There are, of course, more urgent symptoms of America’s civic decline than The President Is Missing, the new thriller co-authored by Bill Clinton and James Patterson. The book makes no claims to serious consideration, either literary or political; it is a standard-issue product, similar in plot and tone to a thousand other suspense stories in print and film.
Instead of a ticking time-bomb for the hero to defuse, The President Is Missing offers a ticking computer virus, code-named Dark Ages, that threatens to wipe out the nation’s infrastructure. This is the work of a group of bad guys known as Sons of Jihad—who, despite their name, we are assured are not Islamic terrorists, but rather some kind of “secular extreme nationalist” group that “opposes the influence of the West in central and southeastern Europe.” It is all vague enough to make clear that the Sons of Jihad are like SPECTRE in the Bond movies—generic bad guys, not a comment on actual world politics. And they meet the fate reserved for bad guys in this kind of book. It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the end, the virus is disarmed with seconds to spare, and the hero emerges covered in glory.
The difference is that the hero in this story is not a secret agent like James Bond or Jack Ryan, but the president of the United States himself. To say that this president, Jonathan Duncan, is based on Bill Clinton would be putting it mildly. Clintonologists will recognize many details of his life story in Duncan’s, with a few desultory changes: Duncan was raised by a hardworking single mother in North Carolina, rather than Arkansas; he meets his idealistic, no-nonsense soulmate at UNC, rather than Yale Law School.