint that, when the widowed Duncan has finished despatching the villains, he might return to her.
The main entertainment to be found in The President is Missing is between the lines: can we read the book as Clinton’s commentary on the world, his presidential legacy and his opponents and critics?
We should be cautious. Clinton is not writing alone, after all, so any subtext in the novel could easily come from Patterson. And even if it does come from Clinton, a novel is a work of imagination and not necessarily an unvarnished insight into the author’s innermost thoughts and desires. Then again, ex-presidents have less latitude than the rest of us to criticise their colleagues, enemies and successors. Fiction offers a way to bypass that convention.
So just for the sport of it, let’s assume that The President is Missing does come straight from Clinton’s id. What does the book say about him?
Clinton has nothing original to say about modern American politics. His fantasy president’s political leanings are pure trite 1990s liberal-centrism.
First, that Clinton still reads his presidential term through the lens of victimhood. President Duncan is a man of unassailable integrity facing impeachment at the hands of a Gingrich-like House Speaker whose sole motives are power and personal advancement, and who has no regard for the national interest. Naturally, the media is out to get Duncan too; it is obsessed with rumour and intrigue. In short, Clinton’s fantasy president is a man of pure motives who is constantly being brought down by smaller minds and less pure hearts.
Second, Clinton has nothing original to say about modern American politics. His fantasy president’s political leanings are pure trite 1990s liberal-centrism. The diagnosis of US political dysfunction - politics has become a blood sport; the media is obsessed with scandal and uninterested in policy; politicians need to listen more and reach out beyond their electoral base - is equally tired.
Clinton’s treatment of geopolitics is predictably conventional for a member of a fading Democratic Party elite: there’s the easy familiarity with the Saudi royal family and the unquestioning acceptance that its rule represents stability. There’s the hand-in-glove US relationship with Israel. The German chancellor gets a supporting role too, though in a surprising error, Germany is given the status of a nuclear-weapons power.
Then there’s the vast inflation of the Russia threat, now de rigueur for a Democratic Party which would rather look for excuses than blame its embarrassing presidential election loss on itself. In The President is Missing, all that is stopping Russia from strangling its neighbours and asserting itself in every region of the world is American strength. It’s as if the Cold War never ended, as if post-Soviet Russia never suffered a demographic collapse, as if its economy is not mired in corruption, and as if its military is not a shadow of its former self. China, which is an actual great power that really does have the means and the motivation to dethrone America as world hegemon, is quickly sidelined from the story.
Because the plot of The President is Missing is built around cyber threats, we’re meant assume it is about the future. But it couldn’t be more outdated if it tried.