The following contains spoilers for The President Is Missing, but who cares?
The thing that irks me most about Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s new novel, The President Is Missing, is that the president never really goes missing. For a 24-hour period, the American people are kept in the dark about the president’s whereabouts, but the reader always knows where he is. The 513-page novel tells the story of President Jonathan Duncan—unmistakably based on Bill Clinton—doing his darnedest to save America from cyberterrorism that threatens to cripple the nation by shutting down the internet and rendering technology obsolete, effectively sending the country back into the dark ages. In a shocking twist, it's not a good book.
The first 300 or so pages of The President is Missing are less interesting than I’d expected—Patterson isn’t known for his stunning prose, but I expect the man to write a book that moves. The beginning elicited a couple giggles as we learned more about President Duncan, who is a post-Obama era version of Bill Clinton with a couple key biographical details altered. Duncan was the governor of North Carolina, not Arkansas. He has one daughter with his wife, who he met in law school, but unlike Hillary—who to my knowledge is still alive and kicking—Duncan’s wife dies of cancer before the book begins. The character has a little John McCain in him too, a one-time POW in the Gulf War who refused to betray his country.
The President Is Missing opens with Duncan rehearsing for a public committee hearing with Congress, who want to impeach him for no good reason. “They don’t just want to run me out of office. They won’t be satisfied unless I’m sent to prison, drawn and quartered, and erased from the history books,” the president who is definitely based on Bill Clinton muses. “The president of the United States, facing a mob of accusers.” Although the book never explicitly says that Duncan is a Democrat and his opponents are Republicans, it is heavily implied.
The parallels to real life are so obvious I don’t even need to state them (if Duncan isn’t a Mary Sue for Clinton, he’s darn close). But you can’t help but wonder, is this how Clinton remembers what happened to him in real life? His recent comments about his treatment of Monica Lewinsky make it clear that he thinks of himself of the primary victim of his own scandals. Maybe he believes his enemies wanted to erase him from the history books, but Clinton himself would apparently like to go back and make some edits to that history. A more interesting protagonist would be a bit like Clinton himself—well-intentioned, beset by dishonest and hypocritical political opponents, but also with a fatal flaw that drags him down.
Amazingly, given that it was written by a famously sleazy politician and an airport thriller author, The President Is Missing actually isn’t racy enough and too preachy to be as fun as it could be. The book is chock-full of Clinton’s criticisms of the media and hyperpartisan politics, along with pages and pages of technical explanation to convince the reader that this massive technological threat to the United States could happen.
At one point the president wonders, “What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting?” To him, the press is “emboldened and ravenous.” At another moment, the president tsk-tsks at the “us vs. them” mentality in our country. “All too often, those who rail against ‘them’ prevail over earnest pleas to remember what ‘we’ can be and do together,” he muses. That’s all good and well, but spare me the lecture, Bill. I’m here for a page-turning thriller, not an ex-president’s whinging about how the media was insufficiently nice to him.
Not those rote critiques of the media are wrong, exactly, they’re just bland, and so is the majority of the book. You would think a widowed president trying to stop an internet-destroying plot would find the time to work in some romance or sex, but Duncan’s moments of horniness are few, far between, and kinda creepy. After he hugs his dead wife’s best friend, he notes, “Her scent, the smell of a woman, lingers with me.” Duncan also has a flirtatious relationship with the fictionalized Israeli prime minister, Noya Baram, the only character to call him “Jonny” instead of Mr. President. “I give her a long hug, enjoying the comfort of her warm embrace,” the president narrates as he’s in the midst of saving the world.
“Sex? Sex to her was a price to be paid.” LOL.
More than once, he reminds us that there is no greater friend of the United States than Israel. The villainous country in the book is, unsurprisingly, Russia, which helps fund the cyberattack. After the president saves America, he severs diplomatic ties with Russia, telling the ambassador, “Oh, and stay out of our elections.” (Good own, Bill.)
The book is woke in a mainstream liberal sort of way: There are just as many women who are fictionalized world leaders and White House aides as there are men. But when it comes time to describe those women, Patterson and Clinton skeeve the fuck out. This is especially obvious in the case of Bach, a sexy assassin cliche. Here’s how her first appearance is described:
She prefers sexy… It’s always seemed to work for her… The women sizing up her 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.
At another moment, Bach, who we later learn is pregnant, reflects on marriage—”Studies say that children with two parents are happier”—as well as her sexual history. “Sex? Sex to her was a price to be paid.” LOL.
While The President Is Missing is missing—haha—elements of a good thriller, it ends up painting a pretty clear picture, perhaps unintentionally, of Clinton’s worldview. And in that worldview, the thing that will bring down America—more than Russia or terrorists or the vicious political tactics of the Republican Party—is technology.
Here’s how a black-hat-turned-white-hat hacker named Augie explains the threat to world leaders in some paperback-thriller-exposition-ass dialogue: “The layperson can hardly turn on a television anymore without seeing a commercial about the latest smartest device and how it will do something you never would have thought possible twenty years ago.” We soon learn that Augie’s deceased partner in crime—the former paramour of the book’s Osama bin Laden analogue—has infected every single internet-connected device in America with a virus that will delete all data and make the hardware unusable. “Bank records,” Augie explains. “You think you have ten thousand dollars in your savings account? … Not if computer files and their backups are erased.” If this sounds familiar, it was also a plot point in the first season of Mr. Robot.
Clinton’s message is nevertheless clear: We are too reliant on the internet. Our reliance on an irreplaceable thing makes us vulnerable. If this sounds familiar, it was also the message of Live Free or Die Hard, but it’s not wrong.
Of course, President Duncan saves the day, then gives a triumphant speech where he once again scolds the opposition party for trying to impeach him while he was off saving the country. His approval rating soars, and in the epilogue we learn that thwarting this terrorist attack is the catalyst America needed to solve all its problems. Voting rights are expanded. Most entertainingly, “The mainstream media coverage, from right to left, has become more straightforward… Americans are moving away from extreme media toward outlets that offer more explanation and fewer personal attacks.” Bipartisanship comes back from the dead, and suddenly the two parties can set aside their differences from the greater good. Somehow, police violence also gets solved. Oh and the rare blood condition the president struggles with throughout the book is basically cured. The moral of the story is clear: If we just listen to Bill Clinton, everything will be OK. Thanks for the advice, Bill.
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