“It’s a role like any other, a coat she puts on when necessary and sheds as soon as she’s done, but she can see it’s working: the men trying for eye contact, checking the cleavage she’s made sure to reveal, allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable. The women sizing up her entire five-foot-nine-inch frame with envy, from her knee-high chocolate leather boots to her flaming red hair, before checking their husbands to see what they think of the view. She will be memorable, no doubt, the tall, leggy, busty red-head hiding in plain sight.”
So reads our introduction to one of the characters in The President Is Missing, the best-selling new novel co-written by James Patterson, the absurdly popular thriller writer, and Bill Clinton, the increasingly unpopular former president. Lest you think that these early pages of Chapter 3 (out of 129) are somehow a cherry-picked, uniquely revealing window into the psyche of the man who governed America for two terms in the 1990s, I can assure you that they are in fact representative of the entire book. By Chapter 3, the fictitious narrator-president has already undergone a partisan House hearing (“Here I am. Just me. The President of the United States, facing a mob of accusers”) from which he storms away (“ ‘This is over. We’re done.’ I lash out and whack the microphone off the table. I knock over my chair as I get to my feet.”), but not before uttering lines like, “I’m on the side of the American people, that’s whose side I’m on.” The italics, here and throughout, belong to Clinton and Patterson; this is the sort of sub–Tom Clancy thriller that simultaneously preaches a dreary populism and believes its readers are too stupid to understand dialogue that isn’t enunciated on the page.
But let us return to the passage above, which is notable in several ways, not the least of which is that the authors don’t seem to know the meaning of the phrase “hiding in plain sight.” (The whole point of the passage is obviously that this woman is not trying to obscure herself at all.) No matter: Ask yourself if you find anything a tad strange about a president whose legacy is forever besmirched by sexual misbehavior referring to a woman’s breasts as “her girls” mere pages after penning a ridiculous fantasy version of himself saying all the things he dreamed of saying to Kenneth Starr and Newt Gingrich—but doing so not to defend himself from X-rated accusations, but rather in the service of protecting the homeland from dangerous foreign adversaries.
I’m lingering over the perpetually fascinating inner life of Bill Clinton because it is by far the most compelling aspect of The President Is Missing. Still, the reader should know that there are delights one can glimpse before even approaching the text itself. Those unaware of Patterson, for example, can turn to his bio on the book jacket, which informs us that “He holds the Guinness World Record for the most #1 New York Times bestsellers.” It continues: “A tireless champion of the power of books and reading, Patterson created a new children’s book imprint, JIMMY Patterson, whose mission is simple: ‘We want every kid who finishes a JIMMY book to say, “PLEASE GIVE ME ANOTHER BOOK.’ ” The combination of crude sales figures and claims of charitable generosity is so fittingly Clinton-esque that my hopes were briefly raised about the duo’s potential to pull off an enjoyable page-turner.
Alas, the quality of The President Is Missing is signaled almost immediately by the name of the title character: Jonathan Lincoln Duncan. (This book so warped my brain that it took me several minutes to recall that Clinton’s middle name is Jefferson.) Both men have a daughter. And, would you believe the circumstances of Duncan’s meeting his wife recall Bill and Hillary’s courtship? Obviously, one should be careful not to project too much authorial autobiography onto a novel’s protagonist. But the parallels here are comically hard to ignore—and if you, a former president, opt to co-write a thriller starring a current president, you are shamelessly inviting them. Duncan, though, unlike Clinton, is basically a stick in the mud: deadly dull, humorless, and upright. It’s depressing that Clinton’s idealized version of himself is a man who makes Jack Ryan seem like Jim Carrey, but at least it allows for passages like the following, ostensibly about the veep: “It hasn’t been easy being vice-president, though she is well aware that any number of people would trade places with her. But how many of those people came within a breath of winning the nomination only to see their dreams upended by a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor.” (I like to envision this passage being written by an eager-to-please Patterson who nonetheless had to endure Clinton inserting the word rugged.)
But on to more serious matters: The United States is facing the risk of a gigantic cyberattack, and Duncan—the former war hero who was tortured while serving his country—is the only man who can stop it. Indeed, the plot requires him to go undercover to stop the dastardly plot being carried out by a smorgasbord of America’s enemies (terrorists, Russians, assassins of ambiguous origin). Although Clancy, that old reactionary, had a tendency to overstuff his narratives with mindless details and far too many villains, at least he kept his tales compelling enough thanks to his (never lightly worn) research into the national security world. The resulting jingoism—which was toned down in the film versions of his books—was often unseemly, but it rarely dragged. Clinton, who presumably knows a thing or two about the American national security apparatus, reveals nothing of interest about its workings. The book lacks even the tiniest insider-y details that one might naively presume were what made Patterson want to join forces with the former president.
Regardless, it’s notable that these two men, respectively renowned for their powers of narration and oration, seem unable to overcome the challenge of composing good prose. Part of the problem is their fondness for mixed metaphors: One unfortunate character is forced to “bite her tongue and accept her place as second fiddle.” Even for a thriller, some passages are laughably overheated, especially when it comes to descriptions of women: “A flutter runs through him. The sting of betrayal, Nina’s betrayal. And loss, too. Perhaps even he didn’t understand his feelings for her. Her evolutionary mind. Her hard, agile body. Her voracious appetite for exploration, in the world of cyberwarfare and in the bedroom. The hours and days and weeks they spent collaborating, challenging each other, feeding each other ideas, offering up and shooting down hypotheses, trials and errors, huddling before a laptop, theorizing over a glass of wine or naked in bed.” Was the theorizing going on in the bed, too? Anyway, you’ve probably noticed that the book is written in the present tense, which tiresomely leads the authors to stress what characters are doing right now, at this exact moment, even when what they are doing is boring: “I exhale and stretch my arms, letting out nervous energy. There’s no way I’ll go back to sleep. Today’s the day.”
Still, while I have no idea who did the bulk of the writing, the one thing that simply cannot be kept off the page is Clinton’s ego. His resentments—toward Republicans, toward the media, toward those who doubted him—pop up constantly, even when President Duncan has more pressing business at hand. “Where do they get this crap?” he asks of the news coverage of his presidency at one point. “I have to admit it’s sensational. And sensational sells over factual every day.” This comes during a hilarious scene in which Duncan obsessively checks every channel to see how he is being talked about; remind you of anyone else? And then there is the weird digression—how one wants to get Clinton away from his desk and onto the couch—in which one character’s career is revealed to have been nearly derailed simply because she called someone a “cocksucker.”
The only remaining point of interest is the book’s politics, which are fairly tame by genre standards but tend to insist that America’s problems can only be solved by a strong president with no interest in rules and regulations and niceties. (How’s that going for us?) Duncan is constantly fuming, for example, that Congress wants to know what his administration’s anti-terror policy actually is, instead of just letting him go undercover and take care of the bad guys. Dirty Harry would have understood. Mixed in with this tough-guy posturing are some political clichés—“a safe and stable United States means a safe and stable Israel”—as well as a few less savory bits. Duncan goes on a brief rant against Islamophobia because the terrorist group he’s battling is not composed of Muslim extremists. And yet, near the end of the book, with the president and the fictional Saudi leader lauding each other’s fortitude, we find the following exchange:
“We have been successful in our interrogation of the subjects,” says the king.
The Saudis permit a little more leeway in their “interrogation” techniques than we do. “They’re talking?”
“Of course,” he says, as if it were obvious. “and naturally we will make all this information available to you.”
“I appreciate that.”
There is so something so classically Clintonian about going out of your way to be politically correct about the motivations of a terrorist group called The Sons of Jihad while simultaneously finding time to merrily report on Saudi Arabia’s torture of suspects. (The U.S.–Saudi alliance—fear not—remains strong.)
And yet the book has several moments that made me feel almost sad for Clinton. “Your wife was right. You really are a shitty politician,” a character tells Duncan. “But she meant it as a compliment,” he replies. Ah yes, the old Clinton dream of being seen as something, anything other than a natural-born political animal. And yet, hundreds of pages later, the book’s tacked-on epilogue begins: “After the speech, my approval ratings rose from less than 30 percent to more than 80 percent … I got some criticism for using the speech to advance my agenda, but I wanted Americans to know what I wanted to do for them and still leave plenty of opportunities for working with the other side.”
How can one not pity a poll-obsessed politician—and erstwhile political genius—who writes a novel in which he is transformed into a brave war hero with everything going for him except political skill, but still feels the need to, on the third-to-last page, inform the exhausted reader that the American people love him after all? A part of Bill Clinton knows that—his perfectly OK presidency aside—he will be remembered for his sexual life and his charisma, and not much else. In response, he has co-written a book where he faces down terrorists, chews out the Russian ambassador in manly fashion, and is beloved for all the right reasons. It’s enough to make Jefferson jealous.