THE PRESIDENT IS MISSING, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. Little, Brown and Co./Alfred A. Knopf, 528 pp., $30.
It is not unknown for heads of state to write novels: Mussolini, Franco and Saddam Hussein did, but presidents of the United States tend to eschew fiction. (Except, perhaps, in their memoirs.) Jimmy Carter seems to have been our first presidential novelist with “The Hornet’s Nest.” Appearing more than 20 years after he left office, it is set during the Revolutionary War and is so earnest and instructive that Carter most likely did write it himself. For a short time, Donald Trump laid claim to the novelist’s mantle with the purportedly erotic “Trump Tower” of 2011. Originally touted as “Donald Trump’s debut novel,” a year later it was credited more plausibly to ghost writer Jeffrey Robinson. And now comes Bill Clinton, teaming up with the relentlessly prolific James Patterson to produce an action-packed cyber-thriller, “The President Is Missing.”
The president of the title is 50-year-old Jonathan Duncan, a former baseball player and a U.S. Army Ranger who served during Desert Storm. He was held prisoner and tortured by Iraq’s Republican Guards after having been tossed from a missile-damaged Black Hawk. While some men might have capitalized on their wartime experience for political advantage, not Duncan. (“Some things you just don’t talk about.”) He is also a widower, bereft without his late wife. Adding to his afflictions is a rare blood disease — immune thrombocytopenia, to be precise — which is flaring up right now, just in time to threaten his life as he deals with a whole heap of trouble.
For one thing, the opposition-party Speaker of the House, Lester Rhodes, has called for him to appear before a House select committee to explain a phone call he is reported to have made to Suliman Cindorak, head of the Sons of Jihad and the world’s most notorious cyberterrorist. Suliman is not a Muslim, we learn, but rather a “secular extreme nationalist who opposes the influence of the West in central and southeastern Europe.” Duncan is also asked to explain why he sent American operatives — one of whom died — to thwart a mission by Ukrainian separatists to kill Suliman. The president, of course, had his reasons, which we eventually learn. But for now, he tells his interrogators, they must remain secret. Not good enough, insists the despicable Rhodes: “You got caught with your pants down.”
The fact is, Duncan has learned of a plot by Suliman that presents the most serious threat to the United States in the country’s history, and he needs the cyberterrorist taken alive. News of this had come through Nina and Augie, a couple of young computer geniuses who have been working for Suliman but have switched sides — so they claim. After complicated maneuvers which involve demonstrations of peerless computer hacking, the cultivation of a presidential beard, a clandestine meeting at the Nationals’ ballpark, and a lethal volley of sniper fire, Augie offers to disable the virus — not, it turns out, a straightforward affair.
Treachery adds itself to terrorism, as Duncan becomes aware that there is a traitor in his inner circle, a group that includes his chief of staff, the vice president and heads of security agencies. In the end, the only people the beleaguered American president finds he can trust are the chief of Mossad, the Israeli prime minister, and, to a lesser extent, the German chancellor.
As often as not, the desperate game is played out in a hail of bullets whose source is a professional assassin, a pregnant woman, code-named “Bach,” who is haunted by the horrors she and her family suffered at the hands of Bosnian Serbs. (All the main characters come with a good deal of life-history filigree.) The clock ticks; suspense builds; and computer geeks scramble to dismantle a virus designed to bring America “to its knees.” Time evaporates — leaving mere hours, then minutes and, finally, seconds.
The novel, though too long and — except for the threat of cyberterrorism — ludicrous in its plot elements, does have a satisfying twist at the end. So, we wonder: Who wrote what? Patterson is known for providing the plots and outlines for many of his countless books and then delegating the actual writing to a co-author, but it is hard to envision such a master-assistant relationship in the present case. Bill Clinton no doubt contributed his melancholy experience with political inquisitions, his persecution by a vicious media, his understanding of the burdens presidents bear, and a concluding speech that goes on and on in the grand Clintonian manner. And, perhaps, too, it was his fertile imagination that created the selfless, compassionate, fantastically brave, high-minded president at the book’s center.