When Tom Wolfe noted that “the problem with fiction” is that “it has to be plausible,” he may have had efforts like this one in mind. Bill Clinton and James Patterson’s ambitious and wildly readable new novel, The President Is Missing, arches more closely toward plausibility in its geopolitical subplots — threats against the Saudi king, malicious Russian meddling in world affairs — than its main story line of a president who ditches his handlers and goes rogue from the White House, convinced he is the only one who can foil a huge cyberterror plot.
The book opens with a charged scene in which President Jonathan Duncan is participating in a mock hearing to prepare for a congressional inquiry investigating the botched attempt to capture a terrorist.
When the president loses his temper, he vindicates the advisers who have cautioned him not to appear before the actual committee. It’s a satisfying outcome for the former senior staffer in me — but unrealistic, considering the picture of the president that unfolds on the subsequent pages.
Clinton and Patterson’s fictional commander in chief brims with humanity, character and stoicism. He’s a grieving widower — his last act before breaking free from his Secret Service protectors is to stare lovingly at a photo of his wife taken shortly before she died of cancer.
The president’s palpable ache for his first lady makes the reader wonder if the entire reckless adventure on which he embarks is, at least in part, a death wish.
After kissing the photo, he enters the subterranean tunnels beneath the White House, emerges in an underground Treasury Department parking garage, gets behind the wheel of a sedan and drives himself first to the apartment of an old friend — who helps him with a disguise — and then to a Capitol Hill bar to meet his daughter.
It’s clear that both of them understand the gravity of the situation better than we do. Their words sound more like “goodbye” than “good luck.”
After this touching scene, Clinton and Patterson ask readers to take an even bigger leap — the president attends a baseball game alone to meet with an unvetted informant who has information about the coming cyberattack.
The young man earns instant credibility with the president when the two are nearly gunned down.
The chase scenes that ensue, replete with Secret Service shootouts, pre-positioned snipers (our first clue about an enemy deep within the president’s inner circle) and a president who can still drive well enough to escape armed assassins (most presidents have rusty driving skills), are exciting enough, but their higher purpose is to introduce the novel’s most intriguing character: Bach.
Bach, so named for her devotion to the classical music constantly playing in her earbuds, is an assassin. Her inner monologue is more riveting than some of the novel’s dialogue.
When she lands at Reagan National she tells herself: “Look happy. … Happiness, they say, is the optimal emotion to project when under surveillance, the least likely to arouse suspicion. People who are smiling, who are content and pleased, if not laughing and joking, don’t look like a threat.”
We learn of Bach: “She has killed on every continent. She has assassinated generals, activists, politicians and businessmen. She is known only by her gender and the classical-music composer she favours. And by her 100 percent kill rate.”
Without divulging any of the satisfying plot twists — including just who Bach’s target is — I can report that the novel unspools smoothly.
Only in its final pages does it get bogged down with a few too many unsubtle messages about the current state of our politics, as in this presidential address to a joint session of Congress and the nation: “What does it mean to be an American today? It’s a question that will answer itself if we get back to what’s brought us this far: widening the circle of opportunity, deepening the meaning of freedom and strengthening bonds of community.
Shrinking the definition of them and expanding the definition of us. Leaving no one behind, left out, looked down on.” And this one: “Think about how different it would be if we reached beyond our base to represent a broader spectrum of opinions and interests. We’d learn to listen to one another more and defame one another less.”
These passages serve as a device to tie up loose ends, but they take away from the novel’s greatest strength: it realistically depicts the selfless and often nameless people who work in government — and are willing to lose their lives — because they are compelled to serve their nation.
It explores the thin line between loyalty and duty on one side and resentment and temptation on the other that can corrupt even the most honourable of public servants, and it shines a spotlight on the deep commitment of America’s adversaries to tear us apart and weaken our standing in the world.