For his first novel, President Bill Clinton, along with fiction factory James Patterson, has written a trashy, trashy-fun airport potboiler. It is called The President Is Missing, and it is about an eyebrow-raisingly noble hero president who sneaks out of the White House in order to foil a threatened cyber attack of devastating proportion.
What should a reader make of this? On one hand, remove the context of its novelist-in-chief co-author and, sure, fans of this kind of book will probably be satisfied with this one. The plot clips along on short chapters and frequent cliffhangers, and there aren’t huge, embarrassing whiffs in the prose. (Though references to an assassin’s breasts—at various times described as her “boobs” and her “girls”—are particularly icky given Clinton’s inability to own up to his history.)
Patterson is hardly an exemplary stylist, but he knows how to structure and pace these things to get the job done. Pretty much every development is preposterous (ignore the claims that this is the inside scoop on espionage from a man with top-secret clearance; there’s nothing in here on government secrets, dynamics, or processes that couldn’t have been learned with modest research), but enjoyably so. That this is what Clinton, a well-read man in both history and literature, wanted to spend time on is kind of endearing, as though he were sheepishly showing off his train set.
On the other hand, you can’t remove the context of the former president writing this book. What to make of the fact that the terrorist antagonist gropes women as a sign of his evil? Should we read anything into how, in The President Is Missing, the first lady is dead? And what about the fact that Clinton describes his protagonist as “a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humor” who had “probably the fastest rise to team leader in Bravo Company history” and is told, “I’m not saying this because I love you—there is no one I’d rather have in charge right now”? President Jonathan Duncan is a combination of Michael Douglas in The American President and Harrison Ford in Air Force One; his only flaw is he’s a “shitty politician,” meaning he’s simply unable to make political considerations, as he’s too focused on doing what’s right. All this would be escapism in any other author’s hands, but seems intriguingly like wish fulfillment here. Is Clinton, whose tenure is nestled in the relatively quiet years between the Cold War and the War On Terror, fantasizing about what he could’ve accomplished had a major crisis given him a mandate to make sweeping changes?
Reading between these lines is more fun than reading the lines themselves, as the details of the plot come standard issue from the genre. Just as Dan Brown gave readers an albino assassin in one book and then a heavily tattooed one in the next, Clinton and Patterson here create a killer (the best in the world, of course) whose sole traits, beyond her professionalism and perky boobs, are her vegetarianism and her love of Bach. The big twists of Missing, if not the details, can be called before page 100; turns out having access to the greatest intelligence-gathering operation the world has ever known doesn’t mean you can avoid clichés. There’s even a digital countdown timer that may or may not get stopped with one second remaining.
There’s certainly a novelty to this kind of pop culture ephemera coming from an historic figure, as though Reagan had waited until he left the White House to pursue his acting dreams. But diverting though it may be, nothing in it is lasting, down to the calls for bipartisanship and complaints about the politicians who are way less shitty than Duncan. (“That kind of oversimplification epitomizes everything that’s wrong with our politics,” he bellows about the unnamed opposition party at one point.) Clinton was famously a fan of fast food, and the sense one gets from this book is that he’s indulging that same appetite for something cheap and disposable, just in literary form.