The President is Missing: by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Little, Brown and Co./Alfred A. Knopf, 528 pp)
By Jim Kaplan
The partnership of a charismatic former American President and the world’s best-selling, brand-name thriller writer whose book sales exceed J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and John Grisham combined sounds promising. Add a terrorist plot to bring America to its knees, and mix in Presidential-level perceptions involving the White House, impossibly difficult decisions, awful trade-offs, extreme stress, cyber terror, espionage, a foreign expert assassin, and a possible traitor in the Cabinet, and it shouldn’t miss. And it doesn’t. “The President is Missing” will make for rapt, and for many, even obsessive, reading.
Whatever the internal division of labor between Clinton and Patterson, the book is outstanding. It is a compelling thriller that gets you to care about the varied people in it and what happens to them while you inhabit the world it creates. There are one or two unresolved loose ends (I won’t spoil it by saying which ones). But that does not undermine the novel’s notably compelling characters, its deep insider’s view of the White House and politics, and the velocity that compels readers to turn each page with eager anticipation.
The story itself deals with a threat to the United States and the world through the work of cyberterrorists allied with would-be superpower state actors (like say, Russia), and the heroic smashing of the plot by the U.S. President, a white center-left Democratic President who hails from the American South named Jonathan Duncan, who also has (had - and we will get to that) a wife from the Midwest whom he met in law school, and is his intellectual superior, and one lovely and devoted daughter. Sound familiar?
What is striking about the novel is not the way it reflects reality, but rather how it differs from Clinton’s own well-known historical reality, presenting the 42nd President as his own best version of himself. Sans the personal demons compromising his talents, he becomes a sort of mega President. Of course, the novel is well-served by having President Duncan acting not so much like a chief executive, but more like a super-secret agent who is all about action rather than words. He fulfills the fantasy of all Presidents by literally breaking out of the White House bubble and going all over the Washington, D.C. area incognito, but President Duncan more specifically improves on the Bill Clinton person and presidency in other important ways. President Duncan is a decorated military hero; President Clinton wrote that letter to his draft board. President Duncan was an outstanding athlete, good enough to play AA ball at a major league affiliate; President Clinton was in the high school band. And even more personally, President Duncan had a perfect and loving and faithful marriage; President Clinton -- there have been some well-known issues. Indeed, in the book, the Hillary character gets killed off even before it starts, the victim of a terrible and tragic disease while First Lady. That may or may not be a Presidential fantasy, but it aids in plot development because the itinerant President Duncan needs to travel light in this novel, and the presence of an idealized perfect wife could only weigh him down.
Some of the fantasies on display here are personal in the historical sense. Clinton himself was said to have lamented the fact that Presidents regarded as truly great all faced earth-shaking crises and overcame them (e.g., Washington, Lincoln, FDR), something that Clinton never faced. But here President Duncan faces a true cataclysm -- how does the end of the United States as we know it strike you? -- and comes through it brilliantly. Clinton also makes some other, subtler points: most of the major characters, some of them heroic on their own, are women (his Vice President, his FBI and CIA Directors, a supportive allied prime minister), for I think, in part, obvious reasons of self-rehabilitation. And in the solution to the crisis he emphasizes the importance of friendly, mutually supportive relations with a range of other countries, a contrast to Trumpian “America First” policies. He also gives a post-crisis address to a Joint Congressional Session that addresses current issues from his perspective and tops anything he (or any other recent President) has done.
Strikingly, though, this page-turner has Duncan/Clinton -- a new, improved, more heroic Clinton, but recognizable to his admirers, at its center. Samuel Johnson (as interpreted by Walter Jackson Bate) appears to be right about the “hunger of imagination.” You can be a two-time elected President with almost 400 electoral votes, the most accomplished and admired speaker of your generation, with a long record of achievement behind you, but you let your imagination wander, and you would like to be more, both more heroic and more moral. That’s what strikes the reader as particularly interesting and revelatory about “The President is Missing.”
Jim Kaplan is a Chicago lawyer and a contributor to The National Book Review who specializes in law and politics.