Tuesday 24 September 2019

Rewriting history - Bill Clinton's literary collaboration

Fiction: The President is Missing, Bill Clinton and James Patterson, Century, hardback, 528 pages, €14.99

Write of reply: Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Write of reply: Bill Clinton and James Patterson
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

Bill Clinton has teamed up with one of the world's biggest-selling authors and created a strangley dated and far-fetched Washington romp.

It has often been said that the only sure fate which awaits any former US president is madness.

This theory is based on the belief that having spent either four or, more usually, eight years in the Oval Office, the knowledge that they're the most important and powerful person on the planet can lead to such an elevated sense of ego that they eventually lose their marbles trying to replicate the buzz of power they once took for granted.

That's one of the reasons behind the Twenty-second Amendment, which was introduced in 1947 and limits the resident to two terms in office, on the basis that it's not good for anyone, least of the all the country, if they have a leader who thinks they're in the job for life.

While William Jefferson Clinton was outwardly and publicly happy to see the back of the Oval Office after the bruising impeachment process which saw Ken Starr turn his presidency into a remarkably grubby and unpleasant soap opera, there has always been a strange sense of unfinished business from him, if not necessarily the rest of the American public.

By the time he handed over the reigns of power in 2000, Clinton may have been a busted flush, but through the controversial work of the Clinton Foundation, and the even more controversial parallel career of his wife, he has always managed to hover somewhere vaguely around the public's line of sight - there, but not there, a man mentioned more than seen and someone who seemed to grow increasingly frustrated at the way he was sidelined by the younger, post-Obama Democratic Party machine.

Whether part of that unfinished business involved him sitting down to co-write a ridiculously far-fetched yet strangely dated novel about a dashing war hero president who single-handedly saves America from the evil machinations of cyber criminals, hackers, dodgy Russian geezers and a terrorist who is "not a Muslim" despite leading a gang called the Sons of Jihad remains unclear.

This, you imagine, is the kind of presidency that Clinton wished he'd had, and in Jonathan Lincoln Duncan, the kind of man he wishes he was. Forget Bill Clinton the draft-dodging Lothario whose main legacy was turning an entire generation off cigars. Here, we see a president who not only served his country with distinction in Iraq but was also tortured by the Republican Guard. In other words, a proper American hero, and a man whose fictional career owes more to John McCain's life story and war record than the real former Potus.

Rather than the inveterate horn dog that was Clinton, Duncan instead lives in a sort of celibate ennui, still grieving the wife he lost to cancer while trying to raise their one daughter as normally as he can.

Of course, everyone has regrets and everyone wishes they could revise their own history and that is exactly what Clinton has done here.

The decision to team him up with James Patterson was a mark of weird genius by the two men's shared agent, the powerbroker Robert Barnett.

Patterson, after all, is now the biggest-selling author in the world, leading to predictable but reasonable assertions that he is a multi, multi millionaire who can't write, producing books for people who can't read.

Certainly, the prose on offer makes Tom Clancy look like Cormac McCarthy.

In Patterson's defence, you don't manage to sell 375 million books by challenging your readers and there's no denying that The President Is Missing zips along at the kind of pace you would expect from a book that was obviously aimed at the airport potboiler market.

Much has been made of the added heft and expertise a former president can bring to an espionage thriller, but any American intelligence agency which may have worried that their former boss might spill some sensitive beans can rest easy - the one bit of insider information which rings the most true is the endless tedium a president faces when trying to do the right thing for his country. Even if, in this case, the right thing involves him escaping the confines of the White House, donning a remarkably simple disguise and then swanning around Washington trying to stop America's computers from being erased.

Every good thriller need a good villain, but the bad guys here are laughably one-dimensional, the kind of characters who are described, with a straight face, as having "a voracious appetite for exploration, in the world of cyber warfare and in the bedroom".

The female assassin, Bach, is a classic of the cookie-cutter cliche.

Called Bach because she is "known by the classical music composer she favours" - it really is that kind of book - she sashays through her hits with her buds in (listening to Bach, obviously) and is the kind of person who swans brazenly though airports "allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable".

I must confess, I genuinely have no idea what Clinton/Patterson are referring to when they write "girls" in that context, and given Clinton's previous history, I'm not in any rush to find out.

Along the way, whenever a coherent narrative threatens to break out, there are weird but inevitable stops for a bit of Bill's homespun moralising. Of the media he sighs, "why is there no honest reporting anymore?"

There are not-particularly-subtle pops at Trump ("you should never surround yourself with bootlickers") and both presidents, real and fictional, share a common disdain for bureaucracy and Washington cynicism.

Oh, he also thinks America needs to do more to support Israel and improve ties with Saudi Arabia.

But even the title is oddly grating - how can the president be missing when it's told from his own, first-person perspective?

Then again, much like Patteron's previous books and, indeed, Clinton's political legacy, sometimes it's best not to ask too many questions.

The President Is Missing is undoubtedly of interest, but it's a strange, voyeuristic kind of interest which never reveals anything about Bubba Clinton that we didn't know already.

It should come as little surprise that Showtime have already optioned the book for a TV series, and it would be even less of a surprise if Dennis Quaid, who voices the audio book, plays Duncan in the adaptation.

Save yourself the 15 quid and wait for the TV show instead.

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