The President is Missing
Bill Clinton & James Patterson, Century, 2018
A former President has written a political thriller. Is it thrilling? The simple answer is no. But that’s not the real reason readers have purchased this book. We want Clinton’s reflections on his tenure. We want to glean Clinton’s anger for, and reaction to, our current commander-in-chief. Readers will find plenty of bile, but surprisingly little of it targeted at recent events.
As an action thriller it is seriously flawed. Its most rousing scenes are in the first half, while the remainder descends into a deluge of dullness as our fictional President retreats to a country mansion – a base of operations inexplicably built by ‘a friend of mine, a venture capitalist who, by his own admission doesn’t know a damn thing about what he calls “computer technical stuff ”.’ The antagonist, a motiveless hacker-terrorist, proves to swamp the narrative with ‘computer technical stuff ’, as a book that should be filled with secret service men in car chases, is instead saturated with scenes of greasy shut-ins sat at computers.
Recent political thrillers have taken to attacking the current occupant of the Oval Office, To Kill a President by Sam Bourne (Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland, by day) being an exemplary case. This new Clinton–Patterson effort, however, reads less like a jab at our current times but an attempt to romanticise and whitewash the years before, when Clinton was a totemic member of the political elite.
This attempt is warped with bitterness, the years of political engagement and failure blended into a disorientating mush. In the book, the President faces impeachment over the supposed cover-up of a Ukrainian militia’s attempt to storm a terrorist leader’s compound in Northern Africa. This scenario brings many past foreign escapades into collision: the Monica Lewinsky affair, the Benghazi attacks, the war in Ukraine’s Donbass, Operation Neptune Spear, and the Libyan Civil-Wars.
The story contains wish fulfilment aplenty: its hero is a flawless war hero, devoid of the personal scandals and human faults its author has succumbed to. The story ends with the ending of diplomatic ties with Russia with the final zinger: ‘Oh, and stay out of our elections.’
This novel should be taken as a fever dream, where deeply buried hopes and fears, beliefs and memories rise to the surface. A close reading reveals the motivations at the heart of Clinton’s ‘New Democrat’ ideology, as it lies on its deathbed.
Shoehorned back stories, adopting a “pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap” ethos, offer an insight into Clinton’s priorities. Each advisor is given an indistinguishable history with one thing emphasised: loyalty, loyalty, loyalty.
We went through everything together
She’s been with me ever since
She does all that and keeps her ego in check
She was interrogated and held for nearly a month before the Stasi released her … she was brutally tortured but gave up no information
She will go to war for me, when I let her. She would not merely dissect my opponents. If I didn’t rein her in, she would slice them open from chin to navel
Little on expertise or political beliefs, the only belief that matters is belief in the chief. It runs parallel to feudal politics, the foundations of all authority are personal, families and figures rather than institutions and ideology.
With the world of The President Is Missing on the brink of Armageddon, this kind of politics can flourish. A setting of crisis, where bombings, riots and the destruction of the global economy loom overhead, is where personal grit and action matters. Personal politics operates at its most essential level in chaos. However, what the book and unfortunately the real-world Clinton never acknowledge is that crises – fictional or real – are the consequences of misguided policies and long-running institutional errors.
In tackling the existential threat, our President ropes in a bunch of nations with openly immoral methods: ‘The Saudis permit a little more leeway in their “interrogation” techniques than we do’. The need to act fast, for Clinton, leaves no time to consider the consequences of such collaboration, particularly the degree to which complicity inflames tensions and produces future cataclysms:
Noya and I have had disagreements over the two-state solution and settlements on the West Bank, but when it comes to the things that bring us together today, there is no daylight between our positions.
By returning to the same old “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” principle, we feed back into a cycle of radicalisation, leading to further crises, leading to more nefarious collaboration.
One chapter, the eleventh, stands out. It describes our protagonist deciding to drone strike a pair of terrorist leaders, killing 7 children in the process. A measly 6 pages are dedicated to the decision, offering moral reasoning of an elementary level. Clinton falls to the basic utilitarian defence – that killing a few children may save hundreds more. Yet in the morally complicated real- world, practising such a hard-hearted foreign policy isn’t so easy. To allow a superpower to pursue a utilitarian policy is to hand it arbitrary power over non-citizens. Political theorists, such as Philip Pettit, would describe this as ‘domination’, the antithesis of freedom. If the US is allowed to knowingly practice collateral damage, the subjects have no way of knowing whether these strikes have been conducted responsibly and morally – there is no open scrutiny, no checks, no balances. This can lead to mistrust, fear, and hatred of the US, galvanising radicalisation, regardless of whether drone strikes really do result in a “net” saving of lives. The novel has no time for extensive ethical ruminations such as these, and Clinton thinks that we will forgive the lack of moral substance for artistic license.
By writing a thriller, Clinton can flout all the expected justifications. Statistics, technicalities, and moral reasoning all disappear under the blanket of cheap kicks.
Of course, in the President’s final speech a slew of policy suggestions are thrown up, which are lacking in any specifics or radicalism. They are ideas anyone could come up with and anyone get behind. This reminds one of Clinton’s 2011 policy book, Back to Work, featuring groundbreaking proposals such as reduced military spending and increased taxes.
Such lack of lustre in Clinton’s programme may be a product of the pure insanity from the other side. When your opposition is arguing to ‘end the fed’, abolish the IRS, and replace a complex revenue system with a flat tax, most policy debates are limited to arguing for the mere existence of government. But the author shouldn’t get off so lightly – his lack of radicalism also reflects the strange Clintonian ideology where the primary policy is power, and where any problem can be solved with the right speechwriter. Tackling the question as to where racism comes from, Clinton and Patterson produce this explanation:
But it’s a battle as old as humanity – us versus them. In every age and time, individuals, families, clans, and nation have struggled with how to treat the other…Sometimes the “them” strategy is just a narcotic to feed the beast in all of us…Our brains have worked this way for a long time
So, basically, racism is human nature, ‘the beast in all of us’. What an uninspired repartee.
We cannot attribute the drought of vision in US politics to the Clintons alone. By doing so we fall into their brand of personal politics – these trends are bigger than a person or a family. The true vacuum exists in the institution of President, a position so lacking in legislative power that it has no explicit role in shaping the future of the US. This is how the executive is designed, yet the emblem and position of President has become so prestigious – the centrepiece of American politics – that many believe the office does hold the power to drive forward change. Clinton is aware of the Presidency’s power in symbol only:
[I] understand my limitations and keep doing whatever I can to make things better. An executive order, a bill that reaches my desk, speeches, words from my bully pulpit – these things can set the right tone, move us in the right direction
By assigning all political attention to the presidency, drowning it in symbolic power while starving it of practical power, American politics for most has been reduced to a politics of symbol, of speeches, of individuals. The problems at home and abroad mystify all – not a problem of policy but a lack of leadership. Until America breaks out of the people-politics stupor, which this book promotes, we shall never get out of this mess.