Former president Bill Clinton and thriller writer James Patterson have teamed up to write a novel together, which for pure marketing genius would be like Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Katy Perry releasing a duet. Terms of the Clinton-Patterson deal haven’t been revealed, but it’s no accident that in their acknowledgments, the first person the authors thank is Washington super-agent Robert Barnett cha-ching! Poor Hillary comes in third, with thanks for her “constant encouragement and reminders to keep it real,” which is what a girl who just wanted to be friends wrote in my high school yearbook.
This isn’t the first work of fiction by a U.S. president: Jimmy Carter published an earnest novel about the Revolutionary War called “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.”
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 U.S. 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 humor.” Facing a panel of sniveling 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. (One only wishes Rep. Henry Hyde could have lived long enough to attend the book party.) 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 rumors 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 is a woman publicly branded by a crude reference to oral sex.
But onward! After all, this is, at least partially, a James Patterson book, and soon we’re crashing through his famous two-page chapters. (Showtime 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.
In a matter of hours, the country’s financial, legal and medical records will be erased; the transportation 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 makeup 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 — voila: The leader of the free world is ready to go underground and defend Western civilization.
Unfortunately, the title, “The President Is Missing,” depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is. After all, Duncan narrates most of this story himself, so we always know his whereabouts. And as we zoom through these chapters, it’s easy to tell which author is holding the reins. Sometimes, the pages spark to DEFCON 1 with spectacular shootouts, car crashes, Viper helicopters and a pregnant assassin code-named Bach who “is known only by her gender and the classical-music composer she favors.” I’m guessing that’s the handiwork of Patterson.
But 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.
Rather than those insider details we were promised “that only a president can know,” the novel is full of tepid moralizing. “What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting?” Duncan asks in a critique of click-driven journalism. “There is no trust anymore,” Clinton’s avatar laments, breaking the irony meter.
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. And 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: “Did you spell it with an O? Did you try a capital letter?”
It’s enough to make a reader nostalgic for the Dark Ages.
Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post’s Book World. Before moving to Washington, he edited the books section of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston.