Bill Clinton's 'The President Is Missing': What the Critics Are Saying

While reviews from The New York Times herald the book as "ambitious and wildly readable," other outlets like The Guardian found it long-winded.
Getty Images; Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company and Knopf
Bill Clinton (left) and James Patterson

Reviews for the thriller novel The President Is Missing by former president Bill Clinton and best-selling author James Patterson are out, and critics are as divided on it as the country at large is on politics.

The President Is Missing is set in modern day and tells a story about rogue U.S. President Jonathon Duncan, who faces impeachment for persistently escaping from the eyes of the Secret Service. His recent attempts to evade the public and private eye have been to have negotiations with an international terrorist. Duncan, determined that he is the only man with the insider information to stop an imminent cyberterror attack on the U.S., does whatever it takes to save the country.

There are parallels to Clinton’s presidency that come up throughout the 500-page novel that have given some, including The Washington Post’s Ron Charles, pause about the real motivation behind writing the story.

“The transfiguration of William Jefferson Clinton into Jonathan Lincoln Duncan should be studied in psych departments for years,” Charles said, pointing to the fact that both have similar upbringings and household makeups: Duncan’s late wife was a law school grad (Hillary graduated from Yale Law School) and they both have one daughter. Charles also says he sees Duncan as a “revision” of Clinton’s own life. Duncan, Charles compares, is positioned as a war hero and celibate after the death of his wife, while Clinton avoided military service during the Vietnam War and has had public scandals about his extramarital affairs.

During the recent press tour for the book, Clinton spoke to NBC's Today about his past. In the interview Clinton said he stands by his decision not to resign after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and also addressed parallels people have drawn between him and current President Donald Trump, saying Trump’s accusations of sexual misconduct haven’t “gotten anything like the coverage you would expect.”

“A lot of the facts have been conveniently omitted to make the story work, I think partly because [Trump's supporters] are frustrated that they got all these serious allegations against the current occupant in the Oval Office. And his donors don't seem to care,” Clinton said. (He also later offered a "do-over" response to the Lewinsky question to Stephen Colbert.)

Despite some feeling apprehensive about the book because of its ties to the real world, The New York Times’ Nicolle Wallace argues in her review of the “ambitious and wildly readable” book that the story’s proximity to reality is not a hindrance but a selling point. Wallace begins her piece by saying, “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.” The hints of reality in The President Is Missing also add an element of mystique to the reader experience, according to Time Magazine's Tessa Berenson, saying it provides a “meta-mystery” of what parts Clinton wrote himself.

Like many thrillers, The President Is Missing sprinkles action-filled set pieces throughout, and both Berenson and Wallace take moments in their stories to emphasize its effectiveness. “The pages of The President Is Missing are filled with the classic tropes of a big commercial thriller, from ticking countdown clocks and Hollywood-worthy disguises to clipped prose that ratchets up the suspense,” Berenson said.

A particular action sequence introduces an assassin to the story, Bach. While Wallace praises Bach’s dialogue and character development, Steven Poole of The Guardian argues that the Bach character is why contemporary writers to Patterson, like Stephen King, have referred to him as a “terrible writer.”

"One character is a female assassin code-named Bach, who, when we first meet her, is described strolling seductively through an airport with a decollete 'allowing just enough bounce in her girls to make it memorable.' Girls?" Poole exclaims.

Poole, as well as Charles, seriously question the book’s use of big action sequences, as it clashes with the fact that Duncan spends much of his time in the story lecturing others.

“Sometimes, the pages spark to DEFCON 1 with spectacular shootouts, car crashes, Viper helicopters and a pregnant assassin code-named Bach who ‘is known only by her gender and the classical-music composer she favors,’” Charles said. Other times, though, “[Duncan] lectures at us about the proper function of government and the responsibilities of NATO.”

However, as Poole points out, the action sequences may help in the long run when it’s adapted to the silver screen. “As long as it concentrates on this stuff, the forthcoming Showtime TV series will no doubt be a hit,” Poole said.

In September, Showtime announced that The President Is Missing is already on deck to make its television debut. “Bringing The President Is Missing is a coup of the highest order,” said David Nevins, president and CEO of Showtime Networks Inc.