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The President is Missing review: Novelist Bill Clinton doesn't leave a mark

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 19 June 2018, 12:43 IST
(Arya Sharma / Catch News)

A write-up on William Patterson, co-author of action thriller The President is Missing, informs readers “He holds the Guinness World Record for the most No.1 New York Times bestsellers, and his books have sold more than 375 million copies worldwide.”

A similar introduction of Bill Clinton, the other co-author, notes he “was elected president of the United States in 1992 and served two terms”, that his book My Life was a “No.1 international bestseller” and that this work is “his first novel”. It should also be his last, whether co-authored or written all by himself. Why? 

What should be expected from Clinton if he is co-authoring a thriller in which the protagonist and central character is a US President? Not that he will turn a thriller into an enduring contribution to literature; for, readers do not go to a thriller for insights into the great philosophical questions of our times or an understanding of human character or the human condition.

Nor is it meant for the pleasures of language — if that is so then it is a bonus, not a primary purpose. A thriller is meant to be page turner, relying on its plot, tickling curiosity as it tunnels a reader breathlessly into ‘what next, what next’. All that Patterson does in his books anyway. So, what should have been Clinton’s contribution? 

All that Clinton should have brought in is a sense of realism and complete credibility in the plot and the situations and in the character of the President and his handling of a crisis that poses an existential threat to the US.

He should have also insisted that some of the other characters do not descend into becoming almost caricatures such as the war scarred and abused classical music aficionado of a female assassin or an ambitious, again female, US Vice-President. The situations relating to the interaction between powerful officials and political actors also does not seem to be entirely realistic. 

While thrillers stretch the limits of credibility, they cannot disregard it altogether, for, then they enter into the realm of the unbelievable, modern, if bloody fairy tales. Patterson ensures that does not happen. But Clinton does not ensure that it stays rooted in a manner that shows that while the President is acting in an extraordinary fashion it is all still completely realistic.

As that never happens The President is Missing remains just another Patterson book. He has said Clinton brought in details only a US President can. If Patterson allowed Clinton to only fill in details he should have just walked away from this book project. 

The book’s plot is based on a massive cyber threat that would destroy the US throwing it back into the middle ages. It is designed by European cyber nerds who are part of 'Sons of Jihad', a terrorist outfit but not Islamic. They are mercenaries looking for big money, among other interests. There is a falling out among the virus developers and the US is tipped off. Only top US leaders are informed of the threat and there is a suspected leak. 

The President, a former soldier, gravely ill, under threat of impeachment, dons a disguise, retreats to the woods of Virginia with only a small Secret Service group and cyber experts, including a designer of the virus, to save America. He uses the Mossad for help.
To his retreat he summons the Israeli Prime Minister who arrives with her cyber experts. The German Chancellor also arrives with his team and so do the Russians but with a twist. Interesting the President does not ask that US’ ever-faithful ally, the United Kingdom, be roped in. No space for James Bond! Has Clinton sent a signal again?

As the thriller proceeds there are the mandatory shoot-outs and corpses and twists and turns and sub-plots, some interesting, others not so. And the climax — the clock ticks and minutes are left but who should have the brain wave to destroy the virus that has defied top experts and the co-designer for he has only partial knowledge? Correct. It’s the President! 

Finally, the President instead of answering to impeachment charges addresses a joint session of Congress. He is the darling of the nation and not only informs it of the cyber-attack that almost succeeded but also lectures it on what is lacking in its politics and social order. Here is Clinton speaking on many issues — electoral reform, the tax code, climate change but also of American values and the need to re-focus on their fundamentals.

He also takes a swipe at Trump’s America: “Our democracy cannot survive its current downward drift into tribalism, extremism, and seething resentment. Today it’s 'us versus them' in America. Politics is little more than blood sport. As a result, our willingness to believe the worst about everyone outside our own bubble is growing, and our ability to solve problems and seize opportunities is shrinking”. Perhaps he hopes that a novel will give his views greater currency.

Russia is painted black in the book. Is this Clinton’s way of focussing American attention on the allegations relating to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election? Not that it was needed for it is the subject of an ongoing investigation in the US where linkages with President Donald Trump are also being probed.

In this context Patterson could be excused for imaging that a country would want to push the US back to the middle ages but what about Clinton? In this age of globalisation where the world economy is inter-dependent can any country think of fatally wounding the US without causing unimaginable damage to its own economy? A terrorist group perhaps but never a country. Clinton did himself no credit by letting it pass.

Hence, all in all, the inescapable conclusion: While Patterson’s fans may give a thumbs up to this book, those who were looking for Clinton making it a different kind of thriller would be gravely disappointed.

First published: 19 June 2018, 12:43 IST
 
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