A few years ago, a newspaper asked the novelist and publishing juggernaut James Patterson which writers he’d most like to meet. He replied James Joyce, Bill Clinton and Hunter S. Thompson.
Within weeks, Clinton’s people reached out: The former president would be in Florida, where Patterson lives most of the year. Would Patterson like to meet him? “So we spent a couple of hours down in Boca Raton,” Patterson recalls. “And, I mean, who wouldn’t enjoy the hell out of that? It was an experience of a lifetime for me.”
“I just wanted to meet Jim,” Clinton chimes in. “I read a lot of fiction, and a huge number of political thrillers — I mean, a lot. And I like a series, so I love his Alex Cross series. I love his Michael Bennett series, the idea of an Irish cop with 10 kids — I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff.”
In 2016, when their mutual friend, superagent Bob Barnett, suggested they write a book together, the two men jumped at the chance. Their global thriller, The President Is Missing, hit shelves on June 4.
The gist of the 528-page, 128-chapter potboiler is that — spoiler alert! — a massive cyberattack, called Dark Ages, is about to be unleashed against the United States by parties unknown. The result would be catastrophic, shutting off all our power, wiping all computers, eliminating everyone’s wealth. Five terrible ticktock days ensue — featuring a high-level traitor, a female assassin, and all kinds of word and bullet battles, while the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Can President Jonathan Duncan save America?
The book should please the fans of both men and then some. Packed with action and the usual Pattersonian red herrings and blind alleys, it also retains a certain dignity, with a presidential voice of Clintonian timbre, no matter how much the two men deny that their fictional President Duncan resembles our 42nd commander in chief. Indeed, nerdy expositions on the details of cyberhacks, international diplomacy and even, yes, the Medicaid coverage gap ensure that readers will very much see the hands of both authors in the prose.
AARP The Magazine executive editor William W. Horne recently sat down with the authors at President Clinton's office in Upper Manhattan. Clinton and Patterson, both 71, were friendly and assured, and the mood was buoyant, even exuberant. The book was essentially done and is super topical: The day before the interview, President Trump nominated the first female CIA director, Gina Haspel; the day after, the Trump administration accused Russia of hacking our power plants and electric systems. In Missing, the FBI and CIA chiefs are women and, yes, a certain superpower is messing with our water and other critical facilities.
Q: First, congratulations. I found your book to be a smart, twisty thriller — a terrific read and very contemporary.
Patterson: Don’t be afraid to put that right in the article. [Laughter]
Q: How did the collaborative process work between you two?
Clinton: First of all, Jim’s the greatest storyteller in history. So he didn’t need my help to tell a story.
Patterson: The president’s a great storyteller.
Clinton: Well, I grew up in the last generation of politicians who were born without televisions, and with family members who were highly intelligent but without much formal education. All of my entertainment was storytelling. But Jim’s good like nobody else. So it was his idea that the president is involved in a crisis.
Q: How did you divide up the work?
Patterson: We alternated words—“the,” “man.” [Laughs] No, I don’t think too much about who does what — I don’t know, and I don’t really care. The first draft was like a thriller cartoon. If you’re writing a book about a president and you’re just a writer, you don’t really know what goes on. For me, one of the most valuable things was the president saying, “That’s not accurate — this is how it really works.”
Clinton: I wanted to make sure we got the details right. He said to me, “We’ve got to get the architecture in the White House right — the room to be the right room, the view to be the right view.” Facts matter.
Patterson: So we did drafts; we did different sections together; we worked on the research. We also had research and some writing help from a lot of people. And we just kept working to make it more and more real. I think a lot of people are going to read this and say, “This thing is so authentic.”
Clinton: He’d ask, “If you were going to go off the grid for a while [as President Duncan does], how would you do it?” Then what I was trying to do at the end, once we got all the externals right, was make sure that the voice of the president in the book was the way a serious person, a real president, would look at it and respond to all this incoming crap. And we tried to make him [realistic] so you don’t forget the president is a human being — who loves his daughter, has an illness and all that.
Q: But the book, overall, is a little more dispassionate than the usual James Patterson adult fiction. No torrid romances ...
Patterson: Sex didn’t play a part. [It was about] five incredibly difficult days. Romance makes no sense, and we don’t need it.
Q: How much Clinton is in this book?
Patterson: Duncan is not Clinton. And obviously, it’s not a memoir. But it is what a lot of people want when they read a memoir. They want to know what it’s like. So what we have is what it would be like if something this serious happened — five terrible days in the life of this flesh-and-blood human being.
The Plot Thickens
Q: How did you settle on a cyberattack involving the president?
Clinton: I’ve been worried for 20 years that we’d always be half a step slow on this cyberwar stuff. In the current climate, all this cybertalk has been about the politics of who hacks what emails and all of that. I’m afraid [people will think] these hacks, with the colorful people involved, like Chelsea Manning, are dramas that are three steps removed from them, that it doesn’t really affect our lives. If the lights go out, it will. If you really think about the implications of what somebody who wanted to harm us could do, it’s about way more than elections. This is about the way I live, my children’s future, everything.
Patterson: We are not prepared for what’s possible. I find it to be one of the scariest threats we face today.
Clinton: Another of our goals [was] to remind people that campaigns may be theater, but the job is a real job. And Jim said he wanted to help restore the respect for the presidency.
Patterson: For 20, 30 years, most of the fictional material that comes out makes fun of presidents — Saturday Night Live, Scandal — and then there’s House of Cards, where the president is out killing people. In theory, making fun of the presidency would be OK, except that’s all we’re getting. So [I wanted to write] something that reminds people of how difficult this job is, how stressful and how important. This is a president we should all agree on — he’s not President Clinton. We don’t really even know what party he belongs to. We never say —
Clinton: By the end of the book, it’s pretty obvious.
Patterson: — but whatever party, this is a good president, this is an example of a president we could all be happy with, whether we’re right, left, middle.
Fact or Fiction?
Q: The opening scene is the president being put through a brutal mock impeachment hearing. Was that a blast from the past?
Clinton: No. What [you take away from the impeachment scene,] if you’re a student of the presidency, is that you have to prepare for these attacks on you. And the way that plays out in the book is quite realistic.
Patterson: And it’s important to the book, to the story, that we capture the hostility that exists in Washington.
Clinton: Look, man, the politics of personal destruction and assassination has been richly rewarded by the voters and loved by the people who give it coverage. It’s just the way it is. And also keep in mind a fundamental difference. The charges leveled in the book [that the president conspired to save the life of a most-wanted terrorist], if true, if true, would be an impeachable offense. That’s totally different from me. So we tried to make it as educational as possible, without losing the entertainment.
Patterson: I think this is going to be one of those books that a lot of people are going to keep on the bookshelf where they keep certain memoirs, certain biographies, certain autobiographies, Harry Potter or whatever, The Da Vinci Code, just some of those books that, for some reason, really grabbed them. And it’s a little piece of history because a president is involved.
Q: By the fourth chapter, Duncan is already talking about the assault rifle ban, the minimum wage increase and tuition credits. Isn’t that your own unfinished business?
Clinton: Yeah. But it also made sense in the context of the story. If you’re setting up a situation where there’s a political conflict in Washington, it has to be, more or less, resembling the real world. And all of this was written before Stoneman Douglas. I mean, it’s been out there — we’ve got an extremely high rate of mass-shooting incidents here. And I fought hard for — at great cost to my party — the assault weapons ban. But anything that has happened in the past year or so that is also in the book, that is purely coincidental.
Q: What’s your favorite vegetable?
Clinton: My favorite vegetable?
Q: Yeah, just asking.
Q: All right. It’s corn for President Duncan in the book, so maybe he’s not you.
Clinton: I know.
Patterson: Yeah, it’s not him.
Clinton: I like spinach and sweet potatoes. They haven’t always been my favorite vegetables, but since I became a vegetarian—
Patterson: I like corn.
Q: There are a lot of powerful women in the book — the vice president, the chief of staff, the FBI director, the assassin. How’d that come about?
Clinton: I give most of the credit to Jim. When we started, there were already a lot of women characters. Then we tried to shape them so they were different, so this thing didn’t look like a cliché and seemed natural. I think when you read this book, you see a woman got to be FBI director — about time — because she’s really good. And there’s the woman CIA director, tough as nails, you know?
Q: And prescient, given the recent nomination of a female CIA director.
Patterson: We were ahead of our time.
Clinton: Look, the point is, the idea of cleaning up the workplace and doing all these things that we’ve been doing, I think it’s really a good time, a good thing. But the ultimate objective is not to take good care of women who are victims. The ultimate objective is to create a society where women are not victims, any more than men, because of their gender. The ultimate objective is to empower people — and human nature being what it is, if you empower people, sometimes they won’t do the right thing, sometimes they will.
Q: I love the scene where the president gets in the car and he can’t quite remember how to drive. [Laughter]
Clinton: You have no idea how accurate that is!
Q: When was the last time you drove?
Patterson: That’s exactly what I asked him.
Clinton: I taught my daughter to drive a little more than 20 years ago, at Camp David. And I drove my old Mustang in 1995, around the Charlotte [North Carolina] Speedway, when they had a big Mustang national convention.
Patterson: He drove me in a golf cart once. He’s definitely rusty.
Q: So, in the end, to simplify, it’s a radicalized Saudi royal family and Russia behind the plot. Are they the biggest threats or just easy bogeymen?
Clinton: It’s real. And it’s interesting that we had the dissident Saudi princes in the book, well before the real crown prince put all of those people in hotels
Patterson: But it’s not an issue of “Oh, the Russians again.” It’s this story — in terms of the reality of it, the Russians make sense. The Israelis make sense as allies, because they’re so good at cybersecurity.
Q: President Duncan’s speech at the end is a kind of sweeping Clintonian prescription for America: immigration reform but with better border security; gun safety laws that prevent mass killings but protect the right to own guns for hunting, sport shooting and self-defense; a real climate change debate that turns up the best ideas to reduce the threat while creating jobs. Was that you, Jim?
Patterson: I did not write that!
Clinton: The danger passes and there they are. What should he do? Go right back to the rat race? Or should he try to find some way as president to seize the moment, to capitalize on an emotional moment for the country?
Q: It’s a very presidential speech.
Patterson: We talked about that speech a lot. What I really wanted, when people read this, was for them to go, “This is a Clinton Patterson book, not a Patterson book.”
More Q&A with Clinton and Patterson
TV for Presidents
Clinton: I watched House of Cards, but I worry that [when] you make a person a central figure in a political show, to keep the drama you almost have to take the humanity and any nobility down. Because Scandal and House of Cards were so gripping, I thought, Dear God, [people] are going to believe that this is the way it works, that we get away with murder!
Movies for Presidents:
Why We Must All See ‘Black Panther’
Clinton: It’s a runaway success because it’s a great action movie — it’s like a 22nd-century high-tech movie — but the most important thing about it is it’s an African fable, it’s an oral fable.
Patterson: What really struck me with that movie — and it’s in almost none of the Marvel movies — is it’s filled with great role models and the people in the movie seem ethical.
Clinton: It’s about how you could be tribal and inclusive. And it reminded me a lot of [Nelson] Mandela. Mandela’s loyalty was to his tribe. He then became the head of all the black tribes in South Africa. And then Mandela becomes the head of the white people in South Africa, right? But he never gives up his tribe. He goes home to the town he grew up in, to die. I mean, basically, that’s the challenge — how can you be proud of your tribe and have inclusive tribalism, as opposed to separated? That’s what’s going on.
Best Book for Young Kids
Clinton: I like that one you did, Big Words for Little Geniuses.
Patterson: Yeah, Big Words for Little Geniuses — my wife and I wrote that. Everybody thinks their kids are geniuses. And, to some extent, they are, in the sense that they can always exceed what you think they can do, so the idea of an alphabet book where words are like “catawampus” … I think the best books I do are the kids’ books. I have one coming out in October. The Albert Einstein estate came to me — they wanted to do something that would really keep Einstein alive with little kids and be entertaining. And they gave me the name Max Einstein — it’s the only thing they gave me. And when I sat down to pitch the book, I said, “The first thing I want to tell you about Max Einstein is she’s a girl.” And they went, “We love it.” And that’s what it should be, because we’re still evolving in terms of women and science and math. So my hope for this book, and I’ll go around the world with it, is it’s going to turn kids on to science, it’s going to demystify it, it’s going to make it entertaining. And there used to be a time when half the scientists you met, they’d say, “How did you get turned on to it?” “By reading science fiction.” [Reading] is how you open brains up.
Clinton: The women in my family produced three children’s books last year. Hillary put out a children’s version of It Takes a Village, and then Chelsea wrote She Persisted, and now she’s just written a second one called She Persisted Around the World, with different non-American women. I like children’s books that are both interesting to read and reflect something good about humanity. I love Goodnight Moon. I gave Chelsea’s high school commencement speech, and it was all about Goodnight Moon. I like your book about big words.
Second Career: From Adman to Book Mogul
Q: We’re big on second and third acts at AARP, and you’re sort of a master of that, Jim, having given up a very successful career in advertising to write books. What advice would you give to people who are contemplating such a second or third act?
Patterson: It’s a combination of, I think, “Be brave” and “Be realistic.” It’s like a kid wants to be a ballerina and she weighs 200 pounds. You could still be a dancer, you can love dance, just be realistic about it. At the same time, be brave, and don’t be afraid to try stuff. People get afraid of making fools of themselves. It’s like golf: “Oh, I don’t want anybody to see me hit a bad shot.” Who cares? I think realism has to play a part in it — just what is possible at what age, what your skills are. You should know your skills at that point. And ask: Is this going to be a job or is it going to be an avocation? Avocations are cool, too.
Book Excerpt: ‘The President Is Missing’
Augie, a cyberterrorist-turned-U.S. ally, briefs President Jonathan Duncan (the “I” below) and a group of world leaders about a potential cyberattack dubbed Dark Ages.
The virus is essentially what you call a wiper virus,” says Augie. “[It] erases — wipes out — all software on a device. Your laptop computers will be useful only as doorstops, your routers as paperweights. The servers will be erased. You will have no internet service, that is surely true, but your devices will not work, either.”
“And backup files are no help,” says [Germany’s intelligence chief] Dieter Kohl, shaking his head. “Because you have infected them as well.”
“Of course. The virus has been uploaded onto the backup files by the very act of backing up the systems on a routine basis.”
“They’re time bombs,” I say. “They’ve been hiding inside devices waiting for the moment they’re called into action.”
Little, Brown and Knopf
“And that day is today.”
“Give us an idea of … ” [Israel’s Prime Minister] Noya Baram rubs her temples.
Augie begins to stroll around again. “Elevators stop working. Grocery-store scanners. Train and bus passes. Televisions. Phones. Radios. Traffic lights. Credit-card scanners. Home alarm systems. Laptop computers will lose all their software, all files, everything erased. Your computer will be nothing but a keyboard and a blank screen.
“Electricity would be severely compromised. Which means refrigerators. In some cases, heat. Water — well, we have already seen the effect on water-purification plants. Clean water in America will quickly become a scarcity.
“That means health problems on a massive scale. Who will care for the sick? Hospitals? Will they have the necessary resources to treat you? Surgical operations these days are highly computerized. And they will not have access to any of your prior medical records online.
“The economy in this country will screech to a halt. Entire industrial sectors dependent exclusively on the internet will have no means of surviving. The others will be severely compromised. The impact will inevitably lead to massive unemployment, an enormous reduction in the availability of credit, a recession the likes of which would make your Depression in the 1930s look like a momentary hiccup.”
“The United States will be vulnerable to attack in ways it has never been before,” he says. “Your military defenses will be at 19th-century levels against enemies with 21st-century capabilities.”