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‘If there’s a traitor in the White House, this is how it could happen’: James Patterson on collaborating with Bill Clinton on The President is Missing

In this Monday, May 21, 2018, photo, former President Bill Clinton, left, and author James Patterson speak during an interview about their new novel, The President is Missing, in New York.

Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press

The President of the United States is a war hero, a former Army Ranger who was tortured by the Iraqis but gave up no secrets. He is a former baseball pitcher who was one injured shoulder injury away from the majors, thanks to a tumble from a Black Hawk helicopter. He is an uxurious mate, devoted to his one and only love.

In other words, that president is certainly not Bill Clinton. President Jonathan Duncan, “a war hero with rugged good looks and a sharp sense of humour,” is instead a fictional construct, a product of Mr. Clinton’s imagination – perhaps the subterranean bit labelled “Wish Fulfilment/Revenge on My Enemies.”

Specifically, this fictional commander-in-chief is at the centre of a new novel, The President Is Missing, a thriller written in collaboration between Mr. Clinton and bestselling author James Patterson. That sounds like the weirdest mashup since Snoop Dogg started cooking with Martha Stewart, unless you think about this as a meeting of two box-office names, both of them 71 years old, one who loves reading thrillers and the other who loves creating them. Then the book assumes more of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup inevitability: Insider access meets inside the bestseller list.

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With powerhouse New York attorney Robert Barnett acting as their matchmaker, the man who has sold 350 million books (and even wrote many parts of them) began talking with the man who had been the country’s 42nd president. They had met years earlier over breakfast in Florida and liked each other. Clinton had always wanted to write a mystery; Patterson, who has produced more than 150 books in 40 years, from thrillers to young-adult novels, was an ace at outlining and collaborating. You could hear the cash registers from Mars.

As Mr. Patterson, over the phone from his home in New York State’s Hudson Valley, says of his new writing partner: “He had a lot of respect for the books I’d written, and I had a lot of respect for him for the job he did as president. He’s a very good storyteller, and he’s smart, and he’s interesting to listen to. It worked out great. We had a ball doing the thing.”

The President is Missing on display at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble on June 4, 2018 in New York.

DON EMMERT/Getty Images

“The thing” is a 513-page novel composed of 127 of Mr. Patterson’s signature tiny and zippy chapters. Mr. Patterson is foxily vague about exactly who did what, except to say that he came up with the title and “we went back and forth on the outline – what could happen, what’s possible.” A collaborator named David Ellis is thanked before the book even begins. Hillary Clinton provided unspecified notes.

In the novel, the President of the United States is required to thwart a terrorist’s plot to destroy the republic with a computer virus, while also hunting down a traitor in the White House and battling his own body (his rugged good looks are accompanied by a debilitating blood disease). Aspects of the Washington landscape will seem familiar – the President’s foes are dangerous partisan hacks – but others, such as a presidential motorcade gun battle on a bridge over the Potomac, are drawn more from the oeuvre of Michael Bay than from presidential history.

Still, if you’re going to write about the Secret Service’s routines and weaponry, there’s one author you want as your co-pilot, and that’s the guy who rode with them. “What separates this book from most anything I’ve read is the authenticity,” says Mr. Patterson. “If there was the worst possible attack on the States, this is how it could happen. If there’s an attack on a presidential motorcade, this is how it could happen. If there’s a traitor in the White House, this is how it could happen.”

A reader looking for authenticity of the spiritual or emotional variety is bound to be disappointed. For instance, there is little sense of what it feels like to be the most powerful man in the world, betraying his wife with a young intern in the Oval Office and nearly losing his job over it. (Mr. Clinton was asked about his affair with Monica Lewinsky during a Today Show interview about the novel, and became testy: “Nobody believes that I got out of that for free,” he said, pivoting with the dexterity of LeBron James. “I left the White House $16-million in debt.”)

Ah, what a novel that would have been! Alas, this is not that novel. There are no glimpses of penitent Bill Clinton here. Nor are there many hints of the literary Bill Clinton, the one who loves Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Marcus Aurelius and Max Weber, and can cite whole passages of William Faulkner by heart. Did Mr. Clinton campaign for a more literary bent as they wrote? “He really pushed to make the characters as flesh and blood as possible,” Mr. Patterson offers. A seductive assassin, for example, was given a back story rooted in Bosnia’s war to explain her lethal coldness. (The Balkan crisis was one of the earliest tests of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy, which is perhaps where this idea took hold.)

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Read one way, The President Is Missing is a workmanlike thriller about what happens when the President puts on a ball cap, lets his beard grow and miraculously becomes invisible outside the White House. If you read between the (short, declarative) lines, though, it’s quite a fascinating grudge letter written by a former president to the world: “It’s a battle as old as humanity,” muses the fictional president, who I came to think of as DunClinton. “Us versus them. In every age and time, individuals, families, clans and nations have struggled with how to treat the ‘other.’” Later, President DunClinton delivers a speech lamenting political polarization, intolerance, the untrustworthiness of the press. “What does it mean to be an American today?” the fictional president wonders in a lengthy address to the nation, just as his real-life creator once did.

So it’s a bit odd to hear Mr. Patterson say, “We were very careful not to make it political.” Um, really? “Well,” he concedes, “everything is political.” But, he stresses, “We’re not talking about Republicans or Democrats, current or past presidents.” A bit later, he elaborates: “It’s not about President Trump. If [Mr. Clinton] wants to get into that in non-fiction, that would be his choice. We didn’t want to do that.’’

I’m willing to take that at face value and to forget about the scene where President DunClinton, having grown tired of Moscow’s shenanigans, personally expels the Russian ambassador to the United States with the words: “Do not ever test me again, Andrei. Oh, and stay out of our elections. Now get the hell out of my country.” Although I can see George Clooney saying that line; the TV rights have been sold to Showtime, and Mr. Clinton indicated in an interview with the BBC that he could see the actor taking on the role of the ruggedly handsome president who knows how to handle a Glock.

Mr. Patterson is keeping quiet about who he’d like to play the President: “We don’t want the character to be vanilla, but we also don’t want him to be like the president in House of Cards, where he’s pushing women off subway platforms. That would be bad.”

Speaking of bad, I ask Mr. Patterson to put aside his apolitical stance and consider their fictional president’s plea for a united America: Does he feel optimistic about the country’s future? There is a long silence followed by a sigh.

“I’m optimistic that in this country if things get out of balance, we have a habit of recognizing that and putting it more in balance. That has been our history. Obviously, things are a bit out of balance now, or a lot out of balance, depending on your point of view. I would hope we begin to balance again.”

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Chaos, it seems, is good for the blueprint of a thriller, but not so great for the blueprint of a nation.

James Patterson and Bill Clinton appear in conversation in Vancouver June 29, deepoceansky.com.

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