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Bill Clinton has co-penned an espionage thriller. Why?

Co-authors James Patterson and Bill Clinton: you can’t teach two old dogs new tricks. Photo/Getty Images

The US president of Bill Clinton and James Patterson's new novel resembles Clinton but with no ick factor.

A political thriller, a collaboration between a former president and a writer who has sold almost 400 million copies of his brand of mission-impossible, mission-achieved thrillers? Why? The President Is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, is neither very bad (which would have been fun) nor very good, which is not the point of the exercise: it is a marketing triumph. Still, Clinton? Perhaps he’s simply bored.

The premise is enticing: the hinted-at insights into Clinton’s world, perhaps into his mind. Instead, you get speechifying. You get a car chase. You get reminded that you can’t teach two old dogs new tricks.

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There are cut-out characters. Name your stereotypical terrorist (very cautiously here not a Muslim), Russian or German and Patterson will run them off on that 3D printer you suspect he uses to produce his books.

The President, Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, is Clinton, without the icky add-ons. He’s a good old Southern boy who wants only to do good, preferably over a plate of “mama’s rib tips with vinegar sauce”. He scratched his way up, became a war hero, met his good, clever and feisty wife at law school. She is, as the book opens, already dead, conveniently and disappointingly. What sport it would have been to see how the co-writers dealt with a living woman who would inevitably have been compared with Hillary.

The President is loyal to her memory; he does not have girlfriends. This President will not have sexual relations with any women. Very wise. Clinton’s book tour has already turned into a stinker. “Not my finest hour,” he said about the inevitable Monica Lewinsky questions on whether he’d privately apologised to her. (Nope, not privately – just to the world.)

The book opens with the President facing impeachment – over a telephone conversation with a terrorist – which is about as close to the wind of history as the book sails.

The President is good-looking, with a keen sense of humour, something that is almost entirely missing from the book. There may be one in-joke, if one was inclined to be mean-spirited enough to go looking for one (of course, I was). It concerns the President’s loyal chief of staff, Carolyn, who was tipped to be Speaker of the House before she was caught, on a live mike, calling an opponent “a cocksucker”. That was the end of her political career. “Politics,” muses President Duncan, “can be cruel in the way it treats its wounded.”

There is little time for musing. He is out to save the US – and, possibly, the world – from a cyber attack code-named Dark Ages. The virus will wipe out the internet, reducing the US to a Third World country – no money, no military communications, no Facebook! – vulnerable to attack.

The President has to go this alone, bravely, selflessly, against the advice of his inner circle. If this goes awry, he might leave his good, clever and feisty daughter an orphan. He must leave the White House, with no protection, to meet a mysterious man at a baseball game. He longs for a hot dog and a Bud. But, tick tock. (Somehow he does have time to stop to offer solace and a sandwich to a homeless war veteran.)

It tick tocks along all right, in Patterson’s slug-it-out style. There will prove to be a traitor in the White House, where poisonous spiders lurk and spin. The President has failed to spot the spinner; perhaps the only failing of this great politician and all-round good guy who saves the world.

There may be something wistful about The President Is Missing, although that may be wishful thinking.

THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson (Century, $37)

This article was first published in the June 23, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.